While the nation seemed riveted last Tuesday night by a big Democratic victory in Kentucky, more significant Democratic wins were happening in Indiana.
The defeat of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin said more about Bevin than it did about trends for future elections. As Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Joe Gerth wrote, “Matt Bevin lost because he’s a jerk.”
But in some key races in Indiana, we saw Republicans with no scandal, no big personal negatives lose in places where election victory was once assured simply by being Republican.
In Hamilton County, Democrats for the first time ever won council seats — one in Carmel and two in Fishers. And a Democrat unseated the Republican incumbent in oh-so-GOP Zionsville.
In Marion County, areas that once were solidly Republican have been gradually becoming more Democratic. Last Tuesday, there was nothing gradual about it as Democrats picked up six seats to win a supermajority of 20 seats on the Indianapolis City-County Council, with just five Republicans from the southern part of the county elected. It’s a 180-degree swing from the council make-up when I first moved here in the 1970s.
In fact, Republicans held the council majority just three elections ago, thanks to the four at-large seats that the GOP-controlled Legislature eliminated once Democrats started to win those.
Among the casualties: The Republican minority leader, Mike McQuillen, who lost his district in the northeastern corner of the county.
While Republicans did well in many areas of the state — including Muncie, where FBI raids seem to have become a regular feature of local government — the Grand Old Party shouldn’t party too hard. If the 2018 election loss of long-time Republican Sen. Mike Delph of Carmel was a hint of trouble, the 2019 election losses in suburban areas is a big red flag — or maybe I should say blue flag.
Republicans could once count on suburban areas as reliable vote gushers, the Old Faithfuls of election math. There is little to indicate that they’ll swing back by 2020. That could put in play the 5th Congressional District, where Republican Susan Brooks is retiring, and even the legislative seat of House Speaker Brian Bosma, an Indianapolis Republican whose district includes northeastern Marion County.
As he collected his campaign yard signs from around his district, McQuillen said several factors contributed to his loss: A somewhat-confusing ballot design; the lack of coattails, or even much of a coat, from GOP mayoral candidate Jim Merritt; and a relatively popular incumbent mayor, Democrat Joe Hogsett.
But he also had to carry the baggage of simply being a Republican in the era of President Donald Trump.
“Going door-to door, shaking hands, I had a lot of people ask me about Trump and about being a Republican with Trump,” McQuillen said. “My response was always, well, city and local politics are different than national politics; my tweets are happier than Trump’s and I’m just trying to do the best job I can for my constituents.”
McQuillen said he did a radio call-in show in which more than half of the 15-20 calls he fielded were about Trump and Washington, D.C.
“Marion County is becoming more Democratic every day,” McQuillen said. “It just made it more difficult. I won in 2015 with 59 percent of the vote, and in 2019 I had 48 percent of the vote. It just speaks volumes about the other things swirling around.”
Everyone on the 2020 ballot needs to pay attention, he said.
Adam Kirsch, a political consultant and former Marion County Democratic Party executive director, argued that “any suburban Republican in Indiana needs to be very, very afraid.”
The suburban realignment that Kirsch says arguably started in 2008 when Barack Obama carried this state en route to the White House has now seriously taken hold. In addition to Indianapolis, Carmel, Fishers and Zionsville, he pointed to Columbus, where Democrats apparently have won control of the council in Vice President Mike Pence’s hometown.
It wasn’t just a Hoosier phenomenon. From battleground Pennsylvania, to Virginia, Kentucky, Kansas and, yes, Indiana, suburban voters came out to vote and voted largely for Democrats.
Republicans remain the dominant party here, and they can continue to take for granted the votes of most rural areas. But the patches of blue across the Indiana landscape are no longer limited to a handful of cities. They’re spreading — and once lost to the GOP, getting them back could take years.