The Journal Gazette
Thursday, October 14, 2021 1:00 am


Caucus charade

Mid-term replacements gain incumbency perks before ever facing voters on ballot

EDITORIAL BOARD | The Journal Gazette

Newly approved electoral districts ensure Indiana Republicans' political dominance for the next decade. Where electoral districts don't apply, politicians on both sides of the aisle have another ace up their sleeves: election by party caucus.

Like gerrymandered electoral districts, caucus elections take power from voters and place it in the hands of a selected few. Too many Indiana officeholders were launched into long political careers with the advantage of incumbency gained by caucus election.

Some caucus elections are unavoidable, of course. GOP precinct committee members will gather Oct. 30 to elect a replacement for Allen County Councilman Joel Benz, who was recently appointed executive director of Three Rivers Ambulance Authority. A paramedic with 20 years of experience in local emergency medical services, Benz is eminently qualified for the job. No one can begrudge him the career opportunity.

An officeholder's death, or a resignation prompted by election to a higher office, job change, serious illness or a family crisis are the reasons caucus procedures were established.

Political expediency is a different case, and it happens much too often in Indiana. Thirty-three of 150 current legislators were first selected by party officials rather than voters. Eighteen of those 33 lawmakers assumed office after their predecessors resigned mid-term.

In northeast Indiana, caucus winners include several lawmakers who assumed office after a death, but also Rep. Bob Morris, R-Fort Wayne, who was elected by precinct committee members after Randy Borror resigned to become a lobbyist. Sen. Justin Busch, R-Fort Wayne, was caucused into an Allen County Council seat before he won a caucus election to replace Sen. David Long, who resigned halfway through a four-year term he won in 2016. Rep. Chris Judy defeated Rep. Kathy Heuer in a primary election, but she then resigned, allowing Judy to enter the November election as an incumbent.

The resignations set their successors up well. While most lawmakers spend months making a case to campaign contributors and thousands of voters, caucus candidates can focus their efforts on a handful of political insiders. They also get a jump on their colleagues in building seniority, a strong advantage in advancing in the committee hierarchy system and building political clout and name recognition.

The Indianapolis Star recently pointed to the caucus advantage that launched Noblesville Republican Victoria Spartz on a fast track to Congress. She used party connections to succeed state Sen. Luke Kenley, who resigned one year into his four-year term in 2017. Spartz, chosen by 93 Hamilton County precinct committee members, parlayed her newfound name recognition to defeat nine other candidates in the May GOP primary for the 5th District congressional seat last year. She narrowly beat state Rep. Christina Hale in November for a seat she could hold for many years, given district boundaries newly drawn to Republican advantage.

Six state lawmakers have already announced they will not seek reelection in 2022. Only one, Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, has said she will leave before her term is finished. Hoosiers will be best served if the other five, all Republicans, allow voters to choose nominees in May and in elections for an open seat in November. Four of the five were drawn into new districts with other Republicans – more evidence of the political machinations involved in redistricting. 

Political caucuses serve an important role in filling vacancies under unexpected circumstances, but it is wrong to use them to strengthen partisan control. All candidates, including incumbents, should be prepared to assure voters that – unforeseen circumstances aside –  they intend to serve the full terms they seek.

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