INDIANAPOLIS – Running for statewide office isn’t easy when you have little name recognition among Indiana’s 4.8 million voters. Just ask Eric Holcomb, who started campaigning in March for next year’s U.S. Senate election.
In a Howey Politics Indiana poll conducted in late April by Bellwether Research, 62 percent of voters said they’d never heard of Holcomb. Those voters won’t go to the polls for months. So Holcomb is going to them. In the first 30 days of his campaign, he traveled to events in 30 cities and towns. He’s pledged to visit all 92 counties before county fair season ends in August.
That’s on top of a promise to shoot a basketball in a high school gym in every county, a goal that you can see he’s well on the way to achieving if you scan his Facebook page.
Holcomb says the pace is exhausting but exhilarating. “Every time you go somewhere and talk to people, not just about their problems but about what they think are solutions, it fuels the rest of your day,” he said.
He reflected over a cool drink on a hot day, having spent a week gathering endorsements and raising money. In seven days, he’d been to more than eight communities on a north-south-north trek that took him from Valparaiso to Vincennes and back again. He was getting ready to attend his 32nd Lincoln Day dinner of the year. He hits the events to court county Republican activists who can help turn out the vote in the May primary.
Holcomb has been all-in since his former boss, U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, announced his intended retirement in March. That set off wild speculation as to who would run, since it creates a rarely open seat that could tip the battle for control of the Senate, where the GOP now has a four-vote majority.
“For a while, I’d thought there’d be more candidates than voters,” jested Holcomb.
The field isn’t that crowded – yet. Only U.S. Congressman Marlin Stutzman has jumped in with Holcomb on Republican side. More will follow.That includes Democrats, too, who are savoring the idea of a messy Republican primary that could threaten the GOP’s hold on the seat.
Stutzman, who challenged the reelection of Rep. John Boehner as House Speaker earlier this year, has long had the backing of the ultra-conservative Club For Growth.
Holcomb, former chairman of the Indiana Republican Party and Coats’ former district director, is seen as the establishment candidate. But that gets ahead of the story. Holcomb is still working on getting people to know his name. Though Holcomb has picked up key endorsements from some party leaders and state lawmakers, his playbook involves a campaign like the one he helped design for Mitch Daniels, a relative unknown when he first ran for governor back in 2003.
That plan had Daniels traveling the state to meet with all kinds of people. It stayed away from divisive social issues and inflammatory rhetoric and focused instead on common worries: Taxes, roads and schools. The plan helped Daniels topple a sitting governor and ended a 20-year streak of Democratic governors.
Back then, there was no place that Holcomb and Daniels wouldn’t go. As his friend and fellow political strategist Cam Savage later wrote in a column for the NUVO weekly newspaper, Holcomb was convinced that Republicans needed to stop ignoring voters who lived in Indiana’s small towns.That’s why he now can be found shooting hoops with voters in old high school gyms, like the one in Oaktown, population 600, where residents raised $40,000 to restore the gym floor and seats.
“It’s really easy to ask Hoosiers, no matter what political stripe, to meet you at the gym, or at the barn, or at a city park, or the YMCA, to shoot hoops,” he said. “It’s amazing the knowledge you’ll pick up there.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden