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Campaign finance and the General Assembly: A report from The Indiana Citizen

In our continuing mission to provide voters with accurate and impartial information, The Indiana Citizen is reporting on the money spent by their campaign committees, based upon the latest round of campaign finance reports filed with the Indiana Secretary of State.

 The following report, focusing on campaigns for the Indiana General Assembly, was written by veteran Indiana journalists Greg Weaver and Bob Caylor for The Indiana Citizen.

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If you’re looking for the seat in the Indiana House of Representatives that was the hardest-fought of 2020 — the most expensive contest among the 100 House districts — you won’t have far to look. It’s the one at the front of the chamber.

The campaign committee for Todd Huston, Indiana’s newly installed speaker of the House, spent more than $400,000 in his successful bid for a fifth term, according to pre-election campaign finance reports filed with the Indiana Secretary of State. Huston’s reelection rematch with Democrat Aimee Rivera Cole  turned out to be the most expensive House race in the state, with the two campaigns spending a combined $542,304.

But it’s less than half that of the most expensive race in the entire Indiana General Assembly this year. That distinction goes to an Indiana Senate race, also in the northern Indianapolis suburbs, where the contest between the campaigns of first-term Republican state Sen. John Ruckelshaus and former Indianapolis city controller Fady Qaddoura, a Democrat, topped the $1 million mark.

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Indiana Democrats targeted Huston and other Republican lawmakers in northern Indianapolis and its suburbs in an effort to put a strategic dent in the GOP’s commanding dominance of the House.  Needing only one more seat to break the GOP’s a two-thirds majority — a “supermajority” that has left House Democrats largely powerless and without the numbers to deny the House a quorum and stop legislative action by staging a walkout — they fell even further behind. Qaddoura unseated Ruckelshaus in the Senate, but Democrats managed to flip only one Republican-held seat in the House while losing five of their own.

Democrats were at a significant funding disadvantage, as seen in the 3-to-1 margin by which Huston’s campaign outspent Rivera Cole’s. Democrats saw an opportunity to oust the new House speaker after he won election in 2018 by only 8 percentage points, one of several increasing signs that the demographics and views of Indy’s once reliably Republican northern suburbs are part of a national realignment toward Democrats. But Huston wound up increasing that margin of victory.

Indianapolis area races accounted for five of the seven most expensive House contests this year. As in Huston’s district, all featured Democrats trying to capture seats long held by Republicans:

  • The Geist-area district of former House Speaker Brian Bosma, who stepped down from his leadership position in March 2020 and allowed Huston to become speaker.  Fishers attorney Chris Jeter (R) filled Bosma’s legislative seat in August and fended off his first general election challenge from Democrat Pam Dechert, a Lawrence Township businesswoman and strong public education advocate.
  • Republican Donna Schaibley, who turned back a second challenge by Democrat Naomi Bechtold  in House District 24 in and around Carmel and Zionsville. Bechtold lost by 16 percentage points in 2018 but had said she was encouraged by changing demographics that recently led to the first Democrat being elected to the Carmel City Council and a Democrat becoming Zionsville’s mayor. Like Huston, Schaibley won by an even larger margin in 2020.
  • Twelve-term Rep. Jerry Torr, who turned back a challenge by Democrat Ashley Klein, also in Carmel. A real estate agent, Klein stressed more funding for public education, improved environmental protection and gun safety, while Torr emphasized public safety and economic recovery efforts in the wake of the pandemic.

Democrats saw success only in their effort to oust five-term House incumbent Cindy Kirchhofer, who also chairs the Marion County Republican Party. She fell to first-time candidate Mitch Gore, a captain with the Marion County Sheriff’s Department.

As they did on the national political stage, Democrats in Indiana focused on issues such as gun safety, abortion rights and gay rights that they believed resonate with suburban women and show that Republicans are out of sync with their suburban constituencies.

“When I ran in 2018, I was told don’t bring up women’s health or gun safety. Stay away from those,” Rivera Cole, the Democrat who sought to unseat the House speaker, said during the campaign. “This time I made those a central focus of my campaign, and that’s been well received.” Public education and teacher pay also were prominent issues in many state legislative races after Republicans passed a two-year state budget in 2019 that increased funding for schools but left it up to individual school districts to decide whether to use any of the money for teacher pay raises. Teachers and their supporters have clamored for more direct action to address what they say is a 15 percent drop in average pay since 2000 when adjusted for inflation.

In addition to holding all but Kirchhofer’s seat in the Indianapolis area, Republicans managed to recapture two seats lost to Democrats in southern Lake County in 2018. Former Republican Rep. Julie Olthoff  won her rematch with Democratic Rep. Lisa Beck (D), and the GOP’s Harold “Hal” Slager reclaimed the seat he held for three terms in unseating Democrat Chris Chyung. Elected at 25, Chyung is Indiana’s youngest state legislator and the first Asian-American elected to the General Assembly.

The South Bend area was home to two pricy contests, each with combined campaign spending of more than $230,000. Democratic Rep. Ross Deal lost his seat to Republican Jake Teshka, who had criticized his opponent for his record as a Mishawaka city councilman and said Deal voted four times to raise his own council pay. In a district that extends north from South Bend to the Michigan state line, Republican Rep. Dale DeVon of Granger, national director of the Home Builders Association, turned back a second challenge by Democrat Donald Westerhausen, a cardiologist.

Other hotly contested races were in Fort Wayne with four-term Republican incumbent Martin Carbaugh holding off a second challenge from Democrat Kyle Miller, and in the Muncie-Anderson area, where Democratic Rep. Melanie Wright was unseated by Republican Elizabeth Rowray, a Yorktown school board member.

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The Indiana Senate race between Republican incumbent Ruckelshaus and Democratic challenger Qaddoura quickly entered rarified air.

More than three weeks before the Nov. 3 election, campaign spending between the two was nearly $1.1 million, making it this year’s most expensive race for the Indiana General Assembly and among a few in recent history to top the million-dollar mark. The men were battling to represent Senate District 30, a mostly upscale area that leans Republican with an independent bent and stretches across northern Indianapolis from Broad Ripple to southern Hamilton County.

With a strong advantage on the Marion County side of the line, Qaddoura offset Ruckelshaus’ vote totals in Hamilton County. Ruckelshaus had spent the past four years building on his reputation as a moderate Republican with a bipartisan streak and adding to his family’s political name. Ruckelshaus is the nephew of the late William Ruckelshaus, the first chief of the Environmental Protection Agency who famously resigned rather than follow President Nixon’s order to fire the special prosecutor at the height of the Watergate scandal.

As a state senator, Ruckelshaus has routinely held town hall meetings with a Democratic colleague. He also was the sponsor of a measure aimed at ending gerrymandering by allowing an independent commission rather than lawmakers to draw legislative districts. And his bipartisan ways prompted a group of retired lawmakers to give him the Civility in Government Award.

Qaddoura, however, said Ruckelshaus’ reputation belied a record that shows the incumbent state senator has voted with his own party nearly 95 percent of time and isn’t above launching unfounded attacks.

Qaddoura particularly took issue with a commercial that he says falsely accuses him of eliminating pre-K funding for at-risk children and using his position as city controller to land a new job at Katz Sapper and Miller. As controller, Qaddoura noted, he didn’t have the authority to cut funding. The decision was made by Mayor Joe Hogsett with the backing of the City-County Council.

In the state legislature, Qaddoura said, it was time to break the Republican 40-10 supermajority in the Senate to allow for more bipartisanship and diversity of thought and guard against extreme proposals that unfairly discriminate or harm Hoosiers. But his alone was far from enough.

Otherwise, Democrats were unsuccessful in their efforts to flip other Republican-held Senate districts in the Indianapolis area, including District 35, which stretches from Speedway southwest to Plainfield and beyond. State Sen. R. Michael Young, a 30-year legislative veteran, turned back a spirited and well-funded challenge from Democrat Pete Cowden, a veteran service officer for the Wayne Township trustee office. And in Senate District 36 in southern Marion County and northern Johnson County, Democrat Ashley Eason  fell short in her bid to unseat first-term Republican Jack Sandlin.