WASHINGTON – It’s often said in politics that a candidate can learn more from losing than winning. Bill Clinton as the nation’s youngest former governor learned enough from his 1980 loss to win it right back in a rematch. Barack Obama used lessons from his 2000 loss for a U.S. House seat to successfully win a seat in the U.S. Senate four years later.
John Gregg and Glenda Ritz are good examples of both sides of that adage. Former House Speaker Gregg, who started slowly in his 2012 race for governor before losing to Mike Pence in a surprisingly close election, is off to a fast start in a possible re-match. On the other hand, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz thus far seems to have learned the wrong lessons from her stunning victory over incumbent Tony Bennett in 2012.
Gregg visited Washington recently, meeting with the Democratic Governors Association, raising some money, and basking a bit in second quarter fundraising totals that showed him outraising Gov. Pence by about $125,000 this year, though Pence still has significantly more money in the bank. Gregg told a group of supporters at a downtown Washington gathering that last time he tended to opt for attending the small town bean supper over making fundraising calls. As a result of his poor fundraising, he failed to convince the DGA to invest more than nominally in his first race against Pence. Afterward, the DGA conceded, given the closeness of the race, that they might have missed an opportunity to “steal one” from the GOP.
Gregg also seems to have learned lessons in messaging. In his first run, Gregg over-relied on downhome Hoosier themes instead of emphasizing important professional strengths and explaining what he would do differently than Pence. He came across as “not gubernatorial” in his television commercials last time.
Gregg has a wealth of knowledge about how state government works from his days as Speaker of the Indiana House. And, as a former college president, he has an advantage over both Pence and Ritz on the issue of higher education. In 2012, those strengths were obscured by questionable TV ads designed to garner attention and raise his name recognition.
This time Gregg seems totally focused on the message that Indiana deserves better than the ideologically driven and divisive policies of Mike Pence. He is talking about his impressive resume and the policies he would implement to promote job creation, improve education, and bring Hoosiers together.
At the Washington event, Gregg shared some interesting results from focus groups his campaign commissioned just before the RFRA controversy broke. Voters who participated in the focus groups liked Pence personally. But not one of them could cite a single accomplishment of his administration. As the saying goes, Pence’s support before RFRA was a mile wide but an inch deep. Now, as a result of RFRA, what likely sticks out in the minds of most voters is that Mike Pence was clueless about the hazards of RFRA and that he embarrassed Indiana nationally. That negative impression will be difficult to erase.
Indiana’s governor race is on the radar screen of national Democrats this time.The major reason for the enthusiasm obviously stems from Pence’s disastrous handling of RFRA. But Democrats are also clearly pleased with Gregg’s much-improved approach to campaigning.
Campaigns matter. The last time Hoosier Democrats won a governor’s race they were supposed to lose was in 1996.That year Lt. Gov. Frank O’Bannon defeated Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, though overwhelmingly handicappers believed Goldsmith would prevail. O’Bannon won, in large part, because he ran one of the best statewide campaigns in recent memory. Tom New, who skillfully managed the 1996 O’Bannon race, is advising John Gregg this year and apparently Gregg is listening.
Meanwhile, the Ritz campaign is nothing if not puzzling. While it is true that she won her race in 2012 with very little money, she could not possibly believe she can be elected governor without strong fundraising. She apparently hit a roadblock with organized labor and some of the other major Democratic contributors. But it would seem that she could easily raise an amount in six figures or more from her much vaunted statewide grassroots network, if nothing else.
Ritz’s various fundraising and other problems lead inescapably to the conclusion that no one is in charge or in control of her campaign. She has time to turn it around, but the current negative buzz in Indiana political circles makes her task even more difficult.
If Gregg has learned important lessons from his last campaign, the question then is whether Mike Pence has learned the right lessons from both his narrow victory in 2012 and his disastrous handling of the RFRA crisis earlier this year. If he is able to put RFRA behind him and keep his party united, he will be the favorite again. Indiana is a Republican state. It takes unique circumstances or a special candidate for a Democrat to win statewide.
But does Pence understand why his last race was surprisingly close and why he missed signals that could have prevented the RFRA crisis? If not, the Democratic nominee, whoever it is, has a good shot at an upset.
Winning is obviously better than losing. But win or lose, candidates need to understand why they won or lost and take corrective action to improve their chances of winning the next election.
John Gregg seems to be learning the right lessons from 2012. Whether either Glenda Ritz or Mike Pence will remains to be seen.

Sautter is a Democratic consultant based in Washington.