For most of the past three decades, voters in and around Noblesville and much of Hamilton County could expect to see a familiar name on the ballot when it came time to vote for their representative in the Indiana Senate. In some elections, Howard “Luke” Kenley’s name would be the only one on the ballot for Senate District 20; even when he had a opponent, as he did in his last election in 2016, he tended to win by more than a 2-to-1 margin. As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Harvard-bred businessman had as large a presence in the Statehouse as he did in his home district, overseeing the writing of the state budget every two years and wielding power that extended into almost every corner of state government. Visibly tired when he presented his last state budget on the final night of the legislative session in 2017, Kenley retired from the Senate a few months later.
With the 72-year-old Kenley’s retirement, the easy wins in Senate District 20 appeared to come to an end. His replacement after a close vote of the district’s party officials, Victoria Spartz, was a Ukranian immigrant with business interests that had yielded a net worth of several million dollars; though not Kenley’s first choice to succeed him, Spartz took office with his blessing and immediately established a presence in the Senate as a tough questioner during committee hearings and a passionate defender of the freedoms that she said she came to America to attain. In 2020, Spartz again faced competition within the Hamilton County Republican Party when it came time to run for election in her own right, and she opted to run instead for higher office, the 5th District congressional seat left open by Susan Brooks’ decision to retire. Her primary campaign was largely self-funded and successful, winning the nomination for Congress by a wide margin over 14 other candidates; Spartz then scoried a bigger-than-expected win over a better-funded opponent in the general.
The competition to succeed Spartz in the state Senate was as fierce as that to succeed Kenley. The two Republican primary candidates contended in one of the most expensive races of the spring; combined, they reported more than $600,000 in campaign contributions. One political action committee with ties to trade unions spent more than $50,000 on television ads targeting one of the primary candidates, JR Gaylor, for his affiliation with builders and contractors who are non-union.
The winner by a wide margin on primary night was Gaylor’s opponent, Scott Baldwin, a former Indianapolis policeman who owns a construction and development company as well as other small businesses. Baldwin’s television ads stressed his service in Iraq and Afghanistan and commendations during his years in law enforcement as well as hiss role as a small businessman, with the candidate saying, “I think that’s exactly what we need at the Statehouse.’’ He ran with the endorsement of county mayors including those in Fishers and Noblesville and more than a dozen other elected officials. Baldwin reported nearly $263,000 in campaign contributions, including $116,000 from himself.
Suburban areas like those in Hamilton County, though long held by Republicans, have seen a national realignment toward Democratic candidates, particularly among women and the college-educated. There has been some evidence of the trend in Carmel and Fishers, with Democrats recently winning seats on city councils that have been exclusively Republican. But Senate District 20 centers more on northern Hamilton County, which is dominated by rural communities still aligned with Republicans, and with under $2,000 reported in campaign contributions, including $500 from himself, Baldwin’s Democratic opponent in the general election was already at a disadvantage. Baldwin won with 62% of the general election vote.
His first term got off to a rocky start. In October 2021, Baldwin's name was found on a membership list of the violent extremist Oath Keepers after some of the group's followers had been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol; Baldwin denied being a member and said his listing probably resulted from a $30 donation to the group more than a decade before. The connection was cited again in the early days of the 2022 legislative session after Baldwin authored legislation aimed at limiting "divisive concepts" that could be discussed in K-12 classrooms and the ways that teachers could portray them; under questioning during a Senate committee hearing, Baldwin said that even in discussing Nazism, teachers would "need to be impartial,'' a remark he eventually walked back after ridicule that extended even into late night TV monologues -- too late, it turned out. Senate leaders soon killed the bill and Baldwin's profile was lower during the remainder of the 2022 session. – Kevin Morgan