INDIANAPOLIS — If it were not for the rise of Donald Trump in 2016, there wouldn't be a Gov. Eric Holcomb. When that year began, Holcomb was running third in the Republican U.S. Senate primary field. His political fortunes began to improve when Gov. Mike Pence picked him to replace Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann.
When Republican presidential nominee Trump tabbed Pence as his running mate, Holcomb won the Indiana Republican Central Committee caucus late that July. With Trump and Pence atop the ticket, winning the state with a 19% plurality, Holcomb's 100-day campaign was swept up in that wave and he defeated Democrat John Gregg.
Their political fortunes have since diverged. Trump was defeated for reelection last November, while Holcomb won a second term in a landslide. During his presidency, Trump lost the House in 2018, his own reelection last November, and he kicked away two Georgia Senate seats earlier this month with sophomoric antics, giving up the Senate majority. Under Holcomb, the Indiana GOP has thrived, controlling 88% of all county elected offices, nine of 11 congressional seats, a record 71 city halls, all of the Statehouse constitutional offices and with super majorities in the Indiana House and Senate.
Holcomb was sworn in for his second term this past week in an intimate ceremony due to the pandemic. In his inaugural address, Holcomb declared that “Indiana’s future is now” despite the pandemic and drew comparisons to President Abraham Lincoln. “In midst of the Civil War, the United States was also constructing the first transcontinental railroad. Even as the country was tearing itself apart, we were binding ourselves together in ways that would prove far more meaningful and durable.”
Trump, meanwhile, was drawing comparisons to Lincoln's successor, President Andrew Johnson. Both were former Democrats, impeached in their final year in office, and caustically undisciplined in their rhetoric and actions.
Holcomb was a political animal as a former chairman of the Indiana Republican Party. In 2008, he managed Gov. Mitch Daniels' reelection bid which resulted in a landslide victory despite Barack Obama carrying Indiana's 11 Electoral College votes.
During a Zoom interview last week, I asked Holcomb several political questions. He had spent the night before watching the Trump-inspired insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. "It was sad to see this, our nation’s shining city on the hill succumb to the violent whims of a mob. Yesterday’s actions were a stain on our history," he observed. "If you have a grievance, there’s a process to air and settle that grievance, whether you like the outcome or not. Never is violence an acceptable part of that process."
I asked Holcomb: There seems to be a perception problem among many Trump supporters that the election was stolen. Talk to Trump supporters in Indiana and tell them whether you believe this was a free and fair election, nationally.
"I know the most about ours in Indiana, and it was. It was a free and fair and safe and secure election." As for the other 49 states, Holcomb said, "The process played out in these states. You may disagree with the legislature, or the governor, election commission or the state and federal courts and their decisions all along the way, but the process played out."
I asked Holcomb about the future of the Republican Party after Trump's defeat. An Axios/Ipsos Poll this past week revealed that a 56% majority considering themselves “traditional” Republicans and 36% call themselves "Trump Republicans." But at last summer's Republican National Convention, amazingly the party did not produce a platform, instead giving President Trump carte blanche for whatever he wanted to do.
"I would like to see our party be judged on our actions, results and courage more so than our rhetoric," Holcomb said. "Because what I’ve found over the last four years, when you’re willing to work with anyone of any stripe, you’re going to get a lot more done."
He mentioned his work with retiring Democrat U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky on the South Shore double-tracking and West Lake extension projects. "It’s in large part because of him and we didn’t let party labels enter into the conversation at all. The rhetoric has got to line up with the results."
Holcomb noted that under Trump, the national debt has increased by $7.8 trillion. The Trump tax cuts and Chinese tariff wars will saddle our kids and grandchildren with a national debt to Gross Domestic Product ratios unseen since World War II and projected to go to unfathomable levels over the next two decades. "Maybe we ought to deal with that, or our entitlement programs," Holcomb said.
Holcomb was asked if he had any regrets over the past year. "I would have worn a mask in Brown County one day when I picked up my food," Holcomb said. "I constantly think on one hand how I could do a better job trying to be persuasive about the kind of things we know will help the collective good. We encourage wearing masks when you’re close to someone and there are folks who remain in denial that this is an airborne-transmitted virus."
Holcomb was consistent about wearing face masks, greatly complicated by President Trump's indifference and mixed messaging. With hundreds of Hoosiers dying of COVID each week, and 4,000 Americans dying each day, the contrast between the two reveals the deadly consequences that leadership can make.
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.