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In '16, Indiana Dems Face Challenge Few Have Overcome: Unseat A Sitting Governor

Payne Horning
Indiana Public Broadcasting

Only one sitting Indiana governor has lost a reelection bid since the state amended its constitution in 1972 allowing governors to serve consecutive terms. Some believe Governor Mike Pence could be the second.

One of those people is Kevin Warren, an Indianapolis realtor. He said he had never considered himself politically active, but that changed after Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act this spring.

“Really, the religious freedom for me – it was the straw that broke the camel’s back because they were angry last year that we beat the ban on gay marriage, or HJR3, so this was vindictive,” Warren says.

RFRA drew harsh criticism, especially from members of the LGBT community who considered it a license to deny services to gays and lesbians. In response, Warren started a political action committee aimed at unseating Pence. He made signs that said “Pence Must Go” and “Expel Pence.” Soon, there was a demand for the signs.

They just dropped the money in the mail slot. I come home to about a hundred dollars every few hours,” Warren says. “I go to the bank every day.”

Anyone can buy the signs from his front porch for $10 apiece. Warren’s PAC has raised $11,000 from the signs and has an additional $25,000 in signs on back order. 

Some of that profit comes from return customers, who are purchasing replacement signs. Warren says he receives four to five emails a day from customers who have had their signs stolen, shredded or set on fire.

“Another acquaintance of ours, her husband nailed them in the tree - 30 feet [high],” Warren says. “He had to get on a 30-foot ladder… nailed them in the tree. And on Memorial Weekend they came and put a ladder up and took them out of their tree.”

The animosity over RFRA and the Pence administration’s support for the measure has split the state. An April poll from Howey Politics found Pence’s approval rating was at 45-percent, down more than 20 points since a January survey.

“Four years ago he traveled all around the state talking about his roadmap for Indiana,” says John Gregg, a former Indiana House Speaker. “He said he was going to put Indiana on the map, damn it didn’t he?”

Gregg is one of three Democratic candidates to announce a bid for Pence’s seat since RFRA was enacted. He ran against Pence in 2012 and was narrowly defeated in a campaign where he stressed a bipartisan approach and attacked Pence’s lack of Indiana leadership. At a recent Marion County Young Democrats meeting, Gregg revived that message.  

“The last time I was showing he was totally inexperienced as governor,” Gregg says. “What these last three and a half years have shown was that he was totally inexperienced as governor.”

Gregg says Pence’s time in office has created what he calls a record of shame - creating low paying jobs, spending too much effort on social issues and hurting labor unions. He criticized the governor’s support of RFRA and the elimination of the common construction wage. Political analyst Ed Feigenbaum says that reworked campaign message is making Gregg the anti-Pence candidate.

“It’s almost like a vote against Mike Pence,” Feigenbaum says.If they’re looking at an alternative, they’re just going to look for whoever the Democrat might be and not necessarily look for somebody who’s got good, new creative ideas.”

A recent poll found Gregg would narrowly defeat Pence 41-percent to 40-percent and the Republican governor would tie with another Democratic candidate, State Superintendent of Education Glenda Ritz.

Pence Campaign Spokesman Robert Vane says all things considered, that isn’t good news for the Democrats.

“After the worst PR any governor has ever experienced and certainly the most hostile media coverage than any governor has ever experienced and the best that John Gregg can do is a tie,” Vane said. “That’s not good news for them.”

Vane says the RFRA controversy was a watershed moment, but he’s optimistic about Pence’s reelection chances. He credited the governor with leading the effort to invest $480 million in education and his success in creating more than 100,000 private sector jobs.

“We’re on the cusp of having more Hoosiers working than at any time in our history,” Vane says. “Those aren’t talking points, those are real people’s lives.”

And while Pence may be virtually tied in polling, he’s ahead in fundraising. The governor’s campaign announced in January that it had $3.5 million and has since received more than $800,000 in large contributions. Meanwhile, Gregg says his campaign has raised $1.7 million. Gregg won a small victory when fundraising numbers from the first half of the year showed he outraised Pence -- even though he still trails by a large margin in terms of cash-on-hand.

But a Democrat isn’t the only potential threat to Pence’s reelection. Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle recently announced he was stepping down to rejoin Indiana politics. The last time Oesterle was involved in a gubernatorial election, he helped Mitch Daniels make history by defeating a sitting governor.

Pence doesn’t yet have a challenger in the primary; the filing deadline is seven months away.