There are two main candidates for the Indiana governor’s race in 2020: Republican incumbent Eric Holcomb and Democratic challenger Woody Myers. Here’s what we know.
For a man in an election year, Gov. Eric Holcomb finds himself in an enviable position politically as he navigates difficult decisions about how and when to reopen the economy.
Already considered a front-runner for re-election, Holcomb has raised his public profile significantly with a series of daily COVID-19 media briefings broadcast on TV and live-streamed online over the last six weeks.
Some pundits say that extra publicity will help allow him to put scientific evidence ahead of political or ideological pressure as he seeks ways to reopen the economy.
One local media buyer valued the briefings at $134,000 per week after conducting an analysis of advertising rates in Indianapolis, Evansville, Fort Wayne, South Bend, Lafayette and Terre Haute markets on behalf of IndyStar.That means the total value to Holcomb so far could exceed $800,000, and there is little sign the briefings will let up soon.
Holcomb is coordinating with six Midwestern governors and Hoosier business leaders to open in phases beginning in May. He’s said he’ll consider, among other factors, testing capacity, hospital caseload, the number of coronavirus cases and deaths, the availability of personal protective equipment, and the feasibility of various businesses to reopen safely.
“I think that the governor has a big advantage going into the race, ” said Elizabeth Bennion, a politics professor at Indiana University-South Bend, “that gives him the luxury of focusing on the pandemic and the fight against the virus.”
Hoosiers are expected to learn more about Holcomb’s decision to reopen by Friday. It’s made more complicated by the fact that the number of new cases and deaths reported each day continues to climb even as hospitals remain under capacity. Indiana has seen more than 900 deaths and 16,000 cases.
Asked recently at his briefing about the reelection, Holcomb said he’s focused on the battle against COVID-19.
“It’s a little bit eerie to be on the ballot and not putting any focus on that,” he said. “I’m going to continue operating that way for the foreseeable future and let the chips fall where they may.”
That’s not to say it’s an easy decision, or one without potential political consequences. Open up too late, and the state could fall further into recession. Open up too soon, and another outbreak could occur.
As Holcomb considers the decision, he faces a Democratic opponent uniquely positioned in this time of crisis, but who is relatively unarmed when it comes to getting out his message.
The presumptive Democratic nominee, Dr. Woody Myers, a millionaire venture capitalist and former state health commissioner who led Indiana through the AIDS pandemic, already was considered a long shot candidate. And the odds only seem to have grown longer.
Holcomb has a vast fundraising lead – having raised roughly $8 million to Myers’ $180,000 through the January reporting period.
Myers had to cancel 15 fundraisers after the stay-at-home order was enacted in March. At that point, he had visited 36 of the state’s 92 counties.
Myers said he hopes Holcomb doesn’t rush to reopen. Myers said he is nervous about pressure Holcomb might face from President Donald Trump and Washington Republicans to open things back up.
“We are not anywhere near to the two weeks that you need of decreasing numbers of cases,” Myers said. “We’re not anywhere close to where we need to be with testing. And now that we’re opening up elective surgical procedures, which I agree with, we need a period of stability to see how that effects hospital capacity.”
Holcomb is now a household name
Holcomb has shed some light on his decision making.
Indiana will be “the surest and the safest” rather than the “fastest and the first” state to reopen, he said Monday.
“We look at the whole state, we look at it region-by-region, and we let the numbers dictate what move we’ll make next,” he said. “We don’t try to force anything, we don’t try to take a shortcut, we don’t assume anything. We’ll let the science and the medical experts point out what we need to know, how to be informed about the decisions that we make before we make them.”
As Holcomb faces the pandemic, pundits say, he can rely on political capital he’s earned as a reliable if not remarkable governor.
A lifelong political operative, he was appointed lieutenant governor in Mike Pence’s last year in office and found himself at the top of the ticket months later when Pence became the Republican nominee for vice president.
Meet Eric Holcomb: 2016 profile for governor.
Through his first three years as governor, pundits say, he’s guided Indiana with a steady hand, made few mistakes, but also hasn’t drawn national attention like three of his four immediate predecessors.
Evan Bayh launched a career in the Senate after leaving the office. Mitch Daniels, who rose to fame with George W. Bush’s blessing as “My Man Mitch” briefly considered a presidential run. Pence, once known as a congressional conservative firebrand, came into office amid speculation he was using it as a stepping stone for a presidential run.
Beginning his fourth year of office, Holcomb hadn’t exactly been a household name.
That all changed in March. Now he’s on your TV — or your electronic device — daily, and he’s largely drawing praise for his calmness and willingness to defer to experts amid the pandemic.
“He has said repeatedly his first priority is saving lives,” Bennion said. “He’s been very careful about not giving a specific date (to reopen) or to cave to the pressures and simply lift all of the regulations and bans. He’s left room for himself to maneuver based on the numbers.”
Many pundits say Holcomb’s willingness to turn to the experts in his briefings is in stark contrast to the president’s nightly briefings.
Nadia Brown, an assistant professor of political science at Purdue University, said she’s heard her family and neighbors talk about Holcomb for the first time in the past several weeks.
“My 65-year-old mother lives with me,” Brown said, “and she has a network of girlfriends. Listening to them talk, they’re talking about Holcomb, and calling him by name, and I had not heard that before.”
Brown said Holcomb finds himself in an even more enviable position as other Republican leaders rush to reopen in places like Georgia and Las Vegas.
“We don’t need to be the test case or the control group, as the mayor of Las Vegas said,'” Brown said.
Trump hasn’t been much of a factor
Holcomb’s decision will be easier if he can continue to escape scrutiny from an increasingly impatient and erratic president, pundits say.
Just ask Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican Trump praised and then panned for reopening the state, all in one news cycle. Or Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, another Republican whom Trump chastised nationally over a disagreement with testing capacity.
Unlike some states that are turning purple due to increasingly worried suburbanites, Indiana remains largely Trump country.
Holcomb has kept any potential criticism from Trump at bay, pundits say, by skillfully deflecting any questions he gets about the president. Ask about Trump, and you’re likely to get a broad answer about Indiana.
“He’s never criticized the president for the way the president talks about stuff,” said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics in Fort Wayne.
Case in point: When asked about Trump’s apparent idea to inject disinfectants, Holcomb accepted Trump’s explanation that he was being sarcastic. But then he cautioned folks to use those for cleaning only.
Of course, it should be noted Pence, Holcomb’s former running mate and boss, is vice president and the two remain close allies.
“I’m sure that helps a little bit,” Downs deadpanned.
Pence, who will be in Kokomo Thursday to tour a manufacturing facility producing ventilators, is often on the phone with Holcomb and other governors.
Holcomb also has benefited from receiving little push-back from protesters. Indiana hasn’t drawn the national spotlight like, say, Michigan.
While a few hundred people protested the stay-at-home order April 18 at the governor’s residence and have another rally planned for Friday at the Statehouse, there hasn’t been a major outcry over the measures Holcomb has taken.
National polling shows most people want some type of social distancing and shut down despite the smattering of protests throughout the states.
“The protests had very few people,” Downs said, “and nationally people don’t want to open up too quickly. So he can actually look at the numbers and say we can open up when the following thresholds are hit.”
Myers is uniquely positioned
Myers, who made a name for himself defending AIDS victim Ryan White in the late 1980s, is struggling to gain traction despite his credentials.
Myers thinks the decision to reopen should be boosted by a task force of health, business and education professionals. And he thinks the governor should be thinking about short- and long-term strategies, saying an effective vaccine and preventive treatments might be years away.
“People need to consider the fact it’s unlikely we are going to ever be coronavirus free as a nation again,” Myers said. “This novel coronavirus is now in our society and it will be a long time before it leaves, if it every leaves.”
Myers would like to see more transparency from the governor, especially when it comes to which nursing homes have outbreaks and what specific measures are being taken to stop them. Holcomb has said such information is private, but Myers thinks the public has a greater need to know when considering what nursing home in which to place a loved one. Nursing homes, he pointed out, are not equipped like hospitals.
“I think we have to get our house in order,” Myers said, “before we take the next steps.”
Myers also wants to do more to help minority populations, saying more funding for public health care and more of a focus on rural health care would disproportionately help people of color. COVID-19 has impacted the black community at a higher rate.
“The disparities in diagnostics and treatment and access to care for African Americans and others, COVID-19 has exposed it once again,” Myers said.
Brown, the Purdue assistant professor, said she’s been taken aback by the quietness of Myers’ campaign given the opportunity to tout his public health and medical backgrounds.
While she can understand that fundraising and traditionally campaigning is difficult, she thinks he needs to find ways to get him in front of a wider audience more frequently, especially digitally and through voter groups.
“This should be his time to shine,” she said. “I think he could be doing a lot more with particularly the black and brown communities that have our own indigenous network.”
Holcomb’s performance at his daily briefings, while largely an advantage, are leaving some room for an opponent, pundits say. He’s not grabbing the attention of Hoosiers in the way other governors have sized the opportunity.
“Andy Bashear is a rock star,” said Robert Dion, a political science professor at the University of Evansville.“His briefings are required watching. Mike DeWine, over in Ohio, is getting national acclaim for being just what Ohio needs. And in Michigan, Gov. Whitmer is a national figure all of a sudden. Holcomb is sort of a generic guy. I put him right in the middle.”
Myers resumes fundraising
Myers is raising money again, largely via video calls. He also said he’s begun to campaign more on the radio and digitally, including a virtual town hall on Facebook Live scheduled for Tuesday evening in Cass County, where an outbreak has Indiana officials alarmed.
Myers released a climate plan last week and plans to release one to help small businesses this week. His biggest idea, perhaps, is to make Indiana the nation’s top medical and health care supplier.
Myers doesn’t begrudge Holcomb the TV time, saying the daily briefings are a good strategy to inform Hoosiers. But he admits to cringing when he thinks Holcomb strays to more political talk, such as patting his administration on the back for past achievements.
“They were brief (comments),” Myers said, “and I’m not going to call too much of a foul about it. But I do want everyone to pay a little more attention to that.”
Still, the pundits say Holcomb can proceed comfortably as the front-runner — for now.
“He’s favored to win, and he is getting the lion’s share of the media coverage,” said Bennion, the South Bend professor. “Very few voters have heard of the democratic candidate at this point, yet people are seeing Gov. Holcomb every single day.
“The state of the virus, the death toll, and the state of the economy could potentially change the political calculus of the race at some point. But at this point the governor is the clear front-runner in the 2020 governor’s race.”
Contact IndyStar reporter Chris Sikich at Chris.Sikich@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisSikich.
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