INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Republican Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb has rushed to distinguish himself to voters since his party chose him to replace Indiana Gov. Mike Pence on the ballot the three months ago, after Pence dropped his re-election bid to become Donald Trump’s vice presidential running mate.
But that hasn’t stopped Democrat John Gregg from keeping Pence — and Holcomb’s support for some of the governor’s most contentious issues — at the forefront of the fight to become Indiana’s next governor.
Nearing the end of the race, Gregg has a more aggressive, better-funded campaign than he did when he narrowly lost to Pence in 2012. The former Indiana House speaker has a stream of television ads attacking Holcomb as a “rubber stamp” for Pence, pointing out his support for the religious-objections law the governor signed last year. The law sparked a national uproar, with opponents saying it sanctioned discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Holcomb largely avoids mentioning Pence and instead highlights his time as an aide to former Gov. Mitch Daniels, Pence’s popular predecessor. Holcomb says he is “quite proud” of where Indiana stands after 12 years of Republican governors, and touts the state’s $2.4 billion budget surplus, improved unemployment rate and recent tax cuts.
“When I first came into this service, with former Gov. Mitch Daniels, we ushered in Indiana’s comeback,” Holcomb said. “We turned the state around, we quit spending more money than we were taking in.”
Gregg dismisses Holcomb’s talk of continuing recent Republican policies, saying it doesn’t address issues such as the state’s stagnant average wages and poorly rated highway system.
“He represents the status quo, saying it’s good,” Gregg said. “Our wages are growing behind all of our neighboring states. Our per-capita income has dropped. … We’re winning the race to the bottom.”
Holcomb, 48, has never been elected to office. He has mostly been a behind-the-scenes political operative, including stints as Daniels’ campaign manager and as chairman of the state Republican Party. He spent 10 months running for this year’s Republican U.S. Senate nomination, but he had little fundraising success. He dropped out when Pence picked him to become lieutenant governor in March, after Pence’s 2012 running mate, Sue Ellspermann, resigned to take a university job.
Holcomb’s TV ads feature his work with Daniels, though he has appeared with Pence at recent Indiana events with the governor, including a late September campaign rally in Fort Wayne.
Pence spokesman Marc Lotter showed no offense at Holcomb’s strategy. Lotter said the ties between Holcomb and Pence are well known, including that the governor’s endorsed Holcomb for the Republican gubernatorial nomination over two GOP members of Congress.
“It makes sense that he would remind Hoosiers about the key role that he played in the Daniels administration, while his current work, his current day job, is a partnership and a continuation of the leadership that he and Gov. Pence do on a regular basis,” Lotter said.
Gregg, 62, was first elected as a state representative from a rural southwestern Indiana district in 1986, after working as a coal company lobbyist and practicing law in Vincennes. But he has been out of public office since stepping down as Indiana House speaker in 2002. He has since worked as the interim president of Vincennes University and as a partner with an Indianapolis-based law firm.
A centerpiece of Gregg’s campaign is his call for extending state civil rights protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Though he also says the state should avoid divisive social-issue debates.
“We have to be a welcoming state,” Gregg said. “We’ve got to focus on keeping talent and attracting talent here.”
Holcomb says he doesn’t believe the state has seen lasting economic harm from the religious-objections law fallout. He said the Republican-dominated General Assembly is unlikely to advance an LGBT rights bill after a compromise attempt failed during this year’s legislative session.
“What most Hoosiers have told me over this last year is move on and why are you spending so much time fighting over an issue where both sides say no progress can be made,” Holcomb said.
Recent polls have put Gregg slightly ahead of Holcomb, but showed Indiana voters split on other questions that could impact the gubernatorial election. A mid-October poll conducted for WISH-TV and Ball State University found that 54 percent of likely voters believed Indiana was heading in the right direction, while 59 percent supported extending LBGT rights protections.
Holcomb compares Gregg’s spending proposals — such as borrowing as much as $3 billion for local and state infrastructure projects — to state budgets approved during Gregg’s time leading the Indiana House, which resulted in the state delaying payments to school districts and local governments in an accounting tactic to balance the state’s books.
“It is kind of a deja vu, the practices that we had robbing Peter to pay Paul, and raiding different funds,” Holcomb said. “I’m just opposed to spending money for a short-sighted reason.”
Gregg dismisses Holcomb’s criticism as “selective memory.” He said bipartisan budget deals with the Republican-dominated Senate were undercut by tax revenue drops from the 2001 recession. Cooperation between Gregg and then-House Republican leader Brian Bosma, who’s now speaker of the Indiana House, on a 2002 tax increase plan to close that deficit won them an award for bipartisanship from Governing Magazine.
Gregg said Holcomb’s plans are simply too timid to meet the state’s needs.
“I don’t understand why when we have the money we don’t use some bold initiative,” Gregg said. “I think Hoosiers want a governor who’s got some bold initiatives.”
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