NASHVILLE, Ind. (Howey Politics) - Some things in our society are simply disappearing. Like the Studebaker Lark. Space Food Sticks. RadioShack. Blockbuster. And, of course, Hoosier Democrat county commissioners and gubernatorial contenders.
That last point, however, is about to change.
Gov. Eric Holcomb has just concluded his third General Assembly session and he proclaims the state is "on a roll." There’s that $34.6 billion perfectly balanced budget sans smoke and mirrors. He pumped $760 million of new funding into K-12 education, added close to $300 million into the Department of Child Services. He signed a hate crime law that will be tested in the courts, two new abortion restriction bills and a deal to keep the Pacers in Indiana. He'll get to name his own education secretary in 2021, should he win re-election.
It hasn’t been a completely smooth ride. Holcomb still finds a defiant Attorney General Curtis Hill ignoring his call to resign over sexual harassment allegations. The head of the state’s veterans agency was forced to quit due to questionable expenditures and the governor took some heat for accepting a flight from a casino owner.
Heading into this session, Morning Consult gauged his approval/disapproval at 50/24 percent while 26 percent don't know who he is. He raised more than $4 million for his 2020 reelection. In a Governing Magazine profile by Alan Greenblatt, House Speaker Brian Bosma stated the prevailing GOP assessment: “He’s a great governor. I don’t want to suggest my expectations were low, but he’s certainly exceeded, greatly, what I expected. I’ve seen each of the five previous governors really mad. I’ve never seen Holcomb mad. I’ve honestly never seen him in a bad mood or worked up about something.”
The only thing missing from Gov. Holcomb's life is a Democratic opponent for when he seeks a second term next year. There are three names surfacing: Former speaker John Gregg, the party's 2012 and 2016 nominee; former State Rep. Christina Hale who ran on the 2016 ticket with Gregg; and former state health commissioner Woody Myers, who also has a lengthy record as a venture capitalist.
"I'm thinking about it very seriously," Dr. Myers told me Thursday morning. "I haven't made an irrevocable decision, but I'm leaning in that direction. I'm doing all the preliminary stuff, but I'm not quite there."
Myers made headlines a generation ago when, as health commissioner, he stood up for Ryan White, the Howard County boy with hemophilia who battled AIDS in an era when the disease stoked fear and anti-gay sentiments. Myers was selected by Republican Gov. Robert Orr, and Myers said at the time, "If the Board of Health was ever considered an easy place to work, that will no longer be the case. I am driven. You too shall be driven." The New York Times reported he ended up replacing every top staffer.
Commissioner Myers not only defended White, but developed a strategy to combat the disease with education that prompted Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to declare "Indiana is the model." He was named New York City health commissioner in 1990 at the height of the AIDS epidemic there, telling Mayor David Dinkins, "I would like to follow the mayor's lead in building bridges. All of us have the same basic goals. We want to do something positive about this epidemic."
Should Myers decide to run, and a decision will likely come before the Indianapolis 500, he finds a state still severely impacted by an HIV/heroin/opioid pandemic, with 1,800 Hoosiers dying from overdoses in 2018. Holcomb has vowed to regain control within five years. The overdose deaths are trending down, but this will be a huge issue in 2020.
Holcomb said at the conclusion of the General Assembly, "We’re making historic investments in K-12 education, expanding our school safety efforts, and implementing all the recommendations to improve our child services. We’ll help more babies reach their first birthdays. Indiana is on a roll.”
Myers disputes Holcomb's assessment. "Indiana has been lagging in so many areas," Myers said. "There's an illusion that things are going great for us, but we are losing ground quickly." He cites public education, "integrity in office" and keeping talent in the state as top priorities.
Of the three Democrats most often mentioned, Gregg has been the most conspicuous, traveling the state as an attorney for IceMiller and tweeting frequently. Gregg was considered the frontrunner against Gov. Mike Pence in 2016, until Pence ended up on Donald Trump's ticket, and they won the state with a 19 percent plurality that swamped the Democrat and pushed Holcomb into power.
Hale is another possibility, though national Democrats are recruiting her to run against U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks in the 5th Congressional District.
“A number of Hoosier Democrats are actively considering a run for governor and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear from them soon now that session has ended," Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody said. "Gov. Holcomb is vulnerable. Holcomb failed to crack 50 percent favorability in the latest polling and nearly a third of Hoosiers are saying, 'Holcomb, who?”
Indiana is on the verge of becoming a one-party state. Who emerges to challenge Holcomb will be critical in whether both major parties remain credible in the decade to come.