Even with no state offices on the ballot, the controversy over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act could have ripple effects at the polls in 2015.
Local Democrats say they’ve seen a surge in new voter registrations over the past two weeks, as Indiana became the reluctant center of a national firestorm over gay rights. It’s an issue that resonates with young voters in particular — a key Democratic constituency that usually sits out non-presidential elections.
Republicans in socially conservative areas could see a similar boost — the backlash was so fierce that it left many of the bill’s supporters frustrated that their views weren’t represented in the conversation.
But will it resonate at the polls in a state that ranked dead last in turnout just seven months earlier? Time will tell.
Monday’s the last chance to register for Hoosiers who want to vote in the 2015 primaries. Municipal government positions across the state will be on the ballot May 5 — and, in many areas, that election may be more significant than the general election in November.
In Republican-dominated Hamilton County, the incumbent mayors in Carmel and Westfield face contentious party challenges, and most of the council races in cities across the county are likely to be settled in the primary.
In Indianapolis, the mayoral race has been conspicuously quiet, with neither party’s slated candidate doing much campaigning against a hodgepodge of primary opponents with little name recognition among them.
Republican restaurateur Chuck Brewer has been largely focused on fundraising efforts and meet-and-greets, two things his potential general election opponent, former U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett, had a six-month head start on.
Hogsett’s campaign, meanwhile, has been fine-tuning its policy message — and trying to register voters.
On the latter front, the “religious freedom” controversy has been a boost. Thomas Cook, Hogsett’s campaign manager, said he’s seen younger voters using RFRA “as a lever” to get their friends registered for the local election.
“We had people out doing registration at the RFRA rally at the Statehouse, and even in a politically engaged crowd like that, we had a lot of people updating their registrations because they’d moved apartments, etc.,” Cook wrote in an email to The Star. “I’m not sure that the younger, urban demographic would necessarily be as engaged in a municipal year that always skews older.”
Joel Miller, chairman of the Marion County Democrats, said he’s seen much of the same since RFRA became national news — both in the form of registrations and new volunteers.
The Marion County clerk’s office was closed for Good Friday, so voter registration figures were not available.
Election Day apathy in 2014, when Indiana had just 30 percent turnout, didn’t seem to hurt Democrats locally: They swept county races for prosecutor, sheriff, assessor, auditor, clerk and recorder. But getting people to the polls may be key to the Democrats’ hopes of taking back the mayor’s office and retaining control of the council in the fall.
“As a Democrat, higher turnout benefits us as a strategy,” Miller said. “This year’s no different: Ninety percent of the effort we make as a county party is to get out the vote.
“Are we worried about it? Yes. But that’s sort of a standard worry for me.”
His Republican counterpart in Marion County, Chairman Kyle Walker, said his party has seen typical voter registration levels to this point. And, he said, it’s possible that RFRA could have staying power, even in a municipal cycle.
“I think by November, voters will be more focused on the municipal-specific issues that are at hand, but this was a big enough story and a topic that I think will stay on the minds of voters for some time,” he said.
Because Indianapolis’ mayoral campaigns haven’t garnered much attention, primary turnout may not be much of a barometer by which to predict turnout in November. But at least a few City-County Council races promise to be hard fought.
The four at-large seats have been eliminated, and the remaining 25 council seats have been redrawn under new district lines, leaving some incumbents with tough primary fights in unfamiliar districts.
In District 1, Democratic council members LeRoy Robinson and Angela Mansfield will square off.
And in District 3, Democratic Councilwoman Pamela Hickman could face Republican Councilwoman Christine Scales in the general election — that is, if Scales can survive a challenge from her own party. The Marion County GOP has slated Tim Craft to run against the GOP councilwoman, who was ousted from the Republican caucus.
To register to vote or update your address, visit www.indianavoters.com, or contact your local county clerk. Registration ends at the end of business on Monday — 4:30 p.m. in Marion County.