A steady flow of voters stood at machines, casting their ballots at the Indiana State University vote center Tuesday afternoon.
By 3 o’clock, more than 300 people had voted at the campus polling site, one of 14 around the Terre Haute and Vigo County. Compared to recent city elections, the turnout seemed strong.
A veteran poll worker quipped, “Maybe we need a referendum on the ballot every time.”
Indeed, the two referendums on the 2019 Terre Haute municipal election inspired a larger percentage of registered voters to show up. Voters approved both referendums — one to allow a new casino (63% in favor), and the other to increase property taxes to fund safety and wellness staff at the Vigo County School Corp. schools, as well as buses and higher salaries for new teachers (54% in favor). Unofficial turnout figures illuminate the interest stirred by those two public questions.
A total of 24,084 voters cast ballots on Tuesday or through early voting. Because the two referendums involved countywide issues, county residents who live outside the city limits were able to vote on just the referendums. And 11,552 county residents seized the opportunity. That means nearly 49% of all ballots cast this fall involved county residents voting on the two public questions.
Undoubtedly, a significant portion of the 12,532 city residents voting also were drawn to the polls by the casino and schools questions. Many who may not have voted otherwise, likely influenced the outcome of a three-way race for Terre Haute mayor.
Voters reelected incumbent Republican Duke Bennett, giving him a fourth term. Bennett won with only a plurality, and not a majority, of the votes. He got 5,178 votes (or 41.76%) out of 12,399 cast for mayor. A total of 7,221 people voted for his challengers — independent Pat Goodwin (4,962, or 40.02%), Democrat Karrum Nasser (2,142, or 17.28%) and independent Shane Meehan (117, or 0.94%).
A strong showing by a third-party candidate is rare in Terre Haute elections. Thus, Bennett is the first mayor since 1971 to win without a majority of the votes. Democrat Bill Brighton beat incumbent Republican Lee Larrison and Urban Reform Party candidate and ISU student Al Kamhi. Three other Terre Haute mayors won with just a plurality — Republican Ora Davis in 1921, Democrat Louis Gerhardt in 1909, and Democrat Henry Steeg in 1898.
A choice of four candidates didn’t hurt Bennett’s chances. It also presented Goodwin with a tall task.
Straight-ticket voters — seemingly the more party-loyal voters — cast 3,232 votes involving the races for mayor and city council. A total of 1,595 Republicans voted straight ticket (benefiting Bennett in the mayor’s race), as did 1,454 Democrats (benefiting Nasser). Bennett also secured the endorsement of the fire and police unions’ voting block, a demographic he’s maintained since winning his first term in 2007.
That left Goodwin needing to nearly sweep the votes of split-ticket independents and disaffected Republicans or Democrats. He came close, delivering the strongest showing by a third-party or independent mayoral candidate in city history. Had either Goodwin or Nasser been the lone challenger to Bennett, the outcome may have been different. Maybe. Vigo County Democrats aren’t a monolithic voting block anymore. Its progressives and traditionalists remain split and may not have aligned behind one candidate.
So, Bennett becomes just the third local mayor to win four elections, joining Democrats Pete Chalos (who served four terms from 1980 to ‘96) and Ralph Tucker (a five-term mayor from 1948 to ‘68). Bennett’s fourth term will bring the longest stretch Democrats have been out of the mayor’s seat, surpassing the Republicans’ hold on the office from 1918 to 1930.
Terre Haute’s conversion from a blue to a purple city was part of a boast by the Indiana Republican Party about Tuesday’s election. The party touted an “all-time record” 70 victories by GOP mayoral candidates around the state this fall. Previously Democratic-held mayoral seats in Kokomo, Muncie, Logansport and Michigan City went red.
Yet, the Indiana Democratic Party also celebrated “historic” breakthroughs Tuesday. Democrats won mayoral and city council seats in the deep-red cities of Carmel, Fishers, Zionsville and Columbus (hometown of Vice President Mike Pence). The party also scored sizable wins in mayoral races in Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and New Albany, including electing a record number of female mayors.
Tuesday’s results may serve as fuel for both parties heading into the sure-to-be-wild 2020 election.
“I think both parties got what they needed — a way to spin the results that will sound good to supporters and donors,” said Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics in Fort Wayne.
The municipal election results statewide show Democrats can no longer count on strong support in the southern part of the state, Downs said. And Republican turf — namely Indiana’s 5th Congressional District, which includes Carmel, Fishers and Zionsville — could be vulnerable next year, given Tuesday’s Democratic wins. That performance may persuade the national Democratic Party and donors to commit resources in that district.
Terre Haute may be harder to predict. Donald Trump won Vigo County — America’s bellwether county — by 15 points in 2016. He praised Bennett at a Terre Haute rally in May of that year. Three years later, Bennett won a fourth term, yet 58% of voters cast ballots for other candidates. Trends that unfolded this fall, though, may change by the time the 2020 election arrives. It’s only 358 days away.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.