Holcomb to candidates: Give details on agenda

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By Lesley Weidenbener

Indiana Business Journal

With just two weeks before early voting begins in the primary, outgoing Gov. Eric Holcomb is urging the candidates vying to replace him to focus on issues related to the state’s economy, workforce and quality of life and to develop plans to address the biggest challenges in those areas.

Holcomb, a Republican in the last year of his second term, told IBJ he believes GOP primary voters don’t have the information they need to choose a nominee from among the six candidates on the ballot. And Holcomb said he needs more information as well to decide whom to endorse in the contest—or even whether to endorse at all.

“We know what they’re against,” Holcomb said of the GOP candidates: U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, former Indiana Economic Development Corp. President Eric Doden, former Indiana Secretary of Commerce Brad Chambers, former Attorney General Curtis Hill and Jamie Reitenour.

“We know they’re against masks. We know they’re against illegal immigrants. We know they’re against China,” he said.

But, Holcomb added, directing the question to the candidates, “What are you for? And then tell me how you’re going to do it.”

Jennifer McCormick, a former Republican state superintendent of public instruction, has switched parties and is unopposed in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Representatives of the Republican candidates dispute Holcomb’s characterization of their campaigns.

Doden has “detailed policies to restore Indiana’s Main Streets and regions, implement zero-cost adoption for the 13,000 children in Indiana’s foster care system and give law enforcement the tools and support they need to keep us safe,” said his campaign manager, Brian Gamache.

“We’re glad Gov. Holcomb has joined Eric Doden’s call for candidates to present detailed plans and policies that we’ve been asking for since day one,” he said.

Braun senior adviser Josh Kelley said the senator “has visited all 92 counties for the past five years.”

“He’s always listening to Hoosiers about solutions to lowering the cost of health care, reducing taxes and wasteful spending, and providing education opportunities for our entire workforce,” Kelley said.

Luke Thomas, Chambers’ communications director, said Chambers also has traveled the state listening to voters. Those conversations have helped form policies the campaign has proposed, Thomas said, “reforming the education system, establishing more career pathways for students, increasing access to child care, creating a state-level child care tax credit, strengthening support for entrepreneurs, small and mid-sized businesses, expanding property tax relief, addressing rising health care and energy prices, improving public safety with tougher bail for violent criminals, and much more.”

But Holcomb—as part of what he calls a “very polite way” to try to steer the gubernatorial conversation—has penned a long column that lays out his administration’s and his predecessors’ achievements in 16 policy areas, then poses questions he believes the candidates should answer to be better prepared to lead.

“As the state’s chief executive, you won’t be able to rely on slogans or empty campaign promises to yield positive results,” Holcomb writes in the column, which IBJ has published on page 16A. “Instead, your vision and where you want to lead the state must be accompanied by detailed plans that you will implement.”

In a conversation with IBJ and Inside INdiana Business, the governor pointed to recent polling that shows a large number of GOP primary voters remain undecided despite a barrage of advertising.

A WXIN-TV Channel 59/WTTV-TV Channel 4/Emerson College/The Hill poll released earlier this month found that Braun leads fellow GOP gubernatorial candidates with 34% support, followed by Crouch and Doden at 7% and Chambers at 5%. But the poll also found that 43% of those surveyed were still undecided about the GOP primary race.

“I think there’s a correlation between being undecided this late into the game and not having consumed the information you need to make an informed vote,” Holcomb told IBJ.

The candidates, he said, are “not breaking through and connecting with the average voter at large. And I think, to date, the polling that at least I’ve read from others that’s been made public suggests that that’s the case.”

National vs. state issues

Laura Merrifield Wilson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis, said Holcomb’s “advice is wise from a job-holder perspective.”

“Surely if these candidates are interested in the office, they would want to tout what unique approaches or experiences they would bring to make them the best qualified,” she told IBJ in an email.

But, she added, many voters are more attuned to issues in the national news.

“A sophisticated voter may understand the role of the governor, their relationship and shared powers with the Legislature and the scope of their influence,” she said. “Most voters, though, are thinking about Trump and [Joe] Biden, concerns over migrants at the border, China’s seemingly unfair economic practices and the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. The issues from the state level are less visible.

“While candidates would certainly want the support of those sophisticated voters, they ultimately need the support of a majority of voters and that is going to include far more voters who know little about the office in comparison to those who know a lot,” she said.

Indeed, the Republican candidates for governor have aired ads focused on issues that are more national in scope—immigration; the United States’ relationship with China; and Donald Trump, who has endorsed Braun in the race.

But especially in recent weeks, the candidates have been talking about state issues, as well. In addition to addressing adoption and policing, Doden has touted his anti-abortion record, an issue more important now that the U.S. Supreme Court has turned those decisions over to states. Braun is talking about getting fentanyl off the streets and boosting manufacturing. Chambers is talking about creating jobs and reducing property taxes, which fund local government.

And Crouch’s campaign manager, Liz Dessauer, said the lieutenant governor’s “proposal to eliminate the state income tax will attract workers and help families being crushed by the high cost of living and Bidenflation.”

Crouch is also focusing on mental health issues in Indiana and providing mental health services for first responders, Dessauer said.

State issues have taken center stage at recent candidate forums and debates.

At an event Tuesday in Fishers hosted by the National Federation of Independent Business, the Indiana Builders Association and Americans for Prosperity of Indiana, the candidates talked extensively about job creation and the Indiana Economic Development Corp.

Chambers led the IEDC as it began developing the 9,000-acre LEAP Research and Innovation District in Boone County where Eli Lilly and Co. has agreed to invest $3.7 billion. State officials say they are in negotiations to put additional high-tech, high-wage employers there, as well.

But all the other candidates at the forum called for reeling in the IEDC’s power in exchange for more local control and transparency. “I’ve been very clear on this, that the IEDC should not be acting as a developer,” said Doden, who led the organization from 2013 to 2015.

That kind of talk worries Holcomb, who said the state, in order to be competitive, will need to continue developing LEAP and to use the same approach of proactively acquiring land and preparing it for development in other parts of the state.

“If we weren’t ready with a site ready to go, we wouldn’t be in the [economic development] conversations we’re in right now,” Holcomb said. “And these opportunities will change lives and family prospects for the better for generations to come.”

Endorsement uncertain

In his opinion column, Holcomb did not specifically address LEAP, which has proved to be controversial in part because of the amount of farmland the state is acquiring for development. But the site’s lack of available water and the state’s exploration of a plan to pump water from an aquifer near Lafayette to Boone County has spread the controversy further.

But he did address several economic issues, including maintaining the state’s pro-business policies and manufacturing-intensive focus and continuing to attract foreign direct investment.

Holcomb said he wants more specific information about the candidates’ plans in those areas and others—and he said those details will determine whether he endorses a candidate before the May 7 primary.

“I want to make sure that I thoroughly inspect who is going to lead on those issues that will require some new ideas, not just regurgitating or recycling what we’ve been doing or what Mike [Pence] did or Mitch [Daniels] did before,” he said. “I hear the word bold used a lot. Tell me in a detailed fashion what those bold plans are. I can get pretty excited about that.”

Holcomb acknowledged that an endorsement would need to come in the next two to three weeks if it’s to have any impact at all. And he said he hasn’t been talking with any of the candidates about the possibility of an endorsement.

In fact, when asked if Crouch is seeking an endorsement from Holcomb, who picked her to be his running mate, Dessauer said, “The governor is free to endorse whomever he wants.”

“Suzanne Crouch is working to earn the votes of Hoosiers,” Dessauer said. “She is the only candidate with [endorsements from] more than 150 Hoosier grassroots leaders, including more than 25 elected law enforcement officials.”

And even if Holcomb does weigh in, it’s not clear whether his opinion would be meaningful to voters.

The WXIN-TV Channel 59/WTTV-TV Channel 4 poll that found 43% of voters are undecided in the Republican primary race also found that just 36% of respondents approved of the job Holcomb is doing. About 30% disapproved of his performance, while 34% said they were neutral or had no opinion of him.

The governor earned 44% approval among Republicans and 24% among Democrats.

Holcomb “hasn’t been especially popular as a governor, particularly after the COVID era in which the far right in his party criticized his decisions,” Wilson said. “And in a Republican primary where most of the voters are going to be more conservative, the endorsement is hardly a requisite for electoral victory.”

But asked about his approval rating, Holcomb said the candidates can’t worry about poll results. Instead, he said, candidates and elected officials must make the best decisions they can and let time determine the effectiveness of those choices.

“Do the right thing and the rest will take care of itself,” he said. “Build a strong team, have a plan, share the plan and know that if you can look back and see the amount of investment that has made a difference in someone’s life, that will be all you need.”

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IBJ reporter John Russell and Inside INdiana Business reporter Cate Charron contributed to this story.