By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – Has there been such a thing as a slam-dunk reelection for an Indiana governor?

This question is posed as Gov. Eric Holcomb and First Lady Janet are in the midst of their deliberations on whether he will seek a second term. On the face of it, the notion that Holcomb wouldn’t run would be a stunner. Republican Chairman Kyle Hupfer told HPI on Monday, “He’s publicly said he and Janet will spend some time talking and thinking about things. That will happen on his own timeline. As a state chair, he’s done the work and had achievement that should he desire, he’d been in a strong position.

“I would be very disappointed if he didn’t seek a second term,” Hupfer said. Short of that silly “rumor” that he was on a short list to become ambassador to Italy, it’s hard to fathom Holcomb not seeking a second term. He purports no national ambition at this point in his career and appears to enjoy every aspect of the job. Not only that, but he’s in about as strong a position as an incumbent governor could find.

Holcomb has no credible primary challenger (sorry, Curtis Hill), nor is there an obvious Democrat lining up, though Dr. Woody Myers has told HPI he is seriously considering a run, and we also hear that former congressman Baron Hill and two-time nominee John Gregg haven’t ruled out running. Democratic Chairman John Zody met with those three, along with, sources say, 2016 lieutenant governor nominee Christina Hale and State Rep. Karlee Macer to sort out a potential candidate. 

Macer sent out a press release Wednesday under the guise of “Karlee for Indiana” organization assailing the Holcomb administration over the $775,000 in misused Department of Veteran Affairs funds. “It looks like the fox is watching the hen house,” Macer said. “The culture of corruption and blind governing that has emerged from our decade-long Republican free-for-all calls for a systemic change.”

Elise Shrock, who sent out the Macer release, told HPI, “She’s definitely taking under consideration a run for govenor. She’s humbled to be put in that circle.”

Sources say Democrats are weighing whether to go the more traditional moderately conservative path that has been the course since Evan Bayh, or to mirror a more progressive route that could matchup better with the party’s presidential nominee.

Myers is the only one to acknowledge to HPI he’s weighing a bid. Republicans believe his career as a venture capitalist who has made millions off the health care sector would be an inviting target. Another Republican noted, “Not many voters remember Ryan White,” a reference to Myers’ influential role on behalf of the young Howard County boy who suffered from AIDS and Myers’ role as state health commissioner a generation ago. 

Holcomb sits on more than $4 million in campaign funds, Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch adds another $815,000 in her campaign account, and the governor just achieved what Hupfer calls a “clean sweep” during his second biennial budget session with the help of two GOP super majorities where he is widely respected, and is poised to pick his own superintendent of public instruction. 

Holcomb presides over a state with historic employment and job investment and creation, he’ll likely have Vice President Mike Pence on the ticket in the 2020 presidential race, President Trump still influences Indiana election outcomes as he did with the 2018 U.S. Senate race, and the governor’s approve/disapprove stood at 54/24% in an online We Ask America Poll released late last week.

Unprecedented attributes

Since governors could serve a second consecutive term beginning in 1976, these reelection prospect attributes are nearly unprecedented. 

In Gov. Doc Bowen achieved his property tax reforms and was a distinct favorite for reelection heading into 1976, yet the 1974 Watergate sweep had left him with the lone Democratic Indiana Senate in the past half-century, popular Secretary of State Larry Conrad waited in the wings (though he would be dogged by reports of his “master plan”), and President Gerald Ford was not only vulnerable, but would lose at the top of the 1976 ticket to Democrat Jimmy Carter. Bowen would earn a second term with a 56.8% to 42.6% victory.

In 1984, Gov. Robert D. Orr was two years removed from instigating the largest tax increase in state history to stave off a severe recession and oil shocks, and faced Democrat State Sen. Wayne Townsend. President Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign and the laggardly challenge from former vice president Walter Mondale gave Orr enough of a tailwind to prevail 52%-47%, the most narrow reelection victory.

Of all the governors, Democrat Evan Bayh was, perhaps, the best positioned for a second term in 1992. But he served with a 50/50 House and had to deal with a Republican Indiana Senate, had to run while Vice President Dan Quayle was on the GOP ticket. Bayh faced Attorney General Linley Pearson, who won an easy primary over Supt. H. Dean Evans and businessman John Johnson, but then Pearson self-destructed at the Republican convention when his choice for lieutenant governor was rejected by delegates, prompting him to almost quit the race. He didn’t recover from that episode and never really had a chance. Bayh had the most emphatic reelection, defeating Pearson 62% to 39.9%.

Gov. Frank O’Bannon was favored to win reelection in 2000, but after a strong first General Assembly session in 1997 in which he forged a new arena for the Indiana Pacers along with a workers compensation increase, O’Bannon struggled with a court challenge to the state’s property tax system and faced a widely recruited GOP rising star, U.S. Rep. David McIntosh. O’Bannon prevailed 56.5% to 41.6% after McIntosh stumbled over a proposed 25% tax cut that the incumbent’s campaign ably discredited.

Finally, Gov. Mitch Daniels entered his 2008 reelect with his approval falling into the lower 40th percentile, in part due to his controversial lease of the Indiana Toll Road. He ran in tandem with presidential candidate Barack Obama, who created a sensation in the state and actually carried Indiana’s 11 Electoral College votes. But Daniels benefited from an intense Democratic primary race where Jill Long Thompson defeated current Commerce Sec. Jim Schellinger by less than 1%. She was unable to capitalize on her narrow primary victory, struggling on issues and fundraising, allowing Daniels to win a second term 57.8% to 40.1% amidst an array of ticket-splitting.

Daniels defeated the only incumbent, Gov. Joe Kernan in 2004, in a race that was an anomaly. Lt. Gov. Kernan was expected to run in 2004, but left the race in late 2002 over a row with Gov. O’Bannon over the selection of Peter Manous as Democratic state chairman. Manous was later indicted and convicted, O’Bannon died of a stroke in September 2003, and Kernan reentered the race later that year, but never regained the momentum needed to stave off the former White House budget director.

“He’s done a really good job since he was elected,” Hupfer said of Holcomb. “He puts people first and it’s consistent with his agenda theme. He tries to make the main thing the main thing. He’s just come through an important session with a lot of critical issues on the agenda and achieved a clean sweep across the board.”

Hupfer said that Holcomb “has not taken steps” to build a campaign, though the “Holcomb For Indiana” entity sent an email from Holly Gillham Lawson commenting on the We Ask America Poll. Hupfer has kept together the core of Holcomb’s 100-day campaign from 2016 that was managed by Mike O’Brien. Matt Huckleby, Pete Seat and Mindy Colbert have worked for the Indiana Republican Party. “Matt, Pete and Mindy are a political trifecta,” Hupfer said in early 2017.

In that release, Hupfer said, “Above all else, Hoosiers value results from their leaders, and this poll shows that Hoosiers see results from Gov. Eric Holcomb. Under Gov. Holcomb’s leadership, Indiana is the fiscal envy of the nation, but it doesn’t stop there. Indiana is home to record job commitments, record infrastructure investments, new workforce development opportunities and a state government that is becoming leaner and more responsive to the needs of Hoosiers. These results are resonating in Hoosiers’ lives, and they overwhelmingly approve of the leadership Gov. Holcomb is providing.”

We Ask America’s analysis of the poll’s results says that Gov. Holcomb’s “reelection looks all but guaranteed” and that “Gov. Holcomb is on the cusp of running away with his own reelection.”

Hupfer emphasized that in the Holcomb era, the GOP has been a “seamless effort,” explaining, “We’ve run things in conjunction with state party. In the 2018 election cycle, everything was seamless, whether it was the congressional campaigns, Mike Braun’s Senate race, the RNC, House Republicans, or the Senate Majority Campaign. We were all pulling in the same direction. It was one team and one focus.”

Should Holcomb decide to seek a second term — and we’re not expecting to be knocked over by feathers — the modus operandi will be obvious. All he’ll need is a Democrat to run against.