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Holcomb Heads Into Likely Re-Election Run With Advantages

AJ Mast/AP Photo

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb is heading into the 2020 campaign season with $6 million to spend on a probable re-election bid thanks to the leverage of leading a GOP-dominated state and no high-profile Democrats yet vying to unseat him.

Holcomb is expected to announce that he's running for a second term at a Saturday afternoon campaign event in Knightstown. His campaign has been touting what it calls record hiring commitments from businesses and infrastructure investments since he took office in 2017.

Now the most powerful elected official in the state, Holcomb was only a little-known former state Republican Party chairman four years ago. He was struggling to raise money for a U.S. Senate campaign when then-Gov. Mike Pence appointed him to be lieutenant governor in early 2016. He became the party's gubernatorial candidate after Donald Trump picked Pence as his running mate.

Paul Helmke, an Indiana University public affairs professor and a former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne, said Holcomb has used the power of incumbency well and avoided major controversies such as what Pence faced over Indiana's 2015 religious objections law that was widely panned as a sanctioning of discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community under the guise of religious belief. An intense social media and business backlash led lawmakers to make changes that prevented the state law from overriding local LGBT-rights ordinances.

"People hear his name and don't hear any clear negatives or criticisms of him," Helmke said of Holcomb. "He comes across as a nice guy, friendly, trying to do a good job. It really is an amazing story because I doubt four years ago he would've registered on anybody's list of being somebody to pay attention to."

Democrats don't have any well-known potential challengers to Holcomb yet, with business executive and former state health commissioner Woody Myers as their only declared candidate so far. Eddie Melton, a state senator from Gary, created a gubernatorial exploratory committee last month. State Rep. Karlee Macer of Indianapolis is also considering entering the race.

John Zody, the state Democratic Party's chairman, faults Holcomb for what he calls "empty promises" on issues such as raising teacher pay, expanding the state-funded preschool program and lowering health care costs.

"Indiana Democrats are offering a message about education, jobs, health care, equality, better elections," Zody said. "Any candidate who's out there on the ground, up and down the ballot, are talking about those things."

Helmke said it could take a big shake-up in the Indiana campaign — such as South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg dropping his Democratic presidential campaign to run for governor — or national developments that are out of Holcomb's control to put his re-election in danger.

"I think the only thing he really needs to worry about is some major economic downturn or major scandal, crisis for the Republicans at the national level," Helmke said.