Here’s who could replace Pence on Indiana ballot in governor’s race

It looks like Indiana Gov. Mike Pence gets to dodge a competitive reelection effort here in his home state now that he’s been selected as Republican Donald Trump’s running-mate.

Who will take his spot as the Republican gubernatorial candidate to run against Democrat John Gregg in November?

Choosing the next candidate all comes down to a 22-member committee of the Indiana Republican Party. It’s expected that their decision-making process will be quick and chaotic because of tight timelines in state election law.

Here’s who appears to be high on the list of likely people to replace Pence on the ticket: Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, U.S. Reps. Todd Rokita and Susan Brooks, and Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma. There are also a few more dark horse—though unlikely—candidates.

(Gov. Mitch Daniels would have appeared on high on that list—and he would have cleared the field if he ran—but he told IBJ and other media outlets Thursday morning that he was not interested in the job.)

Rokita and Brooks have expressed their interest to the committee so far, according to several members.

Deb Fleming, who is on the committee, said early Thursday afternoon there was no timeline yet for when the committee would meet to make the decision. Barbara Krisher, another committee member, said they might not meet until after next week because many are attending the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

The news is not all that good for John Gregg, who seemed like he was gaining momentum against Pence, who has been bruised for his response to some controversial state issues.

Though a new candidate won’t have much time to run and make their case to voters, Gregg will also have to retool his message.

“No one ever anticipated that this would happen a year ago,” said Democratic strategist Jen Wagner. “But when you run a campaign that’s all about the other guy and he’s not there anymore, how do you make that up in four months when you’re in a state that normally trends Republican?”

Gregg’s spokesman Jeff Harris said he is not worried. They’ll be running a race about “cleaning up the mess the governor has left us.”

“(Gregg’s) got almost $6 million in the bank, has high name identification among voters and has statewide campaign network set up and working each day – and no one else does,” Harris said.

Republican strategist Mike Murphy said the new field is competitive against Gregg

“Any of them could beat John Gregg,” Murphy said. “It’s going to be a big Republican year in Indiana. For anybody who is critical or disappointed in the Mike Pence social agenda, no one has to own it. They can all say that was Mike Pence’s agenda, not mine.”

Murphy said he hopes the Republican state committee “would be looking for somebody who is a blend of Mitch Daniels’ management style and vision and Mike Pence’s values and doggedness.”

Here’s IBJ’s rundown of the strengths and weaknesses of the most likely candidates:

Lt Gov. Eric Holcomb

This might be the most obvious and natural pick of the group. He’s a former Mitch Daniels adviser, and he serves with Pence now, so he could be seen as a bridge between those two political circles—and palatable to both crowds.

“It could be the emotional choice but also the logical choice,” Murphy said. “Many, if not most, of the Republican committee members were there when Eric Holcomb was either deputy chief of staff go Daniels and state Republican chairman.”

But Holcomb has some strong drawbacks, such as the fact that he’s never been elected to statewide office. And Republican voters weren’t quite taken with him when he vied for Dan Coats’ Senate seat in the Republican primary earlier this year.

If he’s chosen and eventually elected, he would go from basically finishing last in a Republican Senate primary race to being governor in less than a year. That would be quite a coup.

And Gregg's campaign would still be able to tie him to Mike Pence and continue on with their original message of attacking the governor's administration for focusing on divisive social issues.

U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita

Rokita could be the candidate that the ultra-conservative members of the state committee push for. He’s taken some hardline stances on divisive social issues during his time in Congress—he’s very anti-abortion, for instance—but he also recently worked with Democrats on a federal education policy overhaul.

Most recently, Rokita made waves by proposing to make it harder for schools with high amounts of poor children to qualify for federal free lunch programs. He also proposed to limit fresh fruit and vegetables, and caught flak when it was discovered that he has received thousands in campaign cash from the food processing industries.

But he’s good at winning elections. And he wants the job.

“This is very attractive to him,” said Ed Feigenbaum, a longtime Statehouse observer who is founder of INGroup, which publishes several public policy newsletters. “He’s won a couple of difficult statewide races against good opponents. And the guy can raise money like you won’t believe.”

U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks

She could be the first female governor in Indiana. That’s a huge draw to Republicans, who would be eager to claim that accomplishment.

Brooks is from Hamilton County, and could help Republicans recapture some votes from that area of Central Indiana who helped secure the gubernatorial race for Pence back in 2012, but had seemed to cool to him since then. Suburban women are seen to be a key voting bloc in the November election.

“My own opinion is that Susan Brooks is the toughest for them to beat,” said former Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle.

Wagner agreed.

"She's a woman from Central Indiana where John Gregg has said he needs to make inroads," Wagner said.

Plus Murphy said, Brooks is just a good candidate.

“She’s been an outstanding representative in Congress,” Murphy said. “She’s got a very broad set of skills. Susan is always the adult in the room when it comes to difficult issues. She never panders. She doesn’t engage in hyperbole. Her judgment is impeccable.”

Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma

Bosma is a well-known quantity in Central Indiana, and is arguably the most powerful state lawmaker, but he’s less well-known in other parts of the state.

“You can’t count out Bosma,” Murphy said. Plus, he said "Bosma probably has the most money available in various accounts to apply to the race.”

But he also could have vulnerabilities in a race against Gregg for the same reasons as Holcomb. Gregg could pretty easily tie Bosma to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act debacle.

“Anybody that’s associated with the Pence Administration they can continue on their strategy and essentially run against Mike Pence,” Oesterle said, though he didn’t specifically mention Bosma.

And here are some less likely, but still interesting candidates:

State Auditor Suzanne Crouch

Here’s another potential opportunity for Indiana to elect its first female governor.
Crouch, from Evansville, formerly served in the state legislature from 2005 to 2014. Her name has been floated by a few politicos as being possibly interested in the job. But a call to her spokesman was not immediately returned.

Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke

A staffer for the mayor told news media this week that Winnecke “received phone calls over the weekend encouraging him to step forward,” according to a report in the Chicago Tribune.

His name was not mentioned as a favorite among Republican politicos.

Former Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard

Ballard left office as Indianapolis mayor in January with a high approval rating. He also has eight years of experience as a chief executive.

But he seems unlikely to run. When he left office, he signaled that he would need time to rest and regroup after a busy eight years in office. A representative for the former mayor did not return IBJ’s request about whether he was interested as of deadline.

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