Starting flag set to wave on 2020 gubernatorial race

Although the primary election is 10 months away, the Democratic race to challenge the Republican incumbent, Gov. Eric Holcomb, in 2020 is already intensifying.

On Wednesday, Dr. Woody Myers, a former state health commissioner, will hold a press conference in front of the former Wishard Hospital emergency room for an announcement that is expected to make him the first Democrat to officially get into the race for governor.

He’ll be showcasing some early support as well, as former U.S. Rep. Baron Hill, a Blue Dog Democrat, will be standing next to him.

Two more likely candidates for the primary are State Sen. Eddie Melton of Gary and Rep. Karlee Macer of Indianapolis. While neither has made a bid official yet, Melton will be in Indianapolis on Thursday as part of a statewide series of forums on education. Speculation about Myers, Melton and Macer has risen in recent months.

Holcomb has scheduled an event Saturday inside of the historic Hoosier Gym in Knightstown, a filming location for the iconic Indiana basketball movie “Hoosiers,” where he is expected to launch his re-election.

But with all of these announcements, it raises the question: Can the Democrats actually dethrone Holcomb and the Republican Party, which currently hold all the power in the Statehouse?

Unseating a GOP incumbent will be a huge climb for whichever Democrat emerges from that party’s primary. Democrats, though, might be encouraged by Holcomb’s mixed poll numbers. According to the Morning Consult polling report, Holcomb’s job approval has withered from 54 percent shortly after he took office to 49 percent earlier this year. But even that poll showed his disapproval at only 22 percent.

And a May poll from We Ask America showed he’s rebounded to a 54 percent approval rating, with even about a third of Democrats saying they approve at least somewhat of Holcomb’s performance in office. Plus, his poll numbers are better than those of the governors in the surrounding states.

Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne, said there are several reasons multiple Democrats are willing to take on Holcomb.

“He has not been as visible as other governors. For example Mike Pence was very visible. Evan Bayh, very visible. And when you have high approval ratings, but not great visibility, those approval ratings might be soft.”

In addition, Downs said, Holcomb could be vulnerable because of legislation he supported that might not go over well with the voters and because the momentum Democrats built nationally in 2018 could carry over to this upcoming cycle.

However, Downs believes Holcomb could solidify his position by increasing his public profile and making people understand his role in a pretty successful run in the state in terms of job creation and other issues.

Then there is the money.

Holcomb had about $4 million in his campaign coffers at the beginning of this year and has added more than $2 million since. Melton, on the other hand, only had about $11,000 at the start of this year.

Being behind in the bank, though, doesn’t mean they are out.

Robert Dion, a political science professor at the University of Evansville, cited the 2016 election.

“The last gubernatorial election, (Democrat nominee) John Gregg was raising money hand over fist,” Dion said. “This could suggest that the Democrats could raise the money needed. Three years ago, Gregg was raising more than the sitting governor.”

While Myers is expected to make his candidacy official Wednesday, Melton and Macer haven’t yet scheduled an announcement. So how can an average citizen figure out if they are running? Downs said to keep an eye on their schedules.

“If somebody goes to every Lincoln Day dinner or sets up a routine where they find themselves going to 35 or 40 counties, none of which are in their district, that’s an indication that someone is thinking about something,” Downs said, referring to the annual political dinners and events both parties hold.

Melton is currently on a tour with Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick, while Macer recently attended a Fourth of July parade in Lebanon, well out of her legislative district. Besides that, Melton changed his political Twitter account handle from @eddiemelton2016 to @eddiemelton4IN, which is about as close to telegraphing your candidacy as you can get.

However, Dion said voters probably will not see any more challengers besides the three Democrats because if there was a dark horse candidate, he or she would have already announced by now so as to not be behind on the campaign trail.

While Myers is holding his announcement outside a hospital, education may be the biggest issue in this election.

Democrats already are attacking Holcomb’s record there.

“Something that the Governor is touting as part of his purported election announcement on Saturday is that he shot basketball baskets in 92 counties,” said Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody. “If he spent as much time finding opportunities for kids to go to pre-K or giving teachers raises as he was spending time on the court, he might be a better governor. So I think we can look to all kinds of things about people wondering if they are better off, not just under the last four years of Eric Holcomb, but under the last 16 years of this kind of leadership.”

Pete Seat, spokesman for the Indiana Republican Party, argued that Holcomb is proud to run on his record.

“Gov. Holcomb has been laser-focused on his five pillars–which includes economic growth, education and workforce development,” he said. “As a result of this focus, Indiana is on a roll, and that is evident by our record-breaking job-creation numbers and historic investments in infrastructure and education that have come as a direct result of his leadership.”

But, Downs cautioned, Hoosier voters probably won’t know what the full palate of issues will be until the first debates are held–months from now.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: IBJ is now using a new comment system. Your Disqus account will no longer work on the IBJ site. Instead, you can leave a comment on stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Past comments are not currently showing up on stories, but they will be added in the coming weeks. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.