Mark Souder: Competing blank slates in the governors race
Tuesday, August 30, 2016 9:42 AM
FORT WAYNE – The challenge of this year’s gubernatorial election is different. Contrary to feelings inside most campaign bubbles, almost no one is paying attention and few voters care about the race. This helps both Eric Holcomb and John Gregg because both begin as relative unknowns to most but party loyalists. Name identification is not the same as having an image attached to it.
It helps Holcomb because attempts by Gregg to connect him to Mike Pence don’t work except to appeal to hard-core Democrats. The obsession with all things Trump, and secondarily with all things Hillary, means that voters at this point connect Pence with Trump. While Trump/Pence could lose in Indiana, it certainly doesn’t appear so and my guess is that Indiana would be one of the last states to go even in a Democrat tsunami. So why would you tie Holcomb to Pence?
What could matter, if Holcomb capitalizes upon it, are his even closer ties to Mitch Daniels. Daniels is a popular and respected figure, possibly more in memory than at the time. It would make Gregg appear to be running against both Pence and Daniels.
On the other hand, Gregg has a different problem than Holcomb. For someone who served in his first elective office 42 years ago and was Indiana House speaker in the last century, he also remains a relative blank slate. He is the caricature of an “old boy Indiana politician” to those who can identify him. Part of the reason is because Gregg chose to run an ad campaign the last time he ran for governor that positioned himself that way.
Gregg also cannot escape that he has been and is a Hillary guy in a state where Hillary people aren’t overwhelmingly popular. In other words, Gregg’s blank slate can be filled with things that do repel voters including his past record.
Thus Gregg has tried a couple of things. One is to act like he is running for superintendent of education. Glenda Ritz has been a remarkably incompetent superintendent of education, but as any observer knows, the school voucher program is popular among those who utilize it and hated by those aligned in any way with the public schools. Politically that is important because in Indiana, many of those teachers, school board members and PTA leaders are Republicans. They didn’t elect Ritz; they ousted Bennett. It is the same governing result but it is not the same thing politically.
Anger often does not have coattails. If it did, 80-year-old Republican senators would not have been renominated in the same primaries as Trump. For an “angry voter” year in both parties, most incumbents survived at an incredibly high rate and by large margins. Furthermore, in my time in Indiana politics I seldom saw a more vicious backlash than against both Mourdock and Bennett. Yet Gregg somehow managed to lose last time.
Evan Bayh’s attempt to rescue the Indiana Democrats is another matter. Peggy Noonan once memorably wrote about Jack Kemp that a sign of his political weakness was that the applause when he was introduced was greater than at the end of his speech. Bayh may be facing that problem upon his return to Indiana. Residency in Washington, his and Susan’s lobbying ties, and the fact that he had previously sought to be Hillary’s vice presidential choice lead me to this prediction: Bayh will continue to weaken until election day. The only questions are whether there is time for Todd Young, with this presidential campaign sucking out all the oxygen, to overcome the initial Bayh enthusiasm and whether Bayh’s huge dollar advantage can knock down Young faster than Young can introduce himself.
For John Gregg, without Bayh he was toast. With Bayh, he has a chance. By most accounts, Gregg is a likable man and is competent. He’s just a liberal and a weak candidate.
Eric Holcomb has a better than even chance to win this race but he has a few challenges. The most obvious is funding, since he entered late and fundraising has not been his strength. Holcomb is best at meeting people, getting out among the folks and impressing party stalwarts. Both Daniels and Pence did that well, but also were aggressive at shaking their checkbooks lose. A key variable, both for Holcomb and Pence, will be whether the funds Pence collected to run for governor will be diverted to the presidential race or a future Pence fund in imitation of Evan Bayh’s pot of gold. Was it a Pence fund or a fund to elect a Republican governor of Indiana? This will impact Holcomb as much as any other variable.
It seems obvious that Suzanne Crouch should be more prominently featured, including in ads with Holcomb. Crouch is marginally better known than Holcomb, and is a superior candidate compared to Gregg’s running mate. Usually the candidate for lieutenant governor is not especially important, and tradition would say that an unknown gubernatorial candidate needs to spend the money on defining himself and his opponent.
But Holcomb is just too unknown too late in the race to fully build a complete image. Furthermore, Crouch helps cover one of the greatest vulnerabilities of the GOP right now. She also has a proven record of governing and is a strong campaigner. Utilization of Crouch needs to be done now, as the Holcomb-Crouch team, when the voters hopefully began to pay some attention post-Labor Day to statewide races. If Trump starts to melt down, Crouch is the most likely person to help blunt a collapse from spreading, but you can’t do that just in the last days and expect it to work.
The Indiana statewide races are most likely to again be close. Young is showing creative aggressiveness in the Senate race. Holcomb needs to do the same in the gubernatorial race. In spite of the looming national Trump debacle, it still looks like a potentially good Republican year in Indiana. For Indiana Democrats, if they get swept this year, they are looking at an abyss.
Souder is a former Republican congressman.