By Jim Ellis
July 28, 2016 — Suddenly, the Democrats seemed well positioned to potentially claim a new senator and governor from normally Republican Indiana.
Tuesday, appointed Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, the former chairman of the Indiana Republican Party, won the special vote to replace vice presidential nominee Mike Pence as the party’s gubernatorial standard bearer. He now faces former state House Speaker John Gregg (D) in the general election. Gregg held Pence to a 49-46 percent victory in 2012.
The party’s State Committee, comprised of the state party officers and congressional district chairs and vice chairs from all nine districts, has the responsibility of filling statewide ballot vacancies. With Gov. Pence departing on the final day that the party could begin replacement proceedings, the State Committee leadership scheduled the secret ballot vote for Tuesday, though they had 30 days to take action.
On the first ballot, though the totals were not officially announced, it was widely reported that Holcomb received 11 votes to Rep. Susan Brooks’ (R-IN-5) nine. Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN-4) received two, and state Sen. Jim Tomes (R) failed to gain any support. The vote went to a second ballot, since 12 of the 22 eligible votes are required, and Holcomb reportedly prevailed over Brooks, 14-8.
Both Rokita and Brooks had withdrawn from their re-election campaigns in order to be considered for the governor’s nomination, but it is widely believed that their respective party congressional district nominating committees will reinstate them as the respective 4th and 5th District general election candidates. Both representatives immediately declared that they want to re-enter the House contests.
As usual when examining the media’s coverage of political campaigns, funding became the dominant topic of their stories. Gregg has enjoyed a strong fundraising year, and so far possesses almost $6 million for his campaign to spend. Pence had well over $7 million in his account, and had planned to transfer the bulk of that to Holcomb, whom he had endorsed as his successor, but he may be limited because of his new status as a federal candidate. Lawyers are working out the details. What money doesn’t go directly to the Holcomb campaign can be sent to various Republican party committees, so it is likely that virtually all of it will be used either directly or indirectly to support the Republican gubernatorial campaign.
But, Holcomb’s candidacy raises doubts beyond his fundraising situation. Strong on inside connections – in addition to winning Pence’s endorsement, Sen. Dan Coats (R), Holcomb’s former boss, and various state legislative and Republican party leaders also backed him – but not having much in the way of experience as a candidate suggests that Gregg begins as the early leader.
In 2015, Holcomb declared for the US Senate upon the retirement announcement from his boss, Sen. Coats, and was the first out of the gate in trying to secure the party nomination. He never became much of a factor, and left the race when Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann resigned to take another position. Pence appointed Holcomb as her successor, thus making him a statewide official without ever being elected.
The first poll came from Brooks’ effort. She commissioned a Tarrance Group survey (July 20-21; 503 registered Indiana voters), and the data finds Gregg leading all of the potential Republican contenders. Holcomb, trailing 34-42 percent, was in the weakest position of the three major Republican contenders. By contrast, the same respondent cell posted Donald Trump to a 50-36 percent lead over Hillary Clinton.
These results came on the heels of the Garin Hart Yang Research poll (July 12-14; 602 IN likely voters) that found former Sen. Evan Bayh (D) topping Rep. Todd Young (R-IN-9), 54-33 percent. Both sets of data provide Republicans with sobering ballot test reality with just over 100 days remaining until Election Day.
In what turned out to be a wild Republican run-off campaign, West Point mayor and dentist Drew Ferguson scored a 54-46 percent victory over state Sen. Mike Crane (R) in a contest that became highly personal and nasty. The turnout featured just over 42,000 voters.
In opposition to Georgia’s law that allows police to enter a dwelling without providing an announcement or identification, Crane stated publicly that, “You (meaning police officers) come to my house, kick down my door — if I have the opportunity, I will shoot you dead — and every one of you (meaning his audience) should do the same.”
Predictably, this comment became the focal point of many negative attacks and proved something that Crane could not maneuver around.
The May 24 primary ended with Ferguson and Crane advancing to the run-off separated by only 93 votes. Dr. Ferguson now faces Democratic nominee Angela Pendley, and he immediately becomes the prohibitive favorite in the heavily Republican western Georgia district. Six-term Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Grantville) is retiring and a strong bet to enter the open Governor’s race in 2018.