Hot Races to Watch: Indiana Governor

Pence battles to prove the heartland can endure an outside onslaught

Shifting into the intense glare of the 2016 GOP nominating contest for the White House has done little to bring any attention to the showdown stewing in the Indiana’s 2016 gubernatorial contest. 2012 Democratic nominee for governor John Gregg is hoping that lingering controversy over religious liberty protections may be enough to give him the edge in a rematch with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. The race is set to be brutish and close.

The former speaker of the Indiana House was edged out by Pence for the keys to the governor’s mansion in a razor-thin, 3.2 percent margin in 2012. Since then Pence has weathered a veritable hurricane of criticism in the media for signing into law religious liberty protections, described by figures on the Left as discriminatory.

The firestorm over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act sent activist business dons and liberal politicians alike into a frenzy of condemnation. The Democratic governors of Connecticut, New York, Washington, and Vermont all banned nonessential state sponsored travel to Indiana. Several of those governors, including Democratic gubernatorial campaign committee chair Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, repeated the move in recent weeks, banning travel to North Carolina over the state’s so-called “Bathroom Bill.”

The quartet of liberal governors were joined in their protest by Apple CEO Tim Cook, who called the law “deeply disappointing.”

But despite the onslaught of negative coverage in the national media and the condemnations from liberal governors and some activist businesses, Pence survived mostly intact.

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A poll conducted by WISH-TV/Ball State Hoosier roughly six months after the controversy flared out found Pence’s approval rating still above water, with 47 percent of Hoosiers approving of his job in office compared with just 35 percent who disapproved.

Pence will be determined to prove that Hoosiers won’t be swayed by what liberals on the coasts or elites in the media think. Gregg will attempt to wield the issue against Pence to fire up more liberal Indiana voters located in the Indianapolis metro area and generate big fundraising figures from national opponents of the RFRA measure.

Gregg did out-raise Pence in the first quarter of 2016, with a $1.8 million haul compared to $1.5 million for the incumbent. But Pence still boasts the larger war chest after amassing a large monetary lead in 2015. Filings showed the governor with a nearly 2-1 advantage in cash on hand, with $6.8 million in the bank compared to Gregg’s $3.5 million.

Pence is also likely to enjoy added firepower on the airwaves from outside groups. The Koch Brothers-backed Super PAC Americans for Prosperity began running ads in March praising the incumbent governor for efforts to thwart new energy regulations from the Obama administration.

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There has been scant public polling of the race in 2016, but several polls conducted throughout the previous year showed Pence and Gregg locked in a tight contest — within the margin of error. Pence, who has maintained a strict policy of never running negative ads since he first won elected office in 2000, recently admitted he would use whatever ammunition he had in the tough rematch with Gregg.

At the top of the ticket, Republican candidates for president typically do well in Indiana; the GOP has taken the state in 9 of the last 10 White House contests. This is a tilt that could nominally benefit Pence.

But Hoosiers also have some precedent for splitting their votes. GOP candidate for U.S. Senate Richard Mourdock lost to Democrat Joe Donnelley by 6 points in 2012, despite Mitt Romney carrying the state by over ten points.

Pence continues to gain some benefit from a strong Indiana economy, largely inherited from Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, and the fact that the state leans solidly red. So long as Republicans in the heartland of Indiana do not stay home in protest over the eventual GOP nominee for president, and Pence can keep it competitive in the Indianapolis suburbs, the incumbent remains favored in the rematch with Gregg.

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