ZIONSVILLE — Eric Holcomb was riding the whirlwind in 2016. On the day I finally caught up with the incoming 51st governor of Indiana for a road trip, it began with a mellow cruise up I-65 for a job announcement in Merrillville. It ended with a 100-mph beeline in an Indiana State Police Chevy Tahoe down U.S. 31 as Kokomo laid in tatters following a rare August tornado.
Holcomb began the year as a third-place U.S. Senate candidate followed by a series of right time/right place scenarios that thrust him into the governor’s office. When Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann resigned, Gov. Mike Pence found in Holcomb a former chairman of the Republican Party who could patch the GOP together following the divisive social issues of 2015.
By early July, Pence was being courted by Donald Trump for the presidential ticket. I asked Holcomb: When did the notion sink in that he might end up on the national ticket and you could be seeking the gubernatorial nomination? Did he pull you aside at some point and say, “Hey Eric, get ready.”
“Never did I throughout the whole process count the chickens before they hatched,” Holcomb explained. “And I waited until I heard Donald Trump utter Mike Pence’s name before I believed it. There was a pause of the day when he was going to announce it.”
That was July 14, the day Pence flew out to New Jersey after a series of dinners, breakfasts and speeches with Trump in Indiana. That night, Trump seemed to waver, telling Fox News he hadn’t made a “final, final decision.” At about 10:54 a.m. July 15, Trump tweeted that he had chosen the governor, about 66 minutes before Pence would have to withdraw his gubernatorial nomination. “That’s when I believed it,” Holcomb admitted.
What commenced was a crazy week in Cleveland at the Republican National Convention, where Holcomb and U.S. Reps. Todd Rokita and Susan Brooks twisted arms in hotel alcoves to replace Pence. There would be 22 votes on the Republican Central Committee, and it took 12 to win. He and wife Janet took a couple days to assess. “Then we made a decision to move forward and we were all in,” he said. “We knew there was a lot of support from all corners of the state and we could put together a fast campaign, which would be required. It took the Cubs 108 years to win a World Series and it took us 106 days to win a governor’s race.”
Holcomb would win on the second ballot, drawing the vote of Dan Dumezich who was committed to Rokita on the first ballot. He would get $1.25 million of Pence’s $7 million war chest, and he and campaign manager Mike O’Brien built a pay-as-you-go effort with a 100 percent burn rate. “It was like building the airplane in flight,” Holcomb explained. “It was kind of a bumpy ride. It was tough to land.”
Through it all, he was campaigning, doing the lieutenant governor’s job and filling in for the governor, like that tornadic day in Kokomo. “I never dropping a single spinning plate,” Holcomb said.
The WTHR/Howey Politics Indiana polls showed Holcomb trailing Democrat John Gregg by 5 percent in September, 2 percent in October and tied on Nov. 3. Pollster Gene Ulm told me that the presidential race would pull in the next governor. Holcomb watched a Trump/Pence super cell build up and instead of collapsing in a microburst, it blew away everything in its path. Trump would defeat Hillary Clinton in Indiana by 19 percent, Holcomb won by 6 percent.
Being on the ground every day, Holcomb observed, “For any perceived flaw that Trump might have, Hillary was not trusted, and so it was always a comparison. It was always ‘Do I vote for this new, unpredictable person?’ or ‘Do I vote for the person I know I don’t trust?’” The other thing he noticed was Trump/Pence yard signs were getting ripped off, not by Democrats, but by other Trumpers. Some resorted by mowing Trump logos in their yards or creating their own signs. “There was a black market for Trump signs,” Holcomb observed.
Holcomb has dismounted the tornado with his signature cowboy boots still intact. He has Republican super majorities in the General Assembly and will hammer out a long-term road plan, similar to the 2005-06 Major Moves initiative he helped Gov. Mitch Daniels execute as a staffer. Holcomb also intends to confront the drug epidemic of meth, heroin and opioids badgering the state. He intends to avoid the social issues that hobbled Pence. Holcomb is not advocating a statewide LGBT civil rights expansion. Instead, he’s encouraging cities, towns and counties to pass their own.
The winds will continue, flowing out of TrumpWorld. “We’re in unprecedented territory,” Holcomb explained. “I recall in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan was elected and had the inclination to devolve power outside of Washington and push it outside to the states. Now we find ourselves in a situation where our president elect Donald Trump is someone who likes to get the job done and that requires delegation.” Pence views states as innovation centers; Holcomb is ready to innovate.
The new governor is prepared to ride the coming storms once again.
— The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.