The following commentary by Laura Merrifield Wilson, associate professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis., was originally published by the Indiana Capital Chronicle and is republished according to Indiana Capital Chronicle republishing guidelines.
In American politics, few truths seem evident as the presence of competition in an open primary and the importance of incumbency.
Open seats naturally attract the ambitious: strategically calculating the timing as an opportunity with a higher likelihood of victory relative to the uphill battle faced by a challenger angling to unseat an incumbent. Incumbency advantage has been a long studied phenomenon in political science (another truth again ubiquitous in our political sphere) and, though the probability of one’s relative advantage varies based on many factors, an astute political hopeful may defer declaring based on the slim possibility of success against the current office-holder.
Open seats tend to attract more candidates and also more attention, particularly in a primary race which is increasingly where competition has shifted. Likewise, an incumbent who chooses to run again, who is viewed as generally favorable, who has an impressive war chest and the ability to fundraise to restock, rarely sees a quality challenger daring to unseat them.
If these are political “truths,” how can we understand two races that have little in common but their mutual defiance of these likely qualities? Indiana has an open U.S. Senate seat with only one confirmed candidate while Indianapolis has a well-known and well-funded mayor who faces competition from several challengers.
The U.S. Senate and a city mayor have such little in common (different levels of government, different branches of government, different responsibilities, requirements, terms, etc.), it might seem that the research is wrong. But the reality is inherently more complicated.
When Mike Braun announced his candidacy for Indiana governor (another open seat for 2024), his forthcoming vacancy in the U.S. Senate left a void that presumably many political hopefuls would find intriguing. Several names of prospects, both those with long legacies in public service and others with perhaps less experience but more drive and energy, began popping up in conversation.
Braun himself faced two quality challengers in the primary when he originally ran for the Senate in 2018 with then-U.S. Representatives Todd Rokita and Luke Messer and then ultimately defeated incumbent Senator Joe Donnelly. It would not be surprising then that, upon Congressman Jim Banks’ announcement, he would be the first of many.
Yet in the last two weeks, with former governor and Purdue President Mitch Daniels formally declining, Representative Victoria Spartz declining to run either for reelection to her own house seat or for the senate, it seems the field has narrowed quickly and considerably. It would be unusual for Banks to not face even one challenger, but at press time, he is solo in this pursuit.
Why does Hogsett see so many candidates challenging him while Banks remains alone thus far in the race? Timing of course is one thing; the deadline for the 2023 mayoral race has passed while the 2024 election is still further away than the 2022 midterms that concluded mere months ago.
But that can’t be the only explanation. In the back-and-forth battle of federalism and the attention that each level of government gets from its constituents, it seems that voters may have more interest in state and local politics than researchers previously thought.
Recent analysis suggests that as state and local governments’ responsibilities have increased, so too have citizens’ expectations and interests in them. “Decentralization,” a longstanding benefit of federalism, provides local solutions to local challenges, responding to unique issues with innovation and experimentation in a way that is not as feasible on a national level. It competes in some ways with the greater nationalization but policies like Dobbs v. Jackson reaffirm its presence.
To be sure, the subtle shift of power is not resulting in a full tilt from federal to state and local power (as various policies affirm the federal government’s policies in issues from healthcare to education to elections). Nor is every voter sophisticated enough to recognize or care, quite frankly. But minimally, it demonstrates the importance and recognition of local government.
More candidates means more interest; obviously from the candidates who declared their intentions to run but also they have the ability to generate more interest from voters who might otherwise be disengaged with a one-sided race with a foregone conclusion.
A race with one entry hardly feels like a race at all; indeed, competition is necessary for a true democracy. Whomever is elected in a crowded field, however, can enjoy their victory with confidence that many sought to hold the seat they earned.
Laura Merrifield Wilson, PhD, is an associate professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis. She specializes in the study of political behavior, state and local government, and campaigns and elections. She earned her PhD, MA, and MPA from the University of Alabama and her MA and AB Honors from Ohio University. She is a regular political commentator and analyst.
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