Greg Purvis knows what it’s like to be in the political minority.
A Hamilton County resident since 2000, the 66-year-old Fishers resident is a Democrat in an area that long has been dominated by Republicans. He has run for local office four times and lost each bid, most recently losing to three Republicans for three at-large seats on the Fishers City Council in 2015.
Now, he’s the communications chair for the Hamilton County Democratic Party, and he said he’s seen several trends that could indicate the county is leaning more blue than ever before leading into the 2018 elections.
“We have filled every state legislative spot (with Democrats) that even touches Hamilton County,” Purvis said. “I don’t remember the last time that happened.”
For the first time in nearly two decades, Democrats will have a primary election May 8 for county offices. Two candidates are running for the Hamilton County Council District 3 seat, and four are running for the Delaware Township Board, which has three available seats.
“When have you ever seen a Democratic primary in Hamilton County?” said Joe Weingarten, chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. “We don’t even know when it last happened.”
Hamilton County election records show that local Democratic primaries are few and far between. The last time it happened was in 2000, when three Democrats ran for two at-large seats on the county council, and before that two Democrats sought the position of Clay Township Trustee in 1998.
But the tide may be turning. Two years ago, the Hamilton County Democratic Party had approximately 50 active precinct chairs, but this year that number is closer to 150. In 2014, Democrats had only a handful of local candidates on the ballot, and in 2016 they had candidates for all 11 local offices except judge. This year, they have 21 local candidates with the possibility of adding more through the end of June. And the party had to move its monthly meetings to the Hamilton East Public Library in Fishers after increased attendance led to overcrowding at its previous home at Scotty’s Brewhouse in Noblesville.
“People are saying, ‘There really are Democrats in Hamilton County, and there is a real choice,’” Purvis said.
Shelley Carey, a lifelong Democrat who grew up in Gary, said one of the first things she heard after moving to Carmel in 2016 is that “Democrats never win in Hamilton County.” She and her husband soon started attending the Hamilton County Democratic Party meetings, and within the last two years she said she’s seen local Democrats emboldened about their affiliation.
“At one meeting, a woman said she was reluctant to share that she was a Democrat in this area knowing she was in the minority, but now she proudly proclaims her choice of being an active member of the Democratic Party,” Carey said. “No one should feel any one party has a monopoly on our area.”
In Indiana, official party affiliation is determined on the day of the primary election, when voters select the primary in which they’d like to cast a ballot.
The county does not keep records of how many people vote in each primary, but in the 2016 primary election 74 percent of all voters who cast ballots for the office of president voted Republican. In 2012, when incumbent President Barack Obama was unopposed in the Democratic primary, 95 percent of those voters took the Republican ballot.
Weingarten, a Fishers resident, said he believes the percentage of Democrats in the county is likely higher than the percentage of those who vote in the Democratic primary, as many voters believe their only chance to impact who is elected is through the Republican primary, specifically in municipal elections, which aren’t on the ballot until 2019.
Weingarten and Purvis said they expect the 2018 primary numbers to more accurately reflect the political makeup of the county, especially with five Democratic candidates vying for the U.S. Congressional seat held by Republican Susan Brooks.
“We are hopeful for high Democratic voter turnout for the 2018 primary, as every Democrat in Hamilton County has someone to vote for,” Weingarten said.
Although the number of Democratic candidates is growing, many believe the percentage of Hamilton County residents who are Democrat is increasing, too. The recent proliferation of high-end apartment communities that attract younger residents may be a factor, as 54 percent of millennials (ages 18 to 35) identify as Democrats compared with 48 percent of Generation Xers (36-51), 44 percent of baby boomers (52-70) and 41 percent of the Silent Generation (71-88), according to 2016 data from the Pew Research Center.
“There is a possibility that attracting younger people will result in the party affiliation and ideology of the county shifting, but that ignores the fact that not all young people are Democrats or liberals,” said Andy Downs, director of the non-partisan Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics. “Also, it is possible that having one party in control might cause the new folks to join the Republican Party even if they are more liberal than the party. In other words, they might become (Republicans in name only) to be part of the dominant party. If enough of this happens, the issues the party cares about and the ideology of the party begin to shift.”
For Brandon Rodriguez, a 34-year-old Carmel resident who switched his allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic party in 2016, the decision came down to support for social programs. When his family helped his cancer-stricken grandfather apply for Medicaid, Rodriguez said he realized the importance of government programs and stopped believing that only “freeloaders” or “lazy” people used them, a belief he said is “wrong.”
“Studies continue to show that the biggest factors in a person’s lifelong financial success have more to do with race, gender and the economic status they grew up with than with their effort,” Rodriquez said. “Because of that, I feel lucky that I am able to live a life where I am not in serious financial need. Things could have easily been different, and I would have been very grateful to have government assistance available if I would have needed it.”
Republicans remain confident
Although Hamilton County Democrats are encouraged by the increased interest they’ve seen this year, Republicans say they’ve seen growth, too.
Hamilton County Republican Party Chair Laura Campbell, who also is a member of the Carmel City Council, said she’s been hearing that the county is beginning to shift more Democratic for years but has yet to see any solid evidence.
She said the Republican Party has seen new faces and increased attendance at its monthly breakfast club meetings and that the March Lincoln Day Dinner sold out. She said people are generally satisfied with their quality of life in Hamilton County, which is good news for the party in control.
“People have to look south to Marion County to see how that can change under Democratic leadership,” she said. “The roads in Marion County are a mess, and people are concerned about safety in Marion County, so overall at the local, county and state level, I’m still confident we will win in the fall.”
And while Hamilton County Democratic Party leaders said the election of President Donald Trump has energized their base and brought new people to the party, Campbell said it’s also been beneficial for Republicans.
“The presidential election brought out people who hadn’t been as involved in the party before, and many of them have stayed engaged,” Campbell said. “I think we’re looking for a very interesting fall election.”
The 2016 presidential election and recent events such as the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., may have spurred a new group of people to become involved in politics, but Weingart said those national issues are not the focus of his party.
“We want people to understand our party is trying to get candidates elected primarily to bring the voice of the people to the local environment, to increase transparency,” Weingarten said. “Don’t look at the national politics and assume it’s the local politics. Local politics are potholes and sewers, not nuclear destruction. There’s nothing that can be done at the local level concerning abortions. What applies are the roads, the planning and stuff that applies to you where you live.”