The year 2017 is a long way off from the next gubernatorial race. But 2018? Not so much. By the time Democrats gather for their annual confab at French Lick next August, a key question will be: Who’s running for governor? And who has the early momentum?
Some of the names tumbling off Democratic insider lips include figures of the past, such as former Gov. Evan Bayh, former House speaker and two-time nominee John Gregg, lieutenant governor nominee Christina Hale, and the party’s impressive mayoral class which includes Hammond’s Tom McDermott Jr., former Evansville mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel, Peter Buttigieg of South Bend, and Greg Goodnight of Kokomo. Another intriguing name is Dr. Woody Myers, the former state health commissioner.
Gov. Eric Holcomb heads into the middle of his term with an aura of strength. The recent Public Opinion Strategies Poll for Indiana Realtors had his approval at 61 percent while 20 percent disapprove. The state’s right/wrong track stood at 59/34 percent, inverse of the national numbers at 36/57 percent. So Holcomb is invincible, right?
He is promoting his Next Level road and infrastructure plan, with most Hoosiers forgetting about the 10-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax hike they’re paying. But his year ends with controversy swirling around the Department of Child Services, though he points to more than $500 million in new expenditures for the department “swamped” by the opioid epidemic.
For Indiana’s last four governors, their second year was a mixed bag. Gov. Frank O’Bannon came off an amazing first General Assembly session in 1997 when he forged stadium and workers compensation deals, but became bogged down by an Indiana Tax Court ruling that would dog the rest of his tenure in office. Gov. Joe Kernan succeeded O’Bannon after his September 2003 death, then revived a gubernatorial campaign he had abandoned a year earlier but never regained traction and lost to Mitch Daniels.
Gov. Daniels was using huge amounts of political capital on the Major Moves toll road leasing, Day Light Saving Time and the Lucas Oil Stadium deal, and his approval actually dipped below 40 percent at the end of his second year. He would go on to watch Republicans lose the House majority in 2006, but would win reelection with 58 percent despite the Barack Obama crosswinds. Gov. Mike Pence successfully pushed regional cities and work councils. His political momentum wouldn’t be clipped until the RFRA controversy surfaced early in his third year.
As these second years ended, there was usually someone in the wings and emerging. This would include Republicans U.S. Rep. David McIntosh in 1999, White House Budget Director Daniels in 2003 and Democrats Secretary of State Bayh in 1987, O’Bannon in 1995 and Gregg in 2007 and again in 2015.
Here are potential contenders in what should be considered a wide open scenario.
McDermott: The four-term Hammond mayor is ambitious and antsy. He has pondered challenging U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, a move many Democrats see as a political suicide mission. He has run a clean and innovative city hall.
Weinzapfel: He is the chancellor of Ivy Tech Community College Southwest after serving two terms as mayor of Evansville. His biggest legacy was the building of the Ford Center arena and revitalizing downtown.
Hale: She heads Leadership Indianapolis after her lieutenant governor nomination in 2016 and two terms in the Indiana House. She is seen as a rising star and spent 2017 organizing several partisan and non-partisan groups as well as recruiting women to seek office. Some Democrats have approached her to run for secretary of state or 5th CD in 2018, but she prefers to stay on the gubernatorial track. The key question there is whether she goes in 2020 or, more likely, waits for a potential open seat in 2024.
Buttigieg: The two-term South Bend mayor is another rising star, but a number of Democrats see his interests nationally rather than at the Indiana Statehouse after running for Democratic national chairman.
Gregg: No modern Hoosier politician has run or been nominated three times. Usually you get one crack at it, but after a lackluster 2012 race, the former speaker pulled it all together in 2016 with ample funds and a cogent message, only to get swamped by the Trump/Pence wave.
Bayh: This is highly unlikely since he doesn’t live in Indiana, but he didn’t in 2016 when he ran for the Senate, only to be eviscerated by the Senate Majority Fund. If Indiana Democrats make significant inroads into GOP super majorities, or actually take a chamber in 2018, Bayh and Gregg might show a new level of interest.
Goodnight: If his wife, Kelly, weren’t battling Huntington’s disease, Goodnight would in one of the best positions to run, which is unlikely at this point. The Kokomo of today is one of a robust and rebuilding downtown, a new baseball stadium, a free city bus service, along with a reduced municipal workforce and little debt.
Myers: The former Indiana and New York City health commissioner forged a national identity when he stood up for AIDS victim Ryan White as that health crisis pierced the national conscience. With the state facing a severe opioid challenge, Myers could be an intriguing candidate.
A key here is, which one of these Democrats works in 2018 to help the party up and down the ballot?
— Brian Howey is publisher of the Howey Political Report, a weekly briefing on Indiana politics. Contact him at 317-506-0883 or at: howeypol itics.com.