Chicago and Northwest Indiana have a lot in common: Both rely on Lake Michigan for drinking water, both are impacted by lake effect snow and both are home to dyed-in-the-wool Democrats.
In fact, 1931 was the last time a Republican served as mayor of Chicago. That’s also the last year a Republican represented Northwest Indiana in Congress.
Jennifer-Ruth Green came very close in last week’s midterm election to win the seat once again for the GOP and make history in the process by becoming the first Black Republican woman to represent Indiana in Congress.
“People didn’t believe us when we started this race. I don’t think anybody is doubting us now,” Green told a hall full of her supporters at Villa Cesare banquet hall in Schererville, Indiana. “Nothing worth doing is ever easy, and changing a district is something that doesn’t happen overnight. I believe we came within four points.”
According to election results posted by the Indiana Secretary of State, freshman Democratic incumbent Frank J. Mrvan beat Green — 52.8% to 47.2% of the vote — to win his second term in the U.S. House of Representatives.
With a margin of victory just under six percentage points, it was the tightest race for Indiana’s 1st Congressional District in decades — the last time Democrats won by a single-digit margin in the district was in 1956. In addition, local reports show it was the district’s most expensive election ever. The race drew national money and interest with Green — an Air Force veteran, native of northern California and Trump supporter — getting a boost from conservative media outlets, especially Fox News.
The results are leading some local political observers to ponder: Was Green’s close finish the result of beginner’s luck? Or was the single-digit margin evidence of a changing political landscape and a sign that Northwest Indiana’s standing as an oasis for Democrats — an island of blue in a statewide sea of red — was evaporating?
A WBEZ analysis shows that as the district’s population is shifting, so too are its political leanings. Northwest Indiana’s blue strongholds continue to lose population while many of the areas that have gained residents are Republican-leaning or have become more red in the last several years.
“You had a lifelong Northwest Indiana resident (Mrvan) who’s helped so many people against a recent California transplant (Green). And she almost won. You’d be a fool to ignore what’s happening,” said former Chicago Sun-Times political reporter and Northwest Indiana resident Steve Patterson, a public relations consultant. “Republicans have said, ‘they are not going to let up.’ They see the trends. And you have to wonder what are Northwest Indiana Democrats doing about that?”
Indiana’s first congressional district includes Lake and Porter counties and the far western portion of La Porte County, comprising more than 700,000 residents. The district was remapped in the 2021 redistricting process to include parts of La Porte County.
The bulk of the district’s political base resides in Lake County, the second-largest county in Indiana, which accounted for more than 60% of the total votes cast in last Tuesday’s congressional race and was the linchpin to victory for Mrvan, who lost to Green in both Porter and La Porte counties by slim margins.
The most significant population shifts in the district are happening in Lake County, and it’s where WBEZ focused its analysis.
Lake County is home to three traditional Democratic strongholds of Hammond, East Chicago and Gary — cities within a short drive to Chicago — and one of the most heavily industrialized areas in the country, with huge steel mills and one of the nation’s largest oil refineries.
It’s these cities that, for years, Dems have counted on for success in the region and even statewide.
“Let’s remember (Barack) Obama won Indiana (in 2008). Joe Biden won Lake County in . Joe Donnelly won election to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat (in 2012). Indiana had a Democratic governor as recently as 2005, but it’s now been 17 years since Democrats even had a shot,” Patterson said.
Gary has been key to the Democrats’ fortunes in northwest Indiana. It used to be that Democrats could count on “a plurality of Democratic votes coming out of the city that would allow you to lose in other places,” said Karen Freeman-Wilson, mayor of Gary from 2012 to 2019 and current president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.
But with the exodus of residents from Gary in the last few decades, that just isn’t the case anymore. “The loss of population has certainly been a factor,” said Freeman-Wilson on the Democrats’ narrow victory in last Tuesday’s election. “You can’t take people, you can’t take races, for granted.”
In contrast, areas of Lake County that have grown the most in population the past two decades have become decidedly more red.
Between the 2020 and 2022 elections, Republicans have flipped the first district race in Crown Point and Schererville, two relatively white and middle-class areas that have grown considerably in the last 20 years, and they’ve come close to flipping several other cities.
In 2020, Mrvan barely won Crown Point with 51% of the vote; this year, he lost there to Green 47% to 53%. In Schererville, Mrvan won with 54% of the vote in 2020, but he lost there by a hair to Green with 49% of the vote this year. Democrats won both cities just eight years ago, in 2014, when longtime northwest Indiana congressman Peter Visclosky ran against Republican Mark Leyva.
In Hobart, Democrats won this year but not by the comfortable margins of victory they used to see. In 2014, 63% of voters in Hobart voted for Visclosky, but only 54% voted for Mrvan in 2022.
Even in safely Democratic Merrillville, which is about 50% Black and 15% Latino, according to 2020 census data, Republicans have chipped away at Democrats’ margins. In 2022, Mrvan won with a 46-percentage-point margin compared to a 56-percentage-point margin in 2020.
Longtime Republican-leaning areas are also getting even more red. St. John has been Republican-leaning for years, with Republican candidate Leyva winning in the growing suburb in 2014 and in 2020 with 60% of the vote each time. In 2022, Green won there with 65% of the vote.
Similar trends can be seen countywide, as well. The number of Republican votes in Lake County’s congressional race has roughly doubled in the last two midterm elections, from about 30,000 votes in 2014’s midterm to almost 60,000 in last Tuesday’s election.
But if you think Democratic leaders are worried, guess again.
Lake County party chair Jim Wieser, a longtime area politico, says his party is not overly concerned following Mrvan’s narrow win.
He says the close margin had more to do with poor voter turnout than shifting population. Turnout in Lake County was 10 percentage points lower this year than it was in the 2018 midterms, according to county elections data. Wieser also notes that Mrvan got overwhelming support in many parts of the county, including Gary and Merrillville, areas with large Black populations.
“There’s no panic in Lake County,” Wieser said. “There’s just a sense that we need to get our nose to the grindstone and figure out how to get back to where we were.”
Republicans have become increasingly aggressive in attracting more Black and Latino voters, often pushing the narrative that Democrats take those groups for granted.
Wieser says his party doesn’t take the Black community for granted and isn’t too worried about its standing with Black voters.
“I don’t think any inroads were made (by Republicans) with the African-American community other than the candidate (Green) was African American,” Wieser said. “In a heavily African-American community in Gary, [Mrvan] got over 90 percent of the vote. So, I feel pretty comfortable.”
However, he acknowledged some concern about the GOP attracting Latinos — the group that has witnessed the highest growth in Lake County over the past two decades.
“I have been concerned for a while about the relationship of the Democratic Party nationally, statewide and locally with a Latino community,” Wieser said. “We need to develop and talk about an outreach program with that community.”Could money have been the deciding factor for Green’s impressive showing?
Marie Eisenstein, a longtime political science professor at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, says the GOP invested in Green’s campaign in ways it had not done before for Leyva, a Mexican-American Republican who ran for the seat four times but each time shrinking his margin of loss. His best showing came in 2020, when he secured 40.4% of the vote against Mrvan.
“The Republicans really put a significant amount of money into this district. Some of this is a result of when you actually make a play for the district, you see improvement,” Eisenstein said. “From their standpoint, I would think that this is something that you would want to build. … If you want to make it competitive, then you are going to have to show up.”
For Patterson, who lives in the bright red area known as the Tri-Town area, consisting of Dyer, Schererville and St. John, Democrats just don’t seem to have a plan.
“The red wave might not have materialized nationally, but it sure hit Indiana harder than it ever has before. The thing that’s scary for Democrats is that you see the next wave that’s coming, and it’s even bigger,” Patterson said. “I just don’t know that there’s a plan to try to counteract that.”
On election night, following her defeat, Green had one final comment for her supporters.
“In two years, we have another chance. I believe you sent a message to the Congressman. The days of Republicans contesting this seat are clearly not over,” Green said. “The people of Northwest Indiana are good, hard-working people who want to go to work, provide for their families, leave a better life for their children than the one that they have. And that’s how this seat will become Republican. And it’s going to happen sooner than you think.”
WBEZ’s Ola Giwa, Matt Kiefer, Alden Loury and Charmaine Runes contributed to this story.