Politico

Indiana's crowded GOP race for governor heats up

The Indiana Republican primary for governor is turning into one of the most crowded and competitive early contests of 2024.

Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch and Sen. Mike Braun are both expected to make dueling announcements Monday, joining Fort Wayne businessperson Eric Doden, a former economic development appointee of former Gov. Mike Pence who has been in the race since last spring. They could also be joined by the sitting Secretary of Commerce Brad Chambers, according to a person familiar with his thinking. They are battling to succeed GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb, who is term-limited.

Braun, who filed papers to run last week and is a multimillionaire from his career running a distribution company, is expected to announce at an Indianapolis steakhouse where a dry-aged, bone-in ribeye goes for $94 — a far different set of optics from Braun’s Senate campaign in 2018, during which he campaigned in a blue collared shirt. Crouch, meanwhile, is slated to make the leap in her hometown of Evansville.

“Hoosiers want a leader that can propel them into the future,” Crouch, a former state lawmaker, and state auditor, told POLITICO in an interview last week, as she signed paperwork in a coffee shop to make her bid official. “Over the past eight years, I’ve met with Hoosiers in their homes and their workplaces and in their schools and in their places of worship, and I’ve listened to them and I’ve heard them. And I truly understand what Hoosiers need.”

The growing field is a sign of how big the Indiana GOP bench has grown, in a state where the party has controlled the governorship for two decades and currently holds more than 88 percent of all county-elected offices. It is pitting typical allies hungry to advance against each other, reshaping the state’s delegation in Washington. And the race is testing the loyalties of a restless GOP base that punished Holcomb, the moderate governor, for his Covid-era restrictions last summer, by rejecting his handpicked secretary of state candidate at a party convention.

“We’re confident that we’ll have an exciting and qualified field of candidates running in 2024 and look forward to working with the eventual nominees to ensure that we continue to deliver real results for Hoosiers,” said Luke Thomas, the Indiana GOP’s press secretary.

In what insiders viewed as an effort to freeze the field, Braun, who began his own quest for the Senate in 2018 mired in the single digits, released an internal poll last week of 1,555 likely Republican voters showing him with a commanding 47 percent of the vote to Crouch’s 10 percent and Doden’s 5 percent. More than one-third of voters, 37 percent, remain undecided.

Crouch, who if successful would be the first female governor in Indiana history, said in an interview prior to her announcement that her candidacy would focus on the economy, education, and solving the state’s addiction and mental health problems. She enters the race with a record as a capable fundraiser and a longtime public official who has championed broadband expansion in rural areas of the state.

She resisted the idea that she would be hampered among grassroots party activists by her eight-year affiliation with Holcomb and his Covid-era restrictions.

“I believe our governor made the best decisions he could based upon the information that was available,” Crouch said of Holcomb, who issued a stay-at-home order and shuttered non-essential businesses in the early days of the pandemic. She added: “The issues of 2022 will not be the issues of 2024.”

Doden, who then-Gov. Mike Pence appointed as his top economic development official in 2013, joined the race in the spring of last year and has advanced a platform including zero-cost adoptions and revitalizing the state’s small towns through regional development authorities. Like Crouch, Doden is flush with $3 million and has hired the Republican firm WPA Intelligence, led by Chris Wilson, as well as Sen. Todd Young’s general consultant, Cam Savage’s Limestone Strategies.

“We understand that my background is not one coming from years and years and years and politics,” Doden said. “I’m somebody that’s coming from the outside. I think once we get our story out there, we’re going to compete really well.”

One factor that could ultimately limit the size of the field: Braun’s vacant Senate seat. Other Republicans who may have been inclined to eye a run for governor are instead looking at Senate bids.

That includes Rep. Jim Banks, who could face off in a Senate primary with Rep. Victoria Spartz or even Jennifer-Ruth Green, the Air Force veteran who came within 5 points of defeating Democratic Rep. Frank Mrvan in November.

One oft-mentioned candidate who has cooled on the idea of joining the governor’s race is former Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is finishing his term as president of Purdue University this month. He told POLITICO that he is “disinclined” to run after allies floated him as a possible gubernatorial candidate last summer. Daniels turned down an appointment to former Vice President Dan Quayle’s Senate seat when Quayle’s nomination left it vacant in 1988, saying it would not be good for his then-young family.

Now, Daniels is said to be weighing a Senate bid for the seat once held by his first boss in politics: the late Richard Lugar. “He has not dismissed the idea,” said Mark Lubbers, Daniels’ longtime confidant and a top political adviser early in his gubernatorial administration. Evaluating Daniels’ interest, Lubbers distinguished the role of a senator from that of a governor.

“A senator is one of 100 in lawmaking — but, more importantly in this case, a voice,” Lubbers said. “For someone of Mitch’s experience and reputation it would be a way to have a role in shaping national policy that would be larger than the official role — 1 of 100. Few if any senators have his breadth of past roles or his reputation. So his voice would count for more.” Lubbers added: “He could truly be a unique character.”

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