INDIANAPOLIS  – The worst kept secret in Indiana politics finally came out Wednesday: Todd Rokita is running for attorney general.

“I can bring certainty in uncertain times,” Rokita said after he filed on the final day to qualify for the virtual convention that will occur in WISH-TV studios on June 18 and broadcast statewide. That comes the day after Attorney General Curtis Hill returns from his 30-day suspension over sexual harassment allegations.

Rokita said he waited “out of respect” for the incumbent, but the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision to suspend Hill for 30 days brought him into the race. “I’m the only one in this race that has won twice statewide. I’m tested,” Rokita said. “The others have to promise what they’re going to do in office. I have a record.”

Rokita brings the field to four, joining Hill, Decatur County Prosecutor Nathan Harter, and Zionsville attorney John Westercamp. It will play out much differently than Rokita’s break-through four-ballot 2002 convention win for secretary of state, or Hill’s defeat of former attorney general Steve Carter, State Sen. Randy Head and Abby Kuzma over three ballots in 2016.

Those fights came during a physical convention with the ebb and flow that included nomination speeches and floor strategies. This one will play out over the next four weeks via phone calls, texts, emails and glitchy Zoom conferences. There will be intense delegate battles that are playing out in places like Hamilton County, where elected officials are endorsing specific delegates, an indicator of heightened interest.

Instead of an organic mix of shifting support between ballots, the 1,700 delegates will have filled out ballots due on July 9 that will designate first-ballot votes along with second and third choices.

In addition to his 2002 convention win, Rokita finished third in the July 2016 Republican Central Committee caucus for governor. In that race, Eric Holcomb wound up with 11 first-ballot votes, U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks had nine and Rokita had two votes, with informed and reliable sources telling HPI that Dan Dumezich and Dan Dernulc backed the congressman. On the second ballot, Dumezich switched to Holcomb, securing the nomination in unprecedented fashion.

The key figures behind Holcomb’s win were Barnes & Thornburg managing partners Bob Grand and Brian Burdick. Grand has been instrumental in a number of critical decisions for Indiana Republicans for the first two decades of this century. Grand formed the Phoenix Group that wrestled control of the GOP to Jim Kittle, setting the stage for Mitch Daniels to win the governorship in 2004. He backed and led Rokita’s floor fight in 2002. He helped clear Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman out of the 2012 gubernatorial race which set the stage for U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, and a potential Daniels presidential run.

Grand helped engineer Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann’s resignation and Ivy Tech landing spot in 2016, and sources say he backed Holcomb, then running third in money and polls in the 2016 U.S. Senate race, for lieutenant governor.
And with Gov. Pence’s campaign funds tied up, convinced the future vice president to back Holcomb, who won on the second ballot.

As HPI reported in the July 28, 2016, edition: “Holcomb ended up with the support of the financial tandem of Grand and Dan Dumezich. As Brooks gained momentum late last week – something Grand says didn’t happen – sources say that Grand helped orchestrate a series of endorsements that included Pence, Sen. Dan Coats and National Committeewoman Marsha Coats, National Committeeman John Hammond III, former chairman Jim Kittle and others who positioned Holcomb for the nomination. The Holcomb camp consistently claimed enough support for a first-ballot win, but ultimately couldn’t get over the top during the first round. On the second ballot, sources believe that Dumezich switched his vote from Rokita to Holcomb, giving him additional mojo in the emerging Holcomb universe. Not forgotten was Brooks’ primary victory in 2012 over Dumezich ally David McIntosh, who now heads Club For Growth.”

So Grand enters this sequence, once again, as a potential kingmaker. He did not respond to HPI’s question as to whom he is supporting in June.

Gov. Holcomb, who was denied on a motion to clarify and intervene on Hill’s 30-day suspension by the Supreme Court on Monday, has sought Hill’s resignation and was poised to select his replacement. “With the Supreme Court’s decision to suspend the attorney general for 30 days, my judicial inquiry was to, one, determine if that suspension created a vacancy and, two, if so, what was my constitutional and statutory responsibility to fill that vacancy,” Holcomb said. “With those two questions left unanswered, there is no further action on my part.”

Sources close to the governor have told HPI that he is unlikely to make a specific endorsement.

Harter has the backing of Clark County Sheriff Jamie Noel, who chairs Gov. Holcomb’s reelection campaign. Harter is expected to run strong in the urban counties of Marion, Hamilton and Lake.

Social conservatives and Hill

Hill appears to be a rallying point for social conservatives who bristled when Holcomb announced in 2016, “I’m not Mike Pence,” and have viewed his pandemic shutdown as going too far. One informed and reliable source put their numbers of delegates in the 20% range. Hill is backed by Curt Smith (whose IBJ column excerpted on page 18 praised Holcomb on the pandemic), Micah Clark, Monica Boyer and Don Bates Jr.

Bates posted on Facebook on May 12: “I was attacked for being a conservative Christian and yet still supporting Attorney General Curtis Hill. The comment was made that I must support people being in bars at 3 a.m. No, I don’t. But neither do I support our legislature making booze more readily available and our governor wanting to be first in line to buy the first six-pack sold on Sunday. Nor do I support our legislature making gambling more readily accessible and, again, our governor wanting to be the first to buy a ticket. Nor do I support our government being able to define via executive order what is essential and what is not, and therefore shuttering church buildings around the state when Walmart, Lowes, and Menards are packed to the max.”

Some social conservatives told HPI that the June showdown isn’t about his personal behavior, noting the way allegations made against former Speaker Brian Bosma have been handled differently than those of Attorney General Hill. Most social conservatives have also been willing to over look the behavior of President Trump, who has faced more than two dozen allegations of sexual harassment and assault, and Holcomb, Crouch and Sens. Todd Young and Mike Braun readily appear with him despite vows of “zero tolerance” of such behavior in state government.

There is also an attitude of Hoosiers “not being told what to do” at play. In 1996, gubernatorial nominee Stephen Goldsmith recognized that dynamic and let delegates choose his LG nominee, who turned out to be social conservative newspaper publisher George Witwer Jr. 

In 2008, delegates rebuked Gov. Mitch Daniels over his backing of Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas for attorney general, choosing instead Greg Zoeller. That Daniels was a popular governor on his way to a landslide win that November even as Barack Obama carried the state’s 11 Electoral College votes did not matter.

Gov. Holcomb, as a student of history and former GOP chair himself, recognizes these forces at play. Thus, we’d be shocked if he actively waded into this 2020 hornets’ nest.

The 2024 proxy element

The other aspect of this race will be the 2024 gubernatorial race. Both Hill and Rokita are expected to run should they win the AG’s office this year. Also expected to run will be Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, U.S. Rep. Jim Banks and Health & Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

Thus, 2020 could become a proxy of sorts for 2024 if Holcomb and his allies cannot solidly defeat Hill in June. If Hill were to lose narrowly, it could set the stage for a firestorm. One influential Republican told HPI:  “There is a fair amount of feeling that going to this type of convention was designed to defeat (Hill) and maintain control.  Even remotely, more interaction could have been allowed. I would watch closely if there is proxy voting (i.e. alternate delegates) controlled by the big counties and if those votes are dominant against Hill, which would potentially ignite another firestorm if the result is close.”

Different scenarios

Multiple GOP sources break down the race like this: Hill and Rokita are expected to run strong on the first ballot, but neither with enough support to secure the nomination. They see Westercamp is the most likely to exit after the first ballot.

Rokita is likely to pick up support on second-choice support on the second ballot. Former Howard County Republican chairman Craig Dunn told HPI, “He’s run statewide before and he’ll know most of the delegates and he offers an acceptable choice to Hill voters who might be inclined to support someone else.”

“The unanimous Supreme Court ruling, by Republican-appointed and conservative justices, after a significant investigation of the facts made this choice clear,” Rokita told the NWI Times. Rokita’s pitch to social conservatives goes beyond his electability. “No other candidate has a multi-office proven record of standing behind our God-given rights. I am A-rated in defending our Constitution’s 2nd Amendment, and I have a 100% proven voting record of defending the right to life, no exceptions.”

But some social conservatives are defiant and would rather renominate Hill despite his vulnerabilities in a November showdown with either Democrat, State Sen. Karen Tallian or former Evansville mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel.

As one influential observer explained, “My personal opinion, without much evidence, is that Hill will lose by a decisive margin in a remote convention because it minimizes his strengths and maximizes his weaknesses. That, and there seem to be minimal disputes about the facts of his case at this point. His apology is there but it was not the first image people have of the situation.  In other words, in addition to the power of the governor and most top officials in the party, the personal error and initially defiant response of the AG cannot most likely be overcome. Plus, and this is a more subtle point, Hill’s supporters are publicly louder. The quietness is rather deafening from most delegates. That said, Curtis has spent his entire political life being underestimated.”

When Rokita was secretary of state, his reapportionment plan of creating compact legislative districts and nesting House districts into Senate districts was not viewed kindly by Senate GOP leadership and the Daniels administration. It’s one of the reasons the GOP power apparatus chose Holcomb over Rokita and Brooks (her husband, David Brooks, was seen as a potential loose cannon) in 2016.

Rokita can claim vindication that the contours of his reapportionment plan became, indeed, the new reality in 2011 and throughout this decade. That resulted in no congressional seats changing parties in four elections thus far (for the first time in history, unless Democrat Christina Hale can capture the 5th CD in November) as well as super majorities in the Indiana House and Senate.

So it will be fascinating to see if the prevailing GOP establishment will view Rokita as a necessary block to Attorney General Hill’s thirst for power. 

Republican Convention Horse Race Status: