INDIANAPOLIS  – In the autumn of 2010, Hoosier Republicans faced an uncomfortable dilemma. Two of their leaders were in conversations about who the party’s 2012 presidential nominee would be. There was Gov. Mitch Daniels, who was two years hence from a 58% reelection victory on the same night Barack Obama carried Indiana’s 11 Electoral College votes, and eight years away from his two-year stint as President George W. Bush’s budget director.

And there was U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, a darling of the social conservative movement, who had once been a disciplined deficit hawk and whose famous calling card had been, “I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican in that order.”

The two were on a collision course to be played out on the national stage, until party kingmakers cleared the way for Pence to run for Indiana governor in 2012, a post that would give the congressman four to eight years to bone up on the requisite “executive” experience. Daniels was to be the Hoosier to run for president. The man with the front row seat to all of this was Eric Holcomb.

It was Daniels’ deputy chief of staff, his former reelection campaign manager, who in May 2011 would inform the press and soon-to-be disheartened Republicans that “President Daniels” would be consigned to a future at Purdue University, and not the United States.

For many Daniels/Lugar Republicans, this was the precursor to a decade of volatile GOP presidential politics. They, and Daniels, believed he could win the 2012 presidential nomination. Daniels believed that, though he now doesn’t believe he could have topped President Obama. In what they had hoped to be a second Daniels presidential term, after he had reined in and reformed the nation’s sprawling entitlement dilemma, in 2016 the void was filled by Donald J. Trump, with Gov. Mike Pence as his dutiful running mate. The two would transform Republican and American politics and, indeed, the world. But not in a good way.

Today the Trump/Pence reelection bid is taking on water faster than the Titanic. Entitlement reform hasn’t been broached in the past five years. Instead, a wicked pandemic has spawned 150,000 American deaths, with 25% of the worldwide COVID deaths (with just 4% of the population) coming in a nation that in 2019 was considered the Lamborghini of medical research and systems.

Trump and Pence are trailing by double digits in most national polls, and over the past week are behind in just about every battleground state, save Ohio. They trail or are even with Joe Biden in “red states” like Texas, Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia.

After a week in which President Trump appeared to turn the corner on the simple but most effective way of tamping down the pandemic (wearing a face mask), he reverted to previous form. He retweeted a video of Dr. Stella Immanuel, who states, “You don’t need masks, there is a cure.” She advocated the debunked notion of the cure (hydroxychloroquine). “I think they’re very respected doctors,” Trump said, adding they believed in the drug. “There was a woman who was spectacular in her statements about it.” Pence met Immanuel’s group in Texas on Wednesday.

In an Axios interview that same day, Trump acknowledged that in eight conversations with Russian President Putin, he never once broached the subject of a late February item in the President’s Daily Briefing, that the Kremlin had instigated bounties for Taliban killers of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. “I have never discussed it with him,” Trump said, adding that the report “never reached my desk.” Which was another of his 20,000-plus lies.

In the midst of President Trump’s self-produced American carnage, with his and Vice President Pence’s blood in the water stirring the sharks, there is already speculation as to what happens to the post-Trump Republican Party. Who should the party turn to in 2024?

Many expect that a Hoosier will be at the center of the speculation. But like the early winter days of 2010, the Grand Old Party might want to shift its focus from the vice president, to another Indiana governor.

Eric J. Holcomb.

A tale of 2 pandemics

Unlike Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan or Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, Holcomb has not become a Sunday morning pandemic media star.

In fact, Wednesday’s Thomas Friedman column in the New York Times became the first notable national exposure for Holcomb. “Our future archaeologists would also be right to focus on face masks, because the early intense resistance by pro-Trump Republican leaders and faithful to wearing them was the distilled essence of how far off track today’s GOP and its enabling media ecosystem have drifted,” Friedman explained. “In that sense it was yet another stark reminder that we can’t be at our best as a country – as we need to be most in a pandemic – without a principled conservative party, grounded in science, not just cultural markers and mindless, kneejerk libertarianism. We have a way to go. Forbes reported last week that ‘of the 19 states that have yet to issue a mask mandate, 18 are run by Republican governors.’ But let’s give a small shout-out to Republican governors Larry Hogan of Maryland, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Eric Holcomb of Indiana and Kay Ivey of Alabama, who have been or become pro-mask. It is not only good for their states’ physical health but also the country’s political health.”

The Holcomb governorship has been widely seen as a success. He is on a course for a landslide win in November, probably eclipsing Daniels’ 58% victory in 2008. That it comes during a probable Democratic wave is notable. He has become Indiana’s most powerful modern governor, consolidating his cabinet to include an appointed superintendent of public instruction for the first time in history. He presided over the pandemic-induced economic hit with a $2.3 billion budget surplus, of which $900 million has been absorbed. He has a fully-funded road program for the next decade.

He has weathered the pandemic in good shape, successfully inducing Hoosiers to shut down the economy for nearly three months in March, gradually reopening it in June and July, though he stopped the state in the final Stage 5 earlier this month after a second spike of the first pandemic wave, and extended it to Aug. 27 on Wednesday. He became the third Republican governor to issue a mask mandate after weeks of messaging Hoosiers that it was the most effective and inexpensive way to mitigate COVID-19.

While Holcomb has taken some heat for reopening the state’s economy too quickly, he and his team have successfully kept intensive care unit bed availability in the mid-40th percentile, and ventilator capacity in the mid-80th percentile.

Last Friday at Marian University, Gov. Holcomb and Vice President Pence appeared together and seemed to be in sync. Pence was in the midst of a weeks-long mission to have public schools fully reopen. Holcomb has taken a more nuanced approach, allowing local educators and school boards to forge an array of hybrid plans.

Contrast with Gov. Pence

Holcomb’s gubernatorial legacy offers a sharp contrast to Gov. Pence, who grabbed Donald Trump’s political lifeline in July 2016. Pence’s reelection bid was in trouble when he availed himself to the Trump ticket.

Perhaps the most ambitious Hoosier in a generation, his decision to run for governor in 2012 was all about resume-building to prepare for national office. He would run, serve a term or two if it had to be that way, then run nationally in 2016 or 2020, just as he had pondered a 2012 presidential campaign until the Mitch Daniels specter persuaded him otherwise. He was the first modern governor to be elected with less than 50% of the vote.

As governor, you could see Pence systemically checking off the boxes needed for a national resume. He pushed for the income tax cut in 2013, but was constrained by Republican legislative leaders who didn’t want to be forced to raise taxes during the next recession. He pulled out of Common Core. He signed social legislation designed to curry favor with the evangelicals and pro-life activists. He went a bridge too far with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, where his communication skills suffered a temporary lapse. His administration appeared to lack direction. Statehouse lobbyists and lawmakers had little fear of crossing him. There were embarrassing staff lapses from the JustIN propaganda proposal to blind-siding legislative leaders with a third $42 million Regional Cities option. Regional Cities was sold as an enduring Pence legacy that has since been mothballed.

By 2015 Gov. Pence’s approval rating as governor fell from 60% into the 40th percentile.

In the Dec. 15, 2016, edition of Howey Politics Indiana, I wrote: “Many Hoosiers I know are amazed at the transformation of a mediocre governor who has been thrust into a worldwide power center. But history is full of these episodes, of Napoleon escaping a disastrous invasion of Egypt, only to arrive in Paris with a few too many heads rolling away from the guillotine and a gaping power vacuum. This is what we now know about Vice President-elect Pence. This is a man who played his political cards adroitly. Pence raced toward a power vacuum when others fled in the opposite direction. While dozens of heavyweight Republicans told the Trump veep searchers to bug off, Pence not only came to the table, he flew out to Teterboro to retrieve the prize as it flickered. It was an absolute roll of the dice. Had Trump flicked Pence away with a ‘get him outta here’ and gone with Christie or a Newt, the governor’s political career would have been in shambles.”

South Bend Tribune columnist Jack Colwell observed in that same edition of HPI, “Holcomb, conservative but not so much an ideologue, is more in the mold of former Gov. Mitch Daniels, for whom he served as a key staff member and campaign manager. Holcomb will get along with Republican leaders in the General Assembly much better than Pence ever did. They work together now on a way to implement a major infrastructure program. Things never envisioned at the start of 2016 came Holcomb’s way: Named lieutenant governor to fill a surprise vacancy. Selected as governor nominee after Pence was picked for vice president. Elected governor over a Democratic front-runner with help of the Trump tsunami. What now? Holcomb is qualified for governor. And he isn’t seeking as governor to establish qualifications for president.”

Governors and presidents

In this final edition of HPI’s 25th year, a conclusion reached is that men who enter the Indiana governorship intent on using it as a stepping stone to the White House tend to rule through that prism, limiting their effectiveness. Pence and Evan Bayh fit that profile, though Bayh was a more effective governor than Pence. Both fall short of Govs. Doc Bowen and Robert Orr, who had more enduring legacies.

Gov. Daniels didn’t use the Indiana governorship to achieve a national goal as nakedly as Bayh and Pence, who were extremely cautious about using their political capital on controversial projects. Daniels ruled with the notion that any unexpended political capital was wasted, and he used it to achieve his Major Moves road program, a shift to Daylight Savings Time, the constitutional referendum on property tax caps and school funding projects; and his 2011 education reforms.

Holcomb served as a chief lieutenant of Daniels and writes extensively about it in his 2012 book, “Leading the Revolution: Lessons from the Mitch Daniels Era.”

Holcomb writes: “From a national recession and tight budgets that result from the tough times, to major floods and tornadoes, the public considers how officials handle crises in deciding who will earn their votes. As much as the disasters themselves, the official responses to Exxon Valdez and Katrina were forever etched into the American memory. As I have said before, we learn from mistakes what works and what does not work. Unfortunate as they were, these crises taught anyone who was paying attention that the nation cannot afford to fumble and make mistakes of this magnitude again.”

Under Trump and Pence, who heads the White House coronavirus task force, the prevailing view is that the national response has been bungled and kicked to the 50 states. Trump’s own words, heard over a mortality graphic in a Lincoln Project TV ad, lays out in searing detail how this administration has mishandled this crisis.

In another passage, Holcomb observes, “Great leaders are voracious learners who never stop questing for more information and are not moored to the past. They are led by facts, not rumors of blind faith in someone else’s reputation. Therefore, it is paramount to trust your team and to know that their research on any topic is solid, prior to spouting off about what you think. Remember, you will rarely, if ever, have 100% of all the information you need to make the toughest calls. If you are not learning from those surrounding you, it is time to retool the team. Everyone around you should know you are constantly taking the pulse, assessing the news of the day, and have multiple reference points.”

Holcomb’s book focused on how Daniels operated as governor provides not only a working outline of Holcomb’s gubernatorial administration, but a sharp contrast with how Vice President Pence operates. 

Among the key observations:

Create your own conventional wisdom; do not let it define you.

Ideas, facts and substance matter; do not be afraid to communicate them creatively.

Do not rely on polling to dictate your direction. It is good to learn from it, but build your own compass.

Through unwavering dedication to your core beliefs you will be afforded tomorrow’s political capital to spend on future projects. The political account balance of your accumulated political capital will provide you strength and thus frame you as a strong or weak leader.

Do not be politically afraid to take on hot-button issues in pursuit of making government work.

If at first you do not succeed, do not quit. Be willing to fail (temporarily).

Sell, sell, sell ... then sell again. Selling public policy is like playing volleyball and requires at minimum three actions: 1. Set. 2. Spike. 3. Follow through.

Focus relentlessly on results; measure everything. Protectors of the status quo do not take a day off; neither can champions for reform. Mitch always said, “If you are not keeping score, you’re just practicing. What gets measured gets done.” This has become a hallmark of the Holcomb administration’s pandemic response.

Do not take the bait; stay disciplined and positive.

Let yourself go and take calculated risks. Mitch stayed in homes rather than hotels so he would have down time with individuals and, incidentally, where he might get some real nitty gritty experiences far away from special interest groups.

Plan your path to victory. In Mitch’s case, having a road map for Indiana’s comeback meant he earned a reputation as an idea generator. Keep your message easy to understand; play through your team’s strengths and weaknesses, your opponents will; envision and articulate what your destiny is.

Holcomb’s future

Gov. Holcomb will only be 56 years old when he is likely to leave office in early 2025, should he defeat Democrat Woody Myers in November. Unless U.S. Sen. Todd Young decides to run for governor in 2024 (he’s up for reelection in 2022) or Sen. Mike Braun retires in 20224, there is no elective future for the governor in the state.

That’s why we speculate on a 2024 presidential run.

Two-term Indiana governors often face a split screen. Gov. Orr experienced the Oil Shock recession in his first term, survived a narrow reelection, then used his political capital for his A-Plus education reforms. Govs. Frank O’Bannon and Daniels presided over sharp economic downturns in their second terms.

Holcomb’s first term was one of historic contrast, going from a 3.2% jobless rate in February to 16.9% in April and 11.2% in May. With the pandemic’s persistence likely to continue into the first year or two of a potential second term, it’s impossible to know what is in store for him.

But he has ruled while closely adhering to the Daniels playbook he outlined in 2012. It has the potential to set him up for something bigger in 2024. We know from Don Cogman’s book that the Daniels presidential flirtation had been set in motion for a couple of years, despite his frequent denials to the press.

Holcomb went from a third place U.S. Senate candidate in 2016, to an unexpected lieutenant governor selection and nomination, and then his implausible Republican Central Committee win for the nomination and his epic and successful 100-day campaign that brought him to the governorship.

With four years of Republican General Assembly super majorities, and his on-going reelection bid amidst of a pandemic, that he follow up with an improbable presidential run in 2024 makes sense, if he wants it.

Historically strong and reform-minded Indiana governors, from Democrat Paul McNutt to Republican Daniels, have been poised to play in the presidential arena. It might be time for Hoosier Republicans to begin to wrap their minds around such a scenario with this particular governor.