Less than a year from the 2020 gubernatorial primary, Hoosiers find Gov. Eric Holcomb in a historically strong position for reelection, while the anemic Democratic Party may be on the brink of a new wave of aspirants.
First, let’s gauge Holcomb. He sits on a war chest of more than $4 million (Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch has another $815,000 in her account). A We Ask America Poll earlier this month put his approve/disapprove stood at 54/24%. He had what Republican Chairman Kyle Hupfer called a “clean sweep” on his legislative agenda, aided and abetted by two GOP super majorities. He gets to appoint his own school superintendent. Vice President Mike Pence is expected to be on the national ticket, though President Trump’s approve/disapprove in Indiana stands at a lukewarm 46/48% while farmers are losing patience over the trade war with China.
Surveying where other incumbent governor’s stood before a reelect, Doc Bowen had a Democratic Senate and popular Secretary of State Larry Conrad in the wings (Doc won with 57% in 1976); Gov. Robert Orr was coming off a record tax hike and a deep recession in 1984 (he won 52-47% over Sen. Wayne Townsend); Evan Bayh had to deal with a 50/50 split House and a Republican Senate, and cruised to a 62% win over Republican Linley Pearson; Frank O’Bannon struggled with a property tax crisis and a rising star challenger in Rep. David McIntosh, winning with 56% in 2000; and Mitch Daniels overcame low polling approval after the Major Moves toll road lease deal to defeat Jill Long Thompson with 58% in 2008, even while Barack Obama became the first presidential Democrat to carry the state.
Joe Kernan was the only governor to lose while in office, but he didn’t win a race getting there, succeeding O’Bannon after his death.
That’s why I believe Holcomb is the best positioned incumbent governor. “He’s done a really good job since he was elected,” Hupfer said of Holcomb. “He puts people first and it’s consistent with his agenda theme.”
He’s in a strong position, but it’s too early to declare his invincibility.
Who do the Democrats run against him? Top Democrat mayors have passed, with Pete Buttigieg running for president, and other successful mayors like Tom Henry of Fort Wayne, Tom McDermott of Hammond, Tony Roswarski of Lafayette and Greg Goodnight of Kokomo either running for reelection or seeking a new career path.
There is the “old guard” of two-time nominee John Gregg, former congressman Baron Hill (who stepped away from a U.S. Senate nomination in 2016 in favor of Evan Bayh), and two-term Evansville mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel, who a decade away from his last election. The 2016 lieutenant governor nominee Christina Hale is being recruited to challenge U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks.
Then there is the “new wave” with two active participants: Former state health commissioner Woody Myers and State Rep. Karlee Macer, both of Indianapolis.
Myers appears to be on the brink of a campaign, telling me Wednesday, “I’m pretty close. I’m very excited about the number of people who have talked to me and have taken the steps to make sure the mechanics are in place. There are a lot of problems I believe I can solve. I’m very close to making a decision to enter the race.”
Gov. Orr selected Myers as health commissioner in 1985 and he made national headlines defending young Ryan White, an AIDS victim from Kokomo. As commissioner, he would work graveyard shifts in the Wishard Hospital E.R. to stay patched in to the street. New York City Mayor David Dinkins named him health commissioner in 1990 at the height of the AIDS pandemic. Myers has also served as executive vice president and chief medical officer at Anthem, and the director of health care management at Ford Motor Company.
With Indiana grappling with public health crisis involving AIDS, methamphetamine, opioids and heroin, Myers resume matches up to the challenge. “Everything is connected to health,” Myers said. “It’s the one thing we have in common.”
Rep. Macer is a rare Hoosier Democrat who actually has won a GOP district, which was about 54% Republican when she won the open seat in 2012. She won reelection by 560 votes in 2014, by 5,020 in 2016 when she out-performed Hillary Clinton significantly, and was unopposed last year. She’s a former PTO president at Ben Davis High School, and has been active in veteran affairs and with foster families. “I’ve enjoyed the pleasure of serving in many capacities and to have this opportunity is really important,” Macer said. “I’m being very serious about it.”
She’s also willing to bluntly critique Holcomb, particularly after $775,000 of Department Veterans Affairs funds were misspent. “It looks like the fox is watching the hen house,” Macer said.
Neither Myers or Macer believe a contested primary would be good for the party. “We’re sorting it out now,” Macer said. “I definitely think for Democrats, it’s important for all of us to come together.”
Myers recalls the bitter 2008 primary race between Jill Long Thompson and Jim Schellinger and said of a nomination battle, “I hope there is not, but if there is, I’ll have to deal with it. Most party leaders would prefer a consensus.”
I can’t help but think, after talking to these two “new wave” Democrats, that this could be the ticket.
Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.