News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 3, 2010

MAX JONES: Vigo GOP shows its gains are for real

Max Jones
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — For the better part of two decades, the Republican Party in Vigo County rarely mounted more than a feeble challenge to the entrenched Democratic Party establishment.

A few individual Republicans — Jim Adams, Mike Eldred, Charley Fouty, among others — managed to win re-election bids, but the big jobs remained in Democratic hands. The GOP could make no inroads to capturing the coveted posts of mayor, prosecutor or sheriff.

Then things began to change. First came Terry Modesitt’s election as prosecutor in 2006, followed the next year by Duke Bennett’s stunning, razor-thin victory for mayor of Terre Haute over an incumbent Democrat.

The Republicans were in business. Two of the three top political posts in Vigo County were in GOP hands.

Were we witnessing the beginnings of a historic shift in the political fortunes of the major parties?

Only time and subsequent elections will answer that question. But the 2010 election provides the first clues. And Republicans are understandably pleased with Tuesday’s results. Modesitt not only won re-election as prosecutor, he won handily.

While Modesitt may be the happiest Republican in Vigo County today, Duke Bennett cannot be far behind. With the municipal election primary filing period just a couple of months away, the mayor has to like what he sees in the local electorate.

For Modesitt and Bennett, one fact of political life is more important than all others. The Vigo County Democratic Party is a dysfunctional mess and shows little sign of righting itself. In fact, it’s amazing it still wins as many races as it does.

The Vigo County Democratic establishment was virtually unbeatable through the years. Republicans couldn’t find many candidates to run against it, and when the GOP did find outstanding individuals to put on the ballot, they would still lose, sometimes to marginally competent Democrats.

It appears, however, that the local electorate finally has awakened to find alternatives they like on the Republican ballot. Good for them.

Bennett, who is expected to seek re-election as mayor next year, isn’t likely to have an easy road to a second term. Even in its current state of confusion, the Democratic Party could offer up a worthy challenger.

The right Democrat might be able to unite the party just enough to deny Bennett. Of course, the same was true for this year’s prosecutor’s race. Yet the Democrats failed. The longer this goes on, the stronger the local Republican Party will become.

For the people of Vigo County, this resurgence in a viable two-party system is a very good thing. Competition breeds accountability, which fosters better, more responsive government.

With Modesitt’s re-election, it’s clear the Democratic Party has indeed lost some its long-held grip on local government. Unless Democrats get their act together, that trend seems destined to continue.

Jones can be reached at (812) 231-4336, or by e-mail at