ZIONSVILLE - Eric Holcomb was riding the whirlwind in 2016. The day I finally caught up with the incoming 51st governor of Indiana for a road trip began with a cruise up I-65 for a job announcement in Merrillville, and it ended with a 100-mph beeline in an Indiana State Police Chevy Tahoe down U.S. 31 as Kokomo laid in tatters following a rare August tornado.
Holcomb began the year as a third-place U.S. Senate candidate followed by a series of right time/right place scenarios that thrust him into the governor’s office. When Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann resigned, Gov. Mike Pence found in Holcomb a former chairman of the Republican Party who could patch the GOP together following the divisive social issues of 2015. By early July, Pence was being courted by Donald Trump for the presidential ticket.
I asked Holcomb, when did the notion sink in that he might end up on the national ticket and you could be seeking the gubernatorial nomination? Did he pull you aside at some point and say, “Hey Eric, get ready.”
“Never did I throughout the whole process count the chickens before they hatched,” Holcomb explained. “And I waited until I heard Donald Trump utter Mike Pence’s name before I believed it. There was a pause of the day when he was going to announce it.”
That was July 14, the day Pence flew out to New Jersey after a series of dinners, breakfasts and speeches with Trump in Indiana. That night, Trump seemed to waver, telling Fox News he hadn’t made a “final, final decision.” At about 10:54 a.m. July 15, Trump tweeted that he had chosen Pence, about 66 minutes before Pence would have to withdraw his gubernatorial nomination. “That’s when I believed it,” Holcomb said. “Again, I was going to believe it when I saw it. As you can imagine, my phone starts ringin’ and so I had to make a decision.”
What commenced was a crazy week in Cleveland at the Republican National Convention, where Holcomb and U.S. Reps. Todd Rokita and Susan Brooks twisted arms in hotel alcoves. There would be 22 votes on the Republican Central Committee, and it took 12 to win. He and wife Janet took a couple days to assess. “Then we made a decision to move forward and we were all in,” he said. “We knew there was a lot of support from all corners of the state and we could put together a fast, which would be required. It took the Cubs 108 years to win a World Series and it took us a 106 days to win a governors race.”
Holcomb would win on the second ballot, drawing the vote of Dan Dumezich who was committed to Rokita on the first ballot. He would get a $1.25 million infusion from the Pence campaign out of $7 million raised, and he and campaign manager Mike O’Brien built a pay-as-you-go effort with a 100 percent burn rate. “It was like building the airplane in flight,” Holcomb explained. “It was kind of a bumpy ride. It was tough to land.”
Through it all, he was campaigning, doing the lieutenant governor’s job and filling in for the governor, like that tornadic day in Kokomo. “I never dropping a single spinning plate,” Holcomb said.
The WTHR/Howey Politics Indiana polls showed Holcomb trailing John Gregg by 5 percent in September, 2 percent in October and tied on Nov. 3. Pollster Gene Ulm told me that the presidential race would pull in the next governor. Holcomb watched a Trump/Pence super cell build up and instead of collapsing in a microburst, it blew away everything in its path. Trump would win Indiana by 19 percent, Holcomb by 6 percent.
Being on the ground every day, Holcomb observed, “For any perceived flaw that Trump might have, Hillary was not trusted, and so it was always a comparison. It was always was ‘Do I vote for this new, unpredictable person?’ or ‘Do I vote for the person I know I don’t trust?’” The other thing he noticed was Trump/Pence yard signs were getting ripped off, not by Democrats, but by other Trump supporters. Some resorted by mowing Trump logos in their yards or creating their own signs.
Holcomb has dismounted the tornado in his signature cowboy boots still intact. He has Republican super majorities in the General Assembly and will hammer out a long-term road plan, similar to the 2005-06 Major Moves plan he helped Gov. Mitch Daniels execute as a staffer. On that front last Thursday when he unveiled his five-point agenda, Holcomb addressed a potential gasoline tax hike. “It is important we keep our funding options open.” In contrast, Holcomb was openly against using increased tolling to fund the infrastructure plan. ?
Statehouse Democrats say the coming session will be “the most tax heavy ever,” and after Holcomb's plan was revealed, House Minority Leader Scott Pelath said it “looks like a tough sell.” But Holcomb dismissed the rhetoric from the thin Democratic caucuses, saying, “You get what you pay for and we want to get the most out of it. This is something that needs to be done, so we are looking at every option.” Holcomb said that he expects something to get done this session on the issue, and that “the only option we aren't looking at is doing nothing at all.” ?
Holcomb also intends to confront and solve the drug epidemic of meth, heroin and opioids badgering the state, saying on Thursday that in order to tackle the drug epidemic, he would support locally supported needle exchange programs. “That’s what he decided and this is what I am going to do about needle exchange,” he said. As part of his plan to attack the drug epidemic, Holcomb also promises to create a position within the governor's office to be an executive on the issue.
He intends to avoid the social issues that hobbled Pence. Holcomb is not advocating a statewide LGBT civil rights expansion. Instead, he’s encouraging cities, towns and counties to pass their own.
The winds will continue, flowing out of TrumpWorld. “We’re in unprecedented territory,” Holcomb explained. “I recall in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan was elected and had the inclination to devolve power outside of Washington and push it outside to the states. Now we find ourselves in a situation where our president elect Donald Trump is someone who likes to get the job done and that requires delegation.” Pence views states as innovation centers.
The new governor is prepared to ride the storms once again.
Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana. HPI Statehouse correspondent Thomas Curry contributed to this story.