In a crowded field of candidates vying for the Republican nomination for governor, Suzanne Crouch wants to set herself apart from the pack.
That was evident during a panel discussion at the Dentons Legislative Conference in downtown Indianapolis last week featuring five of the gubernatorial hopefuls looking to replace Gov. Eric Holcomb, who cannot seek reelection because of term limits.
Crouch, 71, wore a red dress, red glasses and red shoes, in sharp contrast to her four male competitors.
“I always say, ‘Put me on stage with my opponents, and there’s one obvious difference, right? I’ve got red glasses. They don’t.’”
The joke elicits laughs from the crowd and gets the lieutenant governor’s point across without saying it out loud: She’s the only woman in the Republican field (apart from Jamie Reitenour, a long-shot candidate from Cicero).
If Crouch wins the primary, she will be the first woman to nab the Republican nomination for governor. No woman has ever held the state’s top elected office.
Her qualifications are extensive. Next year will mark her 30th year holding public office, first as a county auditor in the 1990s, then as a state representative in 2005, and as lieutenant governor since 2017.
Leading the state’s highest elected office would be her magnum opus. But with several well-funded and qualified contenders gunning for the position, getting there is no sure thing.
She’ll need votes from the more conservative members of her party who are upset with Holcomb over his COVID policies and his veto—later overturned by a simple majority—of a GOP bill preventing transgender girls from playing on school sports teams.
“Her strengths are that she’s the current lieutenant governor, and so if people are happy with the way things are running, she gets to take some credit for that,” said Andy Downs, director emeritus of the Purdue University Fort Wayne Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics. “That can also be a weakness if people are not happy with the way things are running, but as lieutenant governor she can deflect some of that—take credit for things that are good and not for things that are bad.”
Her political allies will point to her competitive spirit and ability to relate to Hoosiers across the state.
“She’s got a work ethic that is phenomenal,” said Lloyd Winnecke, the outgoing Republican mayor of Evansville and a longtime friend of Crouch. “She’s on the go and just works her tail off, and she has a level of empathy that I think is probably unique for someone who is a statewide candidate.”
She’s finding other ways to stand out. In August, she promised to eliminate the state’s income tax if elected governor, a bold proposal that some of her opponents have criticized as short-sighted.
“Special interest groups, big-spending bureaucrats, my opponents are screaming bloody murder and saying it can’t be done,” Crouch said. “But that money is not theirs, it’s yours, and you will always spend it more wisely than the government. And when they say we can’t do it, what they’re really saying is, ‘Government needs more money. Hoosiers need less.’”
Growing up, Crouch was not the type of child who dreamed of being president or governor or mayor or even class president.
Born and raised in Evansville, Crouch graduated from Mater Dei High School before enrolling at Purdue University, where she majored in political science. She then dabbled in various careers—real estate agent, stockbroker, small-business owner—before realizing she wanted something more rewarding.
Her first attempt at elected office came in 1986, when she ran for Vanderburgh County auditor, but she lost badly to an opponent who had bested her in fundraising. As she tells it, that was a wakeup call.
“I was so politically naïve that I thought, if I was the smartest person and worked the hardest, I would get elected,” Crouch said. “It was personally devastating for a number of reasons, but everything happens for a reason. And you learn more from your losses than you do your wins.”
She became heavily involved with the Vanderburgh County Republican Party, eventually serving as chair for four years, during which time a majority of Republicans were elected to county council for the first time in 60 years.
She ran for county auditor again in 1994, and this time she won. And she kept winning.
After serving two terms, she was elected to the Vanderburgh County Board of Commissioners, where she served as president until the end of her term in 2005.
It was at that point that her friend Vaneta Becker approached her about seeking her seat in the Indiana House of Representatives. Becker, a Republican from Evansville, had just moved to the State Senate to fill a vacancy, and she wanted a woman to fill her House seat.
As a state representative, Crouch wasn’t afraid to buck members of her own party.
In 2008, Crouch worked with Becker and former Rep. Sue Ellspermann to pressure Gov. Mitch Daniels to fire IBM Corp. as lead contractor on a project to automate applications for food stamps, Medicaid and other welfare benefits after her constituents told her they were unable to navigate the online system.
Daniels killed the program in 2010.
“She is one of the most hardworking people you’ll ever meet,” said Becker, who supports Crouch for governor. “She really keeps in mind what the people in the state think. She cares about people and what they say.”
In 2014, then-Gov. Mike Pence approached her about filling a vacancy for state auditor, an offer she initially declined. She wanted to remain connected to her constituents in Evansville, she told him, but she later reconsidered and accepted the appointment.
After Pence was named Donald Trump’s running mate in the 2016 presidential election, Holcomb was chosen as the Republican nominee for governor, and he picked Crouch as his running mate.
It wasn’t until Holcomb was reelected in 2020 that Crouch began contemplating taking the top spot, she told IBJ.
“It’s like everything else. It’s something that you didn’t really plan on doing. You think about it for a while, and I thought, ‘You know, to be in a position to take what I know and the experience that I have and be able to impact policy that really changes Hoosiers’ lives is something that would be important, because at the end of the day, it’s what we do for other people that really determines our legacy.’”
The money game
Crouch lacks the deep pockets of her competitors.
U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, a wealthy businessman who self-funded his 2018 Senate run, can dip into his personal fortune to bolster his campaign (though he has said he won’t do so). Braun’s campaign has $4.6 million cash on hand, of which $1.2 million came from his 2018 Senate campaign committee, according to campaign finance records.
Former Commerce Secretary Brad Chambers, founder of Indianapolis-based real estate Buckingham Cos., has already contributed $5 million of his own money to his campaign and has received more than $2 million in contributions since making a late entry into the race in August.
Fort Wayne businessman Eric Doden wrote himself a check for $175,000 and brought in $1 million in contributions from family members.
But Crouch is no slouch when it comes to fundraising, having raised $1.3 million since December 2022.
“We are meeting the financial goals we’ve set for our campaign,” Crouch told IBJ. “I have unmatched grassroots, conservative support, and I’m receiving contributions throughout the state—not just in central Indiana. I may not have the most money in this race, but my work ethic and my commitment to serving Hoosiers will be the winning difference.”
Braun, Crouch, Chambers and Doden all hold a significant fundraising advantage over Curtis Hill, the former attorney general who lost his 2020 reelection bid after four women accused him of drunkenly groping them at a party. As of June 30, Hill had a little less than $20,000 in his campaign account.
Should she win the nomination, Crouch would likely go on to face Jennifer McCormick, the former superintendent of education who is expected to lock down the Democratic nomination in the May primary.
Shining a light on addiction
Traversing the state’s 92 counties for the past seven years, Crouch said the thing Hoosiers are most concerned about is mental health and substance abuse, two issues her extended family has struggled with.
Her mother wrestled with depression her entire life. Her older brother, Larry, died last year after a long struggle with alcoholism (“He drank himself to death,” Crouch said). Her younger sister, Nancy, died by suicide in her early 20s. Crouch’s daughter, Courtney, is 12 years sober and bipolar.
“When you’ve lived with Hoosiers that have struggled through no fault of their own—it’s the genes they inherit—you have to do more,” Crouch said.
In 2021, Crouch co-founded the Indiana Mental Health Roundtable, an initiative geared at reducing the stigma around mental illness and strengthening the state’s mental health system.
As governor, Crouch said, she would work to get more professionals in behavioral health and train first responders to deal with trauma, anxiety and job-related stress.
She would look to launch a program that recruits psychiatrists, therapists and counselors to educate religious organizations, noting that a similar effort is already underway in Tennessee.
“Sixty percent of Hoosiers go to church, right? And those churches are in the business of helping Hoosiers, so why not, at their request, get the expertise to them to be able to help the ones they’re serving and the people in the communities they’re in?” Crouch told IBJ. “There’s just so much we need to do, but we need a governor who will put an emphasis on it and say, ‘This is one of my top priorities.’”
In the 2023 legislative session, Crouch testified in favor of a bill to fund the 988 crisis response center and hotline, a rare move for a lieutenant governor.
On rural issues, LEAP district
As lieutenant governor, Crouch is responsible for overseeing several state agencies, including the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, the Office of Community and Rural Affairs and the Indiana Destination Development Corp.
Serving in these roles has allowed her to build relationships with local officials in small, rural towns, collaborating on housing developments, broadband expansion and downtown improvement projects. Since announcing her run for governor in December, she has received 129 endorsements from elected officeholders.
“The people that are in elected positions all over the state, at all levels of government, understand how important it is that we have leaders—particularly governors—that understand what they have been through, their jobs, how they operate, and the challenges that they have, and understand that to make government work best we have to have that collaboration,” Crouch said. “We have to have that understanding of how what we do at the state level affects local government.”
She’s been openly critical about the behind-the-scenes planning that went into the LEAP Research and Innovation District—a planned 10,000-acre advanced manufacturing park near Lebanon—calling for more transparency from the Indiana Economic Development Corp., the quasi-public agency overseeing the project.
Crouch said the LEAP district presents an opportunity to reexamine the state’s economic development strategy.
“For the last, I want to say 25 or 30 years, we’ve had a very top-down, state-driven economic development policy, and so we have not put the resources or the focus on building capacity among our local economic development organizations,” Crouch said. “When we don’t make sure that they’re strong, then we leave parts of Indiana behind.”•