By Erick Johnson and David Denson, Gary Crusader
It started out as a rematch between two high profile candidates vying for the highest political office in Indiana. Then Donald Trump came along and plucked incumbent Pence from the Indiana Gubernatorial race, with an offer to be his vice presidential nominee. With growing dissatisfaction of Pence’s conservative policies, his biggest challenger, former lawmaker John Gregg gained momentum to the governor’s mansion. Now, with no high-profile Republican opponent in the race, Gregg may be closer to the biggest victory of his political career. And if all goes well, Indiana may get its first Democratic governor in over a decade.
It’s a possibility that’s becoming a reality: Indiana, a conservative state that’s had three Republican governors since 2005, may change its political landscape if voters have their way in the November 8 general election. With the return of former U.S. Senator Evan Bayh as a candidate for his old seat, doors are beginning to open for Democrats who faced big odds in one of the nation’s most conservative states.
The stage may have been set July 15 when Pence accepted an offer to run for the White House against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Although declining in popularity, Pence was viewed as Gregg’s biggest hurdle to the Governor’s mansion. Despite Indiana’s Republican electorate, Gregg almost defeated Pence in the 2012 gubernatorial race, grabbing 46.4 percent of the vote to Pence’s 49.6 percent.
Two of the biggest state GOP names have dropped out of the race after they have made it clear they will not seek to replace Pence as the Republican nominee for governor. They are former Gov. Mitch Daniels, who said he has been recruited by “a large number and wide variety of people I respect deeply.”
The other potential candidate, Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, expressed interest in running, but told Republican colleagues his plans to remain in the House.
Gregg’s possible Republican challengers so far may be Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks and U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita. All three officials filed withdrawal notices to leave their offices since Pence dropped out of the race to join Trump on the Republican ticket.
Though he has held state offices, Holcomb has little to no political experience. Brooks has served in Congress for only three years and Rokita may be the biggest hurdle after serving eight years as Indiana’s Secretary of State. He’s been serving as U.S. Rep. for Indiana’s Fourth District since 2011.
Pence has been praised for guiding the state with a $2 billion surplus and a sterling triple A credit rating. However in Gary’s Black community, Pence has been criticized as being distant and out of touch as the city’s economy lagged behind other towns that benefitted under the governor’s leadership. A Democratic governor in Indianapolis could be more helpful to Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson as she continues to push efforts to revive Gary’s economy.
To political analysts, Pence’s decision may have been a wise move. Pence’s approval of legislation that allowed businesses to not serve gays and lesbians drew heavy criticism from local and national leaders. Thousands of angry women protested last year when Pence signed legislation that prohibited abortions of fetuses with birth defects. That law is currently being challenged in court.
While Pence won the Governor’s Mansion in 2012, it was not certain whether he would be successful the second time around. With his uncompromising and unpopular views, Pence’s leadership style is more suited to Trump’s campaign for the White House.
Since his narrow defeat to Pence, Gregg has remained active in many communities. While Pence gave big tax breaks to businesses and limited spending, voters in Gary and other disenfranchised towns may look to Gregg as a governor who can break down social and economic barriers that continued under the Republican governor.
The last Democratic governor to serve Indiana was Joseph Eugene “Joe” Kernan, a former Lt. Governor who ascended to the top spot in 2003 after then Governor Frank Lewis O’Bannon died days after suffering a massive stroke while visiting Chicago.
In the race for U.S. Senator Evan Bayh is being touted as a potential candidate for the seat he gave up six years ago.