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Analysis: Pence Departure Impacts Governor Campaign Strategies

Indiana governor candidates typically have about six months between the primary and general elections to introduce and define themselves to the electorate. And they’re already spending millions to do so.

But 2016 isn’t a typical election cycle. Indiana Public Broadcasting’s Brandon Smith reports on how identity plays a role in this year’s race for governor.

There are 188 days between Indiana’s May primary and the general election.

Incumbent Republican Mike Pence was elevated to the national ticket, catapulting Eric Holcomb to the head of gubernatorial ticket with just more than 100 days to go.

He says it’s been a whirlwind since. “I’ve almost approached it as if a day equaled a typical week,” Holcomb says.

He’s crisscrossing the state, meeting as many people as possible.

Still, Holcomb says it’s not as if he’s started completely from scratch. He’s been in the background on three of the last four gubernatorial campaigns.

“I’ve made a lot of contacts so I know not just where the counties are, but I know where good people are in every county, so it’s made the travel easier than maybe a typical first-time statewide candidate,” he says.

Holcomb’s Democratic counterpart, John Gregg, says the switch from Pence to Holcomb didn’t change a thing for him – he still has the same core message.

“I always challenge people to look beyond the party labels,” Gregg says. “You know, as a Democrat, got to have Republican support and independent support to win in Indiana.”

Some political theorists say this is a smart message. Ball State political scientist Joseph Losco says, in a statewide race, party affiliation can be just as important as name recognition.

Losco says, more people know John Gregg’s name than they do Eric Holcomb’s – after all, Gregg was the Democratic candidate for governor in 2012 while Holcomb was only recently appointed Lieutenant Governor, the first public office he’s ever held.

Yet, Losco says that doesn’t necessarily give Gregg an advantage.  

“The difference is that Democrats start at a disadvantage in this state,” Losco says. “So he’s got strong support among his base, he’s got to extend it into moderates and undecideds.”

Still, Gregg often defines himself in contrast to Holcomb on the issues of LGBT rights and women’s healthcare, portraying Holcomb as Mike Pence’s quote “rubber stamp” on social issues.

Losco says that tactic could backfire with those undecided voters.

“The undecided voters are probably not all that concerned about those social issues,” Losco says. “That probably won’t be a determining factor for those independents.”

This could work in Holcomb’s favor, and he seems to do his best to stay away from LGBT rights– even when asked directly for his opinion on the issue.

“I tend not to focus very much of my time in areas that have a almost zero percent probability of moving forward,” Holcomb says.

Instead, Holcomb says he’s “laser-focused” on economic development and education.

“We’ve got a low unemployment rate, we’ve got a higher than the national average when it comes to the labor participation rate,” Holcomb says. “We are a low cost-of-living state.”

Holcomb has yet to put forth his own specific plans for the future. He says he is the candidate who will continue the record of the past two Republican governors.

Gregg is happy to attack Holcomb there, too.

“If you want constant fighting over public education rather than trying to solve some of our challenges in public education, want to see us continually drift in per capita income, you want to vote for him,” Gregg says.

Holcomb and Gregg aren’t the only two gubernatorial candidates on the ballot.

Libertarian Rex Bell is running, too. And while winning is his primary goal, he also has what some might call a more achievable goal in mind.

“I would hope that we increase every year,” Bell says. “You know, I think in 2012 our gubernatorial candidate got a little under 4 percent. So, you know, if I can get that 4 percent, if I can get 10 percent, if I can get 15 percent…”

Bell’s strategy to do that is, at its heart, no different from Gregg or Holcomb’s - introduce himself to the electorate, create an identity in the minds of voters.

But the way he’ll go about it is a little different.

“We don’t have the money that the two old parties have had and so we’ve decided that we’re going to use the internet,” Bell says. “It’s a great equalizer.”

All three candidates have less than a month to define themselves – and their opponents – to voters.

And the one thing anyone knows for sure is a lot of money will be spent trying to do it.

For Indiana Public Broadcasting, I’m Brandon Smith at the Statehouse.

Brandon Smith is excited to be working for public radio in Indiana. He has previously worked in public radio as a reporter and anchor in mid-Missouri for KBIA Radio out of Columbia. Prior to that, he worked for WSPY Radio in Plano, Illinois as a show host, reporter, producer and anchor. His first job in radio was in another state capitol, in Jefferson City, Missouri, as a reporter for three radio stations around Missouri. Brandon graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a Bachelor of Journalism in 2010, with minors in political science and history. He was born and raised in Chicago.
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