By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – Four days before Gov. Eric Holcomb kicks off his reelection campaign in Knightstown with $7.2 million in cash and 61% approval, he now has a challenger, after Dr. Woody Myers announced he will seek the Democratic nomination. It is the latest launch of a major party gubernatorial campaign in modern Indiana history and it comes as Holcomb is exhibiting historic strength.

Myers staked his candidacy on the notion that the state has had “one party rule” for the past 15 years. “I’m running for governor because Indiana has too many preexisting conditions that typical politicians just can’t treat. And treating tough problems is what I do,”   Myers said in front of the old Wishard Hospital Emergency Room where he treated patients and taught.

The former Indiana and New York City health commissioner vowed to focus on education, health care and job creation. “I learned very early in my career that the people with the best health were the people who got the best health care. The people with the best insurance are the people with the best jobs. And the people with the best jobs are the people with the best education. All Hoosiers deserve the best schools, the best health care and a state that is creating jobs and opportunities for workers and their families faster than wages are rising.

“I think it’s time for a change. It’s been 15 years of one-party rule,” he said told the Journal Gazette. “It’s time for an overhaul in the leadership of our state and time for new ideas to be given a shot. What we’re doing now isn’t working like it should.”

Myers’ career has taken him from Shortridge HS, to Stanford and Harvard universities, Ford Motor Company where he was chief health officer, and then as an investment manager with Myers Ventures LLC. He has been CEO of Corizon Health and was chief health care strategist for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona. He was also chairman of quality assurance at San Francisco General Hospital. 

Knowing that residency issues have risen in an array of campaigns, Myers was asked about his connections to the state. “I never disconnected with Hoosiers,” he said. “Home base is here. My family is still here. I was born and raised here.”

Indiana Republican spokesman Pete Seat reacted, saying, “I know Woody has spent a limited amount of time in Indiana over most of the last two decades, and it showed in remarks today. Coming off of back-to-back years of record job commitments, $1 billion in new investment in K-12 education and the only fully funded infrastructure program in the country, Indiana is on a roll. On the ground, Hoosiers see that Gov. Holcomb is positively impacting lives every day. It may be hard to see from his $4.5 million penthouse in the Conrad, but it’s what Woody will find as he travels across Indiana.”

Republican Gov. Robert D. Orr named Myers the youngest health commissioner and he was reappointed by Democrat Gov. Evan Bayh. He said he oversaw 3,000 employees and a quarter billion dollar budget. His tenure came during the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and Myers carved a national reputation when he stepped in during the Ryan White controversy in Howard County. With White, Myers said, “We didn’t play politics” adding that he worked to “educate” a frightened public and make way for White to join a new school.

Myers said he will not be a self-funding candidate, saying he intends to raise between $15 million and $20 million. He has been a member of the Indiana Democratic Party’s Victory Fund for a number of years.

“I want to be your governor,” Myers said. “For too long, we’ve been satisfied with being good enough. Well, being just good enough is not good enough. Together, you and I can lead Indiana into a new era of prosperity.”

Myers will be facing an incumbent who via Eric Holcomb for Indiana, Friends of Suzanne Crouch, and the Indiana Republican Party has access to a combined $7.230 million cash-on-hand at the close of the June 30 reporting period. This is $2.223 million above the June 2007 record established by Gov. Mitch Daniels enroute to a 58% landslide win in 2008. Lt. Gov. Crouch transferred a record $1 million from her campaign account into the Eric Holcomb for Indiana account, the first time in Indiana history a lieutenant governor has both raised and transferred that much. Team Holcomb with the Indiana Republican Party raised $1.2 million in a single night before the June 30 deadline. 

By comparison, Mike Pence for Indiana had $4.227 million in June 2015, Sue Ellspermann for Lt. Gov. posted  $155,697 and the Indiana Republican Party $153,532 for a total $4.536 million. In June 2007, Mitch for Governor posted $4.146 million, Skillman for Indiana, $153,705 and the Indiana Republican Party $707,829 for a total $5.007 million.

Holcomb approval at 61%

Internal polling for the Holcomb campaign obtained by Howey Politics Indiana gave Holcomb a 61/23% approve/disapprove in surveys from Brice Korengay of BK Strategies. Holcomb’s approval was 68% in Marion County, 67% in the doughnut counties, 61% in the Chicago DMA and 45% among self-identified Democrats. The poll, conducted June 16-18, 2019, surveyed 600 likely 2020 general election voters with a margin of error of +/- 4 percent.

The state’s right/wrong track stood at 54/34%. “In this polarized political environment, the strength and consistency of the governor’s job approval rating, and the right direction numbers, are truly astounding and reflective of a deep appreciation Hoosiers have for the people-centered results Gov. Holcomb and Indiana Republicans are delivering on their behalf,” said Indiana Republican Chairman Kyle Hupfer, who along with his staff is expected to play a major role in the Holcomb reelect. Hupfer told HPI, “We’ll end up at $7.23 million, which is $2.23 million more than Pence and Mitch.”

Holcomb holds wide double-digit leads in hypothetical match-ups against a generic Democrat and two-time Democrat nominee John Gregg, who lost by 5% to Pence in 2012 and by 7% to Holcomb in 2016. Holcomb had a 15% lead over Gregg and a 14% lead over a generic Democrat. Gregg is not expected to seek a third nomination.

Hupfer also left no doubt that Holcomb and Crouch will run as team once again. “No doubt. Suzanne is an unbelievable partner,” he said.

“The governor as you’ve said before is in as strong a position as he can possibly be heading into 2020,” Hupfer said. “The one fact that is key is how well the state is doing. We’ve had back-to-back record years of job creation, infant mortality is going down, opioid issues are being reduced, workforce development issues are running on all cylinders, and people across the state are skilling up and finding new opportunities. Recidivism for prison inmates is going down, so there are positive impacts in the corrections sector for getting those folks back in the workforce.

“The state is firing on all cylinders,” Hupfer continued, “and it’s happening everywhere. You saw the numbers in the Chicago DMA; he’s in The Region making an impact: He’s talking about double-tracking the South Shore and ensuring the dollars are there moving forward; he’s dealt with the East Chicago issues head-on and he spends tremendous amounts of time in Northwest Indiana. At the same time, all across the state he is focused on rural development. He’s found dollars to ensure they’re there to bring broadband to places that have been unserved and vitally need that service. Arguably, when you get past electricity and water, the most necessary service is broadband. 

“He’s looking across the state and making sure that all Hoosiers are being impacted by his policies,” Hupfer said.

“He’s strong and getting stronger,” said GOP Communications Director Pete Seat. “He’s consistent and growing stronger by the day.”

Will there be a Democratic race?

While Myers has officially entered the race, State Rep. Karlee Macer and State Sen. Eddie Melton are still weighing bids. Macer appears to be waiting on a final decision until the second of her children is married in August. Melton is doing a multi-city education listening tour with Republican Supt. Jennifer McCormick, but his exploratory committee is coy when talking about timelines for an official candidacy. As Melton “listens,” Gov. Holcomb is adding to his unprecedented $7 million fundraising advantage.

Don’t be surprised if Myers is the only Democrat in the race by the time of the IDEA confab at French Lick in late August. 

Why? First, Myers could self-fund to an extent (his Conrad Hotel condo is worth a reported $4.5 million), though he told the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette that he will actively be raising funds. Myers put $1 million of his own money into a 2008 congressional caucus race that was ultimately won by U.S. Rep. Andre Carson. At Wednesday’s campaign kickoff, Myers said, “I’m not worried about the money.” His initial goal is raising $15 million, with an eye toward $20 million. “I’m going to do my best to convince the people in the state and the people I have known for years and years to invest in this campaign,” Myers told the Journal Gazette.

Second, Hoosier Democrats have a historic aversion to contested gubernatorial primaries. Since governors could run for two terms beginning in 1972, Matt Welsh, Larry Conrad, John Hillenbrand III, Wayne Townsend, Evan Bayh, Frank O’Bannon and John Gregg were all nomination shoo-ins. 

There were two notable exceptions. The first came in the 2004 cycle when Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan announced in 2002 that he wouldn’t run, assumed the governorship in September 2003 after the death of Gov. O’Bannon, then announced he would seek the nomination after a donnybrook race between State Sen. Vi Simpson and former state and DNC Chairman Joe Andrew. Once Kernan re-entered, Simpson and Andrew withdrew.

The other was the 2008 slugfest between former congresswoman Jill Long Thompson and Jim Schellinger. JLT won the primary by less than 1%, but then lost in a landslide to Gov. Mitch Daniels without much funding. 

Third, both Macer and Melton would have to give up their General Assembly seats to run. Melton is a lock for his Gary seat and the Dems would retain it if he runs for governor. Macer has defended her Speedway seat, but if it opens up, Republicans would have a shot. Super-minority Dems can’t afford to lose any more legislative seats. 

For Melton and Macer, floating a bid this cycle is good politics. One or both still could get in, but neither has any statewide name ID and Myers will almost certainly have a big money advantage after spending years on the party’s fundraising Victory Committee. Flirting with a run this cycle puts their names out in the gubernatorial context, setting up potential runs in 2024 when the seat will likely be open.

Indiana Democratic Chairman John Zody told HPI on Wednesday that the party is content to let a multi-candidate race take shape. “I’m here today to support a Democratic andidate for governor,” Zody said. “We’re going to let this play out.”

It’s tough to beat an incumbent governor

The other dynamic in play is how hard it is to defeat an incumbent governor. Kernan was defeated for two reasons: He lost almost 18 months when he decided he’d rather return to South Bend than run. And Mitch Daniels was the most gifted and transformative politician of the era, whether it was fundraising, orchestrating his own media, writing his own speeches, executing asset management issues, unleashing innovative policy and easily interacting with everyone from nuclear physicists to organized labor officials, mayors, evangelicals, farmers and Joe Sixpacks.

Holcomb conveys an affable, happy warrior persona. He’s had the benefit of General Assembly super majorities during his entire first term (something no other modern governor has experienced), coming at a time when the Indiana Democratic Party has retreated to the state’s major metropolitan areas and college towns. He sits on a huge war chest, gets to name his own superintendent of public instruction, and has Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump in place to help rally the GOP base next year.

If there are ointment flies, it has been his falling out with Attorney General Curtis Hill over sexual harassment allegations, and Supt. McCormick bolting the fold. Holcomb called for Hill to resign after the allegations surfaced in July 2018. Hill has resisted and is seeking a second term, though he remains ostracized by the institutional wing of the party. Team Holcomb is not actively opposing Hill for the nomination, learning from Gov. Daniels 2008 convention when he backed Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas over Greg Zoeller, who easily won the nomination.

As for Supt. McCormick, Hupfer said that both he and Gov. Holcomb were unaware of her plans not to seek reelection last fall. “Nobody did,” he said. Her teaming up with Sen. Melton is an overt political act which contradicts her reason for not seeking reelection, which was that education was becoming too political.

“Jennifer has, perhaps, mischaracterized exactly what the activities she’s involved in,” Hupfer said. “I ran the Department of Natural Resources. I traveled the state because I knew what the people think in Gary may not be what folks are thinking in New Albany or Boonville. So I encourage all of our elected officials to travel and listen across the state. No one exemplifies this better than our own governor. If this was an official action, if she was out with Sen. Melton or with any other Republican or Democrat in a bipartisan nature, I would be all for it. But this is not an official listening tour. These are campaign-funded and campaign-organized, and campaign-related functions, so they are political. They are not official actions. So, some of the statements she’s put out have sort of characterized these as official actions of her office and I just think that’s an inaccuracy.”

Has Hupfer talked with McCormick? “I’ve left her a message,” he said. “My phone call was not returned.”

For the record, HPI asked DOE spokesman Adam Baker if McCormick was still a Republican. Baker responded, “She hasn’t said otherwise.” Is she open to a Melton/McCormick ticket? “That’s premature,” Baker said. “That’s not even in the discussion.”