Indiana Republican candidates trade barbs during gubernatorial debate

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By Mickey Shuey

Indiana Business Journal

Four Indiana Republican gubernatorial candidates took turns trading barbs Tuesday night in the first of two debates set for this week.

Most of the quips and jabs during the one-hour event hosted by WTTV-TV Channel 4 and WXIN-TV Channel 59 were directed at frontrunner Sen. Mike Braun, with a focus on his track record in the Indiana General Assembly and Congress on topics including immigration policy, economic development and taxation.

Braun was joined in the statewide televised debate by Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, Fort Wayne businessman Eric Doden and former Indiana Secretary of Commerce Brad Chambers, all of whom met fundraising and polling thresholds to qualify, according to organizers. Republican candidates Curtis Hill and Jamie Reitenour did not qualify.

A March 7 poll from CBS 4/Fox 59, Emerson College and The Hill found Braun leads fellow GOP gubernatorial candidates with 34% support, followed Crouch (7%), Doden (7%) and Chambers (5%).

Throughout the debate, moderated by news anchors Beairshelle Edme and Dan Spehler, the candidates largely stuck to their talking points rather than going into the specifics of policy initiatives or where they stand on specific matters.

Generally, most of the four candidates avoided direct answers tied to matters such as faltering infrastructure in Andrews, Indiana, or whether embryos should be considering living children.

The candidates all said they were opposed to recreational marijuana, but all but Crouch said they were at least “open” to medical cannabis. All said they support in vitro fertilization. All also said they were open to the idea of Indiana using a single time zone, with Braun and Chambers both saying that if it were to happen, they’d lean toward Central Time over Eastern.

Throughout the debate, Doden and Chambers took aim directly at Braun. Early on, the two hit the senator in response to a question about whether they would support and abide by a federally mandated mass deportation initiative of illegal immigrants that has been proposed by former President Donald Trump as part of his campaign.

Chambers pointed to Braun’s record of sponsoring and authoring bills in Senate, stating that he has not been involved in any immigration-related policy. Doden said while he thinks both President Joe Biden and Congress have fallen down on the job, he doesn’t believe Braun in particular has been a productive representative for the state on the matter.

“I’ll point to Sen. Mike Braun, who goes down to the border and cuts a TV commercial that tells us that he’s bringing solutions to the problem, and just a few short days later then says ‘We’re not going to pass solutions because of politics.’ That’s just not leadership,” he said.

Braun, who opted to run for governor rather than pursue reelection in the Senate, pushed back on Doden’s characterization and said the bill put forth on immigration was “never going to do anything” to address the ongoing challenges at the border.

“A bill, unless a guy like [Sen. Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer is going bring it forward, it’s not going to work,” he said. “You need to learn how that works in the U.S. government, obviously.”

Candidates had largely consistent views on whether or not to keep the state’s gas tax, which will increase to 18.9 cents per gallon in April, with each saying they would likely look elsewhere to make cuts.

Crouch leaned into her “Axe the Tax” idea that is focused on gradually eliminating the state’s income tax.

Braun said he does not support increasing the gas tax, but believes keeping it in place is important to sustaining the state’s roads and bridges.

“If we want to keep what we’re known best for, if we want to get economic development into this state, you’ve got to make sure your infrastructure is in good shape,” he said. “That happened years ago in the state legislature and that’s why we’ve got roads and bridges in good shape.”

Doden and Chambers both said they would support reducing or better controlling property tax values as governor, rather than eliminating the gas tax.

Chambers also hit Braun on his vote in 2017 to support the gas tax, which he called the “largest tax increase in state history.”

While Crouch largely avoided being drawn into the disputes between her opponents, she was chastised by Doden for her efforts to eliminate the income tax.

“I think it’s inappropriate for a governor to make a promise that they can’t keep,” he said. “Our income taxes cannot be axed—it would be a 40% blow to the budget, $8 billion. We need to work with the General Assembly to make sure that we lower taxes as much as possible in a fiscally responsible way.”

Crouch responded that her “opponent has selective hearing” on the matter, noting that she doesn’t expect the tax to be eliminated immediately, but a goal to work toward.

“You can be entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts,” she said, adding that the income tax has declined in recent years, to its current level of 3.1%.

Barbs continued throughout the night on issues of economic development, with Braun going after both Doden and Chambers for their records during their time with the Indiana Economic Development Corp.

Specifically, Braun bemoaned Chambers’ efforts on Boone County’s planned LEAP Research and Innovation District, which has faced pushback from residents and neighboring counties over concerns about the project’s impact on development efforts elsewhere in the state and on the region’s water supply. (LEAP is an acronym for “Limitless Exploration/Advanced Pace.”)

Doden—who said his economic development strategy would focus on small towns and regional cities— indicated he would fully support an independent audit of the IEDC if elected. Crouch and Braun also said they would support such an audit, while Chambers said “there’s already transparency” at the IEDC, adding the agency goes through multiple audits and has other guardrails in place for its spending.

Chambers also took the opportunity to tout $51 billion in development commitments to the state during his time at the helm of the IEDC, and the impact those projects, whether at LEAP or elsewhere, have on other parts of the state.

He further hit Braun on his decision to not support the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 co-authored by Indiana Sen. Todd Young, which he said has led to eight high-wage companies focused on semiconductor manufacturing to the state. (CHIPS stands for “Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors.”)

“We don’t want to take Sen. Braun’s advice on this,” Chambers said. “He’s the one that said in 2018, ‘We want to bring back jobs from China, jobs overseas,’ and then he went and vetoed and didn’t support the CHIPS Act. … So let’s not take his advice on economic development.”

The candidates also were asked to grade Gov. Eric Holcomb’s time in office. While Doden declined to provide a specific answer, as he’s “focused on the future of Indiana,” the others responded with varied letter grades.

While Chambers gave Holcomb an A, particularly on the economic development agenda—in which he played a large role from 2021 through 2023—Braun awarded the outgoing governor a B-, saying he thought Holcomb could have made some better choices.

Crouch gave two grades, an A and a C, indicating that while she believes the state’s economy deserved an A, his response to the COVID-19 pandemic was worthy of a C.

“On COVID, looking back, that would be a C,” she said. “We will not have lockdowns, masks or mandates when I’m governor because of what it has done to Hoosiers, with the increase in anxiety and depression, particularly among our young people. And those young Hoosiers are the future of Indiana.”

The Republicans will next take the stage at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday for a debate broadcast by WISH-TV Channel 8 from the Madam Walker Legacy Center.