For most of Carmel’s history, drama in the municipal elections typically took place in the spring as Republicans battled against each other to win the May primary and cruise to victory in November, often without a challenger in the general election.
As recently as 2011 and 2015, Carmel didn’t even hold an election in November, because every Republican on the ballot was unopposed. That changed in 2019, when four Democrats ran for city council and one – Miles Nelson – won, becoming the first elected official in the city who didn’t run as a Republican.
Now, after one term, Nelson is running for mayor, and six Democrats are running for nine seats on the city council (with the party able to appoint other candidates in unopposed races through July 3). On Election Day, Nov. 7, Hamilton County Democratic Party Chair Dayna Colbert expects the local political momentum to continue to swing to the left.
“If we get the word out, we could take all of the races we have candidates for,” Colbert said. “I think that we could see a majority Democratic city council in Carmel at the end of 2023 and a Democratic mayor.”
Colbert pointed to Democrat Joe Biden earning more than half of the votes in Carmel in 2020 for U.S. president and Indiana Secretary of State Democratic candidate Destiny Wells winning more votes in Carmel in 2022 than her Republican and Libertarian challengers combined as other precursors of a potential blue wave.
Laura Merrifield Wilson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis who specializes in local government, said the 2023 election cycle offers a rare opportunity for Democrats, as only three of nine city council incumbents are running for reelection. Carmel will also see change at the top, as seven-term Republican Mayor Jim Brainard is not running again.
“It’s hard to beat an incumbent, and an open seat is by default an opportunity,” Merrifield Wilson said. “I can recognize where that (Democratic) optimism would come from.”
Carmel Democrats also point to their fundraising totals as another sign of a competitive general election. In the mayor’s race, Nelson – who did not face a primary challenge – outraised two of the three Republicans during the latest campaign finance reporting period, even as the Republicans battled for dollars and votes down to the wire in a close race. Only Sue Finkam, a Carmel city councilor who narrowly won the Republican primary, raised more than Nelson.
Several Democratic candidates running for city council also outraised their Republican opponents during the reporting period. Because none of the Democrats faced primary challenges, they’ve largely been able to save their funds for the general election, which wasn’t the case for some of the Republicans.
Running unopposed in a primary is a “double-edged sword,” according to Merrifield Wilson. While those candidates without challengers can save resources and energy, they can lag in name recognition and bringing their campaigns up to speed, she said, using the mayor’s race as an example.
“It’s like (Nelson) is running the half marathon and (Finkam) had to run the full marathon,” Merrifield Wilson said. “(Finkam) is warmed up but probably also tired, and (Nelson) hasn’t done anything but stretch.”
But in a city like Carmel that has historically voted Republican, Nelson said his campaign has been running full speed ahead since it launched in late 2022, and he doesn’t expect to slow down until the votes have been cast.
“We wouldn’t be running for office if the data didn’t show that this is going to be an absolute dogfight,” he said. “It’s going to be extraordinarily competitive. We certainly have a base that is extraordinarily fired up.”
Finkam said her campaign message and goals won’t change now that she’s facing a challenger from a political party beside her own.
“I can’t speak to what (the Democrats) are going to do or not do,” she said. “All I can say is we’re going to work really hard and continue getting our message out, not because there’s an opponent in the race, but because we’re going to do everything we can to engage with our voters because it will set us up better to lead next year.”
Turnout key for Republicans
According to Mario Massillamany, chair of the Hamilton County Republican Party, a potential downside of years of GOP domination in Carmel could be that Republican voters don’t show up in large numbers to the polls in November, as they may assume that the key races were already decided in the primary. That may have been the case historically, but with more Democrats on the ballot, a Republican win isn’t a given, Massillamany said.
“With 16 percent of registered voters voting, of course Democrats have a chance. As long as Republicans show up, we will win the council and the mayor’s race,” he said. “Now the question becomes, will we and can we get the Republicans to show up? If Republicans show up, we should win these races.”