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Indiana’s 2023 municipal election results are in. For a lot of the state, it was the status quo: The parties already in power kept control of their respective cities.
Democrats had a few notable victories flipping mayoral offices in Evansville, Terre Haute and Lawrence, while keeping control of Fort Wayne and Indianapolis. Republicans, meanwhile, held off Democratic gains in Hamilton County.
“I’m not sure that either party did exceptional, at least based on the results we have right now,” said Laura Merrifield Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Indianapolis.
Here’s what the preliminary election results could mean for the Statehouse and 2024 Statehouse elections.
One state lawmaker will step down
One legislator will be leaving the Indiana General Assembly early after winning his election for mayor. Democratic Sen. Eddie Melton, first elected to the Senate in 2016, won the Gary mayoral election by a landslide, securing 95% of the vote.
Party insiders will have to choose a replacement for Melton to serve out the last year of his term, adding to the growing number of lawmakers serving in the General Assembly who weren’t chosen by the general electorate.
Once a new lawmaker is chosen, nearly a quarter of the body’s lawmakers will have first entered office via a caucus election.
Republican Rep. Ed Clere, the other state lawmaker who ran for a municipal office, lost to Democrat Jeff Gahan in the New Albany mayoral election by 4 percentage points. Clere, first elected to the House in 2008, is one of the more moderate Republicans in the Statehouse on social issues, having voted against the 2022 statewide abortion ban and a bill this year banning gender-affirming care for minors in the state.
Democrats’ path to victory still won’t be easy in Hamilton County in 2024
Republicans will continue to lead the city of Carmel following the high-stakes race to replace outgoing Republican Mayor Jim Brainard after nearly three decades in office.
Democrats had hoped the open seat would provide them with an opportunity to flip the city, but they fell well short of that goal. Republican Sue Finkam claimed victory over Democrat Miles Nelson, winning by almost 15 percentage points.
“We have come on this journey together,” Nelson said in his concession speech. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to cross the finish line.”
Elsewhere in Hamilton County, Republicans held their ground. Democrats likely will keep one city council seat in Carmel and lose one in Fishers, assuming no recounts are requested.
Yes, municipal elections can be very different than those in presidential election years, but Republicans’ ability to keep Democrats from expanding their footprint means Hamilton County still isn’t as purple as Democrats would like to think it is.
Had Democrats picked up any seats they would have had more momentum heading into a crucial 2024 Statehouse election cycle with an unprecedented number of open seats in Hamilton County, a suburban battleground for the parties. If Democrats are to eventually pick away at the Republican supermajority in the Statehouse, the conventional wisdom has long been that the path to victory runs through Hamilton County.
Three House Republicans in Hamilton County have announced they won’t be running for reelection in 2024: Carmel Reps. Jerry Torr and Donna Schaibley, plus Noblesville Rep. Chuck Goodrich. (Goodrich is running for Indiana’s 5th Congressional District instead).
Republicans lost in Indianapolis but reduced their losing margin
Democratic Mayor Joe Hogsett was able to win reelection by a landslide in Indianapolis, despite Republican challenger Jefferson Shreve’s deep pockets. Hogsett won nearly 60% of the vote compared to Shreve’s almost 41%.
Maintaining control of Indianapolis is a big victory for Democrats, however, there is some good news for Republicans as well. The margin of defeat was smaller than four years ago when then-Republican candidate Jim Merritt lost to Hogsett by 45 percentage points.
Marion County contains the most Statehouse seats of any county in Indiana, so Republicans’ ability to keep at least some of those seats even in a decisively blue county would help them maintain their supermajority in the legislature.
Could other Statehouse districts be competitive in the future?
The municipal election results also provide a clue as to which other Statehouse races may be competitive or safe in 2024 and beyond.
In Anderson, for example, Democratic Mayor Thomas Broderick Jr. was reelected, but by only a small margin. That could mean another close Anderson Statehouse race in 2024. One year ago Republican Kyle Pierce narrowly beat incumbent Democratic Rep. Terri Austin.
Over in neighboring Delaware County, Republican Muncie Mayor Dan Ridenour won a second term Tuesday night, which could signal that Muncie’s State House seat is one to watch. Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, beat her opponent by little more than 5 percentage points in 2022.
Democrats, however, were able to flip a few seats on Tuesday.
Stephanie Terry won the Evansville mayoral race, beating her opponent Republican Natalie Rascher by 9 percentage points. Republican Rep. Tim O’Brien’s district contains a portion of Evansville, so that could be a race to keep an eye on.
The other big Democratic win of the night was in Terre Haute where Democrat Brandon Sakbun beat incumbent Republican Mayor Duke Bennett by nearly 20 percentage points. That’s a good sign for Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute, heading into 2024 should she run again.
“It’s a nice forewarning in a way, even though obviously the issues are different,” Merrifield Wilson said. “Anytime the opposite party is successful in your backyard, you absolutely have to take note.”
Check out our short summary on TikTok.
Header image: Candidate signs sit outside Hamilton County’s early voting location. (Credit: Kaitlin Lange)
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INDIANAPOLIS — Last August, Anne Hathaway’s phone lit up with a call from Gov. Eric Holcomb. Nearly a quarter-century before, Hathaway had recruited the future governor to run for an Indiana House seat in the only race he lost.
With the resignation of Indiana Republican Chairman Kyle Hupfer in hand, Holcomb asked Hathaway to lead the Indiana Republican Party, and in doing so was tapping the first women to hold the role.
For the past 15 years, Hathaway had led the Richard G. Lugar Excellence in Public Service Series, an organization inspired by U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar and created by Teresa Lubbers and Judy Singleton to develop a gender bench for the GOP.
“I encourage women every day to take a risk, be willing to lose; go out of their comfort zones and run for office or serve on a board or commission,” said Hathaway, who serves as Indiana’s national committeewoman on the Republican National Committee, during a recent, exclusive Howey Politics/State Affairs interview.
“I couldn’t continue to do that unless I was willing to do that myself, willing to take the risk, willing to lead by example,” she said, adding, “When the call came for me, I jumped. Yeah, I’m in. Let’s go.”
Holcomb said in making this historic nomination: “Here are several key reasons I believe Anne is the right person at the right time for this role. Anne’s resume of service to the Republican Party is as extensive as just about anyone’s in the country, having served with distinction at the local, state and national levels throughout her entire career. Furthermore, with experience in running campaigns at every level of government, she has the knowledge and relationships to not only keep our party moving forward, but to continue to take it to the next level.”
Hathaway’s roots are in the tiny Illinois town of Galva just north of Peoria. After graduating from high school with a class of 77, and then from the University of Illinois, she decided to spend a year in Washington, D.C., where she began as a typist at the Department of Treasury.
Hathaway served in the White House as assistant and director of scheduling for former Vice President Dan Quayle, was program director for the 2012 Republican National Convention, and was executive director of the Indiana House Republican Campaign
Following Hathaway’s resume is a lesson in stewardship and power.
“Sen. Lugar would be more excited about me being state chair than I am just because, Judy Singleton and Teresa Lubbers were ecstatic,” said Hathaway.
She now helms the party at (or nearing) its historic apex. The Indiana GOP holds all the state constitutional offices, nine of 11 congressional seats, maintains General Assembly super majorities, more than 90% of county offices, and as of the municipal elections earlier this month, 76 mayors. If a Republican is elected governor in 11 months, the party will increase its historic dominance to five consecutive terms.
Hathaway will lead the party through the five-way gubernatorial primary. Following next June’s Indiana Republican Convention, she will head to Milwaukee, where Republican National Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tabbed her to head the RNC’s Arrangements Committee.
Hathaway has committed to serve only through the May primary. “At that time, she will work together with the gubernatorial nominee and you all to decide who is best to finish out the remainder of the term,” said Holcomb.
Asked if there was a chance to continue as chair beyond the May election, she said, “That’s a conversation to be had.
“I have agreed to stay at least through the state convention. I believe the gubernatorial nominee should have his or her own political partner here. I’m just focused on the time between now and then, she said.
Senior reporter and columnist Brian Howey sat down for a 45-minute, wide-ranging interview with Hathaway where she discussed what it means to make history as the first female state Republican chair, how her work at the Lugar Series prepared her for this new role, the Republican party’s diversity programs and other topics. Read the full conversation on State Affairs Pro here.
Gov. Holcomb taps Boone County Council president to serve out remainder of Comptroller Tera Klutz’s term
Republican Elise Nieshalla, president of the Boone County Council, will serve out the remaining three years of State Comptroller Tera Klutz’s term.
Gov. Eric Holcomb announced the appointment of Nieshalla, a real estate investor, on Tuesday. As state auditor, Nieshalla will oversee the balancing of Indiana’s checkbooks and payment of all state employees.
“My appreciation runs deep for the strong financial standing of our state and the integrity in which the State Comptroller’s Office is run,” Nieshalla said in a statement. “It is truly my privilege to receive Gov. Holcomb’s appointment to serve our great state and local units of government by upholding the highest standards of fiscal responsibility and offering tremendous Hoosier service.”
Earlier this year Klutz announced she would resign Nov. 30, roughly a year after she was reelected. Klutz, who was first appointed by Holcomb in 2017, is the fourth state auditor in a row to not finish their term, enabling the sitting governor to choose a replacement.
Nieshalla was already well-known within Republican circles. She previously ran for treasurer in 2022 against three other Republicans, losing to current Treasurer Daniel Elliott at the state Republican convention. At the time, the convention loss of Nieshalla and other Republicans more closely aligned with the party establishment was seen as a rebuke of the Holcomb wing of the party.
Nieshalla, who lives in Zionsville, is also president of the Indiana County Councils Association and the chairwoman of the Association of Indiana Counties’ 2023 Legislative Committee. She has a bachelor’s degree from Oral Roberts University and a master’s degree from Indiana University.
She’ll be sworn in on Dec. 1 and will serve until at least the 2026 election when voters will have the option to choose the next state comptroller.
Holcomb praised Nieshalla in an emailed statement.
“Elise is a dedicated and proven public servant who has committed much of her professional life to bettering her community through service,” Holcomb said. “She has shared her financial expertise to help steer and shape the bright future of Boone County which gives me great confidence she’ll do the same serving Hoosiers as our next State Comptroller.”
On Tuesday, Indiana lawmakers returned to the Statehouse for Organization Day, the ceremonial start to the legislative session, ahead of what legislative leaders are saying should be a low-key, short session.
“We’ll probably take a pretty measured approach on what we address … , maybe fine tune some things,” House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said during an Indiana Chamber of Commerce legislative panel on Monday. “Short sessions are supposed to be for emergency items only.”
Not only will 2024 be a non-budget-writing legislative session mandated to end by mid-March, but this session also falls in the midst of a heated Republican gubernatorial primary. There’s no obvious assumed winner who can lead policy discussions ahead of the election, nor has Gov. Eric Holcomb laid the groundwork for any major policy changes in his last legislative session.
Plus, recent criminal corruption charges against a former lawmaker — and the potential for other lawmakers to be charged in connection with the case — has put a cloud over the Indiana General Assembly.
Still, some minor bills are expected to move, and something can always pop up. Here’s a breakdown of some of the issues State Affairs expects to be debated, and three that probably won’t move.
Both Huston and Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said they want to limit the situations in which schools allow third graders to advance to fourth grade when they fail the IREAD-3, the state’s reading comprehension test.
During the 2021-2022 school year, more than 18% of students failed the test because they were not reading at a third grade level.
“When you pass that kid on, and they aren’t prepared to succeed, you’re not doing that kid a favor,” Huston said, following his Organization Day speech in which he laid out his caucus’ priorities.
Huston’s goal is to make Indiana the No. 1 state in the nation for third grade reading proficiency by 2027.
Democrats cautioned that it may be too soon to make major changes to how IREAD scores are handled in Indiana. During the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers passed a science of reading bill.
“We need to make sure that schools have the opportunity to train their teachers, to implement these strategies across the board before we start throwing new legislative hurdles in the way,” said Sen. Andrea Hunley, D-Indianapolis. “We have to give [new recommendations] time to work before we start, say, failing all children or retaining a whole class of children.”
Continuing to re-think K-12 education
Last legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill seeking to expand work-based learning in high school, but Huston emphasized during his Organization Day speech that legislators can still do more to transform the K-12 school system.
Huston said House Republicans will push to allow state money typically set aside for students pursuing a college education to be used to obtain certificates and certifications for “high demand, high wage jobs.”
“We must continue to adjust the way we think about K-12 education in order to meet the needs of all students, including those who aren’t interested in pursuing a two-or four-year degree,” Huston said. “Let’s use this session to build on skill and work-based learning, and let’s align our funding to this goal.”
This fall the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce took a delegation of Indiana lawmakers and others to Switzerland to see how the country’s apprenticeship program operates. Expect more changes in the coming years that would enable Indiana’s K-12 system to more closely mirror that of Switzerland’s.
Child care access
During his own Organization Day speech, Bray emphasized a need to expand affordable child care options for young children.
“Day care is a constant challenge from the Ohio River to the Michigan line, trying to find day care at all if you can find it and whether it’s affordable,” Bray said.
He pointed to a legislative study committee on the topic which recommended some minor reforms to the system, such as lowering the age requirement for working unassisted in an infant or toddler classroom to age 18 from 21 and requiring the state to review how it can streamline child care regulations to increase availability.
Don’t expect lawmakers to throw more money at the child care system since 2024 isn’t a budget-writing year.
Health care costs
Lawmakers passed multiple bills during the 2023 legislative session aimed at cutting health care costs, ranging from limiting physician noncompete agreements to creating benchmarks for how high hospital prices in the largest hospital systems should be.
But Bray said he expects lawmakers to offer more legislation on the topic this year in order to help drive down costs long term.
A legislative study committee on the topic backed recommendations to require more disclosures by insurance companies on their “prior authorization” process for medical care, as well as require medical providers to give lawmakers a six-month notice for mergers or acquisitions.
It’s unclear whether legislation on water access will actually pass either chamber, but the topic is almost certain to come up in discussions.
Earlier this year, the Indiana Economic Development Corp. announced plans to pump water from the Wabash River aquifer to the LEAP district in Lebanon. Tippecanoes citizens have been vocal in their opposition to the plan, and just this week the Tippecanoe County Commissioners voted to put a moratorium on high volume water exports.
Legislative leaders say they want to avoid legislating on the issue until they get more data. The Indiana Finance Authority and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce are studying the issue.
“We’re not going to take any other steps until we have an opportunity to study to make sure that there’s ample water for the projects that we’re trying to bring into the state of Indiana,” Bray said, “and we understand just how much is too much to take away from a particular community.”
But, even if leadership would rather wait to address the elephant in the room, lawmakers are almost certain to file legislation.
Issues that won’t move: Gaming
For at least the past two legislative sessions, lawmakers have filed bills to legalize internet casino gaming, or iGaming. It appeared momentum was on proponents’ sides. Until this month.
Earlier this month former state Rep. Sean Eberhart agreed to plead guilty to criminal fraud charges that federal prosecutors say stem from influencing casino legislation in return for the promise of a $350,000-a-year job.
Both Bray and Huston said Monday they don’t expect any gaming legislation to move in 2024.
During Monday’s Chamber panel, Bray said the federal investigation “makes gaming extremely hard to engage in.”
“It taints the Statehouse, it diminishes the confidence that people have in the integrity of the Statehouse, it causes an awful lot of problems and it makes it particularly difficult to engage in that kind of policy,” Bray said.
Issues that won’t move: Marijuana
Lawmakers studied the impact legalizing marijuana would have on the workforce and youth in an interim committee this fall, but the committee never issued any recommendations for legislation.
Both legislative leaders and Holcomb have emphasized their reluctance to legalize marijuana until at least after the federal government reschedules it. Huston reiterated his hesitation on Monday.
“No one has made a compelling case to me yet on why legalizing marijuana or having more people use cannabis in the state of Indiana is a positive thing,” Huston said. “So until I hear that answer, I wouldn’t expect a whole lot of change.”
Likewise, Bray said its passage “seemed unlikely.”
The ceremonial start of the legislative session is just that. Lawmakers won’t start moving bills until they return to the Statehouse in January.
The gist Destiny Wells, the 2022 Democratic secretary of state nominee, announced she is running for the Indiana attorney general’s office next year, hoping to oust Republican incumbent Todd Rokita. Earlier this year Rokita, a vocal supporter of social conservative causes, announced he was seeking reelection. This race could be among the more competitive races …