SOUTH BEND – National politics, usually of little significance in city elections, was an important factor as James Mueller won the mayoral race in South Bend. It was reflected in the totals in these two examples: Mueller, the choice of Mayor Pete Buttigieg to be his successor, won with 63% of the vote, impressive, but short of the 80% by which Mayor Pete won reelection in 2015.

Still, Mueller got more votes this time than Mayor Pete did in that reelection landslide.

Election night totals showed Mueller, the Democratic nominee, defeating Republican Sean Haas by 9,261 to 5,341. Four years ago, it was Buttigieg over Republican Kelly Jones by 8,515 to 2,074.

Obviously, total turnout was higher, even though once again there was the perception that the real race for mayor was in the May Democratic primary, with the November general election more of a noncompetitive formality. After all, no Republican has won a mayoral race in South Bend since 1967, and in many of the races since then the Republican nominee was considered a joke.

Haas was no joke. He waged a serious campaign. Many Republicans who in the past couldn’t justify voting for a joke decided this time they could vote for the party nominee.

More than that brought higher totals.

Mueller’s campaign found in polling that the tribalism on the national political scene – neither side willing to concede anything positive about members of the other side – was at work here, too. And Mayor Pete now is a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. A poll taken for Mueller for the primary election showed sky high approval for Buttigieg, and what the pollster said was astounding agreement that South Bend was on the right track. That approval for Mayor Pete was why Mueller, who began as a little-known contender, won the nomination. Buttigieg endorsed him and contributed funds and campaign expertise.

But in later polls it was found that some voters were starting to have more negative views. Some poll respondents were even saying the downtown really hadn’t been improved. What? Remember downtown eight years ago? Polling also found that people in the same area would split on condition of the same streets, with politics rather driving determining how their streets should be graded.

Some folks who thought Mayor Pete was smart, capable and moving South Bend in the right direction became aware that he also was a Democratic presidential candidate,  a partisan Democrat saying harsh things about President Trump, who retains high approval ratings in Indiana. Could they vote for Mueller, also in that other tribe and endorsed by Mayor Pete to carry on his policies in the city?

National political concerns worked both ways. A key reason why Mueller got even more votes than Mayor Pete did four years ago was that some Democrats who otherwise would have stayed home, regarding the race as already over, went to the polls to give a vote of confidence to Buttigieg, to make sure that the national news media and political opponents didn’t find that the mayor’s hand-picked successor did poorly.

While Buttigieg’s name wasn’t on the ballot, the race and the turnout were in large measure about him. “No Re-Pete” was a theme of the Haas campaign. He consistently portrayed Buttigieg as a failure and warned that Mueller would continue disastrous policies.

“Working with Mayor Pete” was a theme of Mueller’s extensive TV campaign. He cited his efforts as a key figure in the administration and promised to continue similar efforts.

If Buttigieg was going off to be a college president, national politics would have been of little significance, Mueller wouldn’t have needed such an all-out campaign effort and totals for both Mueller and Haas would have been much lower. 

Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.