INDIANAPOLIS – Democrat John Gregg met with an influential group of black pastors on Monday with plans to sell them on his jobs and education proposals, two big items in his standard pitch.
Their first question wasn’t about his campaign for governor but instead what he thought of Gov. Mike Pence’s debut as Donald Trump’s running mate on “60 Minutes” the night before. “I didn’t even know he was on ‘60 Minutes,’” Gregg responded with exasperation. “I’m too laser-focused on my campaign.”
The former speaker of the state House of Representatives, now making his second bid for governor, wishes others were, too. Instead, in what Gregg described as a “media frenzy,” much of the attention over the last week has focused on his former opponent’s departure from the governor’s race.The campaign is now awash in speculation over who the GOP’s hand-picked replacement for Pence will be.
As the governor flew on a private jet to Cleveland to attend the Republican National Convention, where he was scheduled to speak Wednesday night, Gregg was telling reporters back home that his campaign strategy is locked in place. “I’ve always been running for governor and never running against Mike Pence,” he said. “And that’s what I’ll be doing, if it was Mike Pence or whomever the Republicans pick in their smoke-filled back room.”
Pence’s move last week to join Trump’s presidential ticket, and pull his name from the state ballot, touches off an historic event. For the first time, the 22-member Republican State Central Committee will choose the party’s nominee for governor. The committee is scheduled to meet July 26.
Already committee members, many of whom are in Cleveland for the GOP’s national convention, are being wooed by three leading candidates to replace Pence. They are Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb and U.S. Reps Todd Rokita and Susan Brooks.
Whoever fills the slot will force Gregg to make adjustments. He’s been critical of the first-term governor during his campaign. Gregg supporters have littered Pence-related appearances with “Fire Mike Pence” signs, in hopes of tapping a public mood that is measurably down on Pence. Gregg has distanced himself from the mantra. “Those were never our signs,” he said Monday.
Still, some see the loss of Pence from the race as trouble for Gregg. Republican pollster Christine Matthews said Pence not being on the ballot leaves Gregg in a canoe without paddle. “Not having Pence at the top of the ticket, I think will ensure a Republican governor,” she said.
In a May poll, Matthews’ Bellwether Research found Pence’s approval rating had fallen to 40 percent, with only 36 percent saying he merited reelection. Much of the unhappiness came from independents and moderate Republicans, groups that Gregg said he’s still working hard to woo. In a Statehouse dominated by Republicans, a Democrat hasn’t held the governor’s office since 2004.
Gregg sees himself in a stronger position now than where he was four years ago, when he lost to Pence by less than tthree percentage points. His statewide television ads, for example, went up in May this year. Back in 2012, he couldn’t afford TV ads until the fall.
As of July 1, Gregg had already raised $8.6 million, $2 million more than he spent on the 2012 campaign in total.
On Tuesday, the Democratic Governors Association announced it was pouring another $500,000 into the Gregg campaign, saying the now-open seat leaves him in a stronger position. But even in making the announcement, Elizabeth Pearson, the association’s director, raised the specter of Pence. She said “whichever Republican emerges will be saddled with Pence’s baggage.”
Ball State University political science professor Joe Losco said Gregg has work to do to disconnect his campaign from an anti-Pence message. “He’s got to show Hoosiers his campaign is about more than just one individual. That’s pretty darn hard right now, since he doesn’t know yet who’s going to oppose him,” he said.
Aspirants for the role have until 72 hours before the state Republican committee meets to make their ambitions known. Though Holcomb, Brooks and Rokita have emerged as front-runners, none has the cash on hand that Gregg does. As of late June, both Brooks and Rokita each had just over $1 million in campaign funds that could be transferred to the governor’s race. Holcomb had just over $20,000 left from earlier run for U.S. Senate – a race he abandoned when he was appointed lieutenant governor to fill the post vacated by Sue Ellspermann.
Losco said money is likely to come rolling in once a nominee is picked. That could include money from Pence, who had more $7 million in campaign cash when he left the race.
None of the three top contenders has the kind of name recognition that Pence had with voters, but each could appeal to Republican committee members for different reasons.
Holcomb is a well-liked former party chairman. Rokita is a former secretary of state. Both are seen as willing to carry on with Pence’s fiscal conservatism. Brooks, a former U.S. attorney, could make inroads with women, whom Pence alienated with his record on social issues.
“Gregg is now a known commodity,” Losco said. “Whoever it is will have their work cut out for them.”