INDIANAPOLIS - When Gov. Eric Holcomb addresses Hoosiers in his annual State of the State address next Tuesday, you will be looking at one of the strongest chief executives in Indiana history.
Indiana has a constitutionally weak governor. This stemmed back to our territorial days when Gov. William Henry Harrison and others wielded such power that it stirred great resentment. When the state's 1851 constitution was drawn, the milquetoast governor was created, with no ability to form a cabinet (secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, attorney general and superintendent are elected) or propose budgets. Much of gubernatorial power seen in other states shifted to the judiciary and the General Assembly. The early governors could not seek reelection, though one, Gov. Henry Schricker, served two non-consecutive terms.
Gradually, the Hoosier governor has been strengthened. During the Civil War, Gov. Oliver P. Morton took command of the state's militia and suspended a Copperhead General Assembly in 1862 after Democrats threatened to bolt the Union. Morton also took control of state finances during the war. Beginning in 1972, governors could serve consecutive terms. In 2017, the General Assembly passed and Gov. Holcomb signed legislation allowing the superintendent of public instruction to become a gubernatorial appointee. Governors now propose budgets, as Holcomb did this past week.
As Holcomb begins the second half of his initial term, he does so with another super-majority Republican General Assembly with the GOP having an advantage of 40-10 in the Senate and 67-33 in the House. To put that in perspective with recent Republicans, Gov. Mitch Daniels had to deal with a Democratic House and Speaker Pat Bauer in his third year, Gov. Robert Orr was saddled with a deep recession, a historic budget deficit and had to call a special session for a record tax increase (leading to a tough and narrow reelection victory in 1984), and Gov. Doc Bowen lost General Assembly majorities heading into his third year due to the electoral fallout from the Watergate scandal. Recent Democratic governors -- Evan Bayh, Frank O'Bannon and Joe Kernan -- always had a Republican Senate majority to grapple with.
The Holcomb administration has been stable, with few agency and senior staff departures that typically come by now. With the Senate and fiscal leadership changes this past year with the retirements of President David Long and fiscal chairs Luke Kenley and Brandt Hershman, Holcomb’s budget team of Jason Dudich and Micah Vincent wield wide influence in that sphere.
With the decision by Supt. Jennifer McCormick not to seek reelection, Holcomb is poised to move up the date for an appointed superintendent to coincide with his 2020 reelection instead of 2024, which would allow him to be the first governor to consolidate education policy. Govs. Bayh, O’Bannon and Mike Pence could have only dreamed of such a scenario. That trio had to deal with an elected superintendent from the other party. During Pence's tenure, he openly feuded with Supt. Glenda Ritz and unsuccessfully tried to establish a parallel education wing.
Politically, Holcomb sits on an unprecedented $4 million campaign war chest ($4.8 million when combined with Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch) and nearly $6 million when the Indiana GOP is included. So, this gives Holcomb immense political clout as his team seeks to ward off Democratic challengers who at this writing don’t exist. His approval rating in the Public Opinion Strategies Poll in December stood at a gaudy 65 percent, with only 22 percent disapproving. The state’s right/wrong track numbers were at 55/33 percent.
As I explain in the 2019 Howey Politics Indiana Power 50 List, Holcomb's Republican state chairman, Kyle Hupfer, is the most conspicuous part of a tight inner circle that includes 4th Congressional District Chairman Mike O’Brien and Brian McGrath, who heads up the Imagine Indiana advocacy arm. This is the group with which Holcomb mulls policy and politics. During his two years heading up Holcomb’s political wing, Hupfer has united the various campaigns (governor, lieutenant governor and state GOP) and raised big bucks while the GOP dominates the Statehouse, General Assembly and congressional delegation in addition to holding 80 percent of county offices.
All of this allows Holcomb to use his considerable political capital on such issues as hate crime legislation while looking to increase by considerable amounts state investments in the Department of Child Services, Medicaid expansion, the opioid crisis, rural broadband and a state trails system.
His consolidation of power has given him the gravitas to make out-of-box decisions, such as his toll road tax increase on truckers last summer. Holcomb is taking the policy helm of the Republican Governors Association, giving him a foothold on the national stage.
It hasn't been entirely smooth sailing. He called for the resignation of Attorney General Curtis Hill after sexual harassment allegations surfaced last summer. Hill has refused, setting up a potential 2020 convention showdown. After a 2018 marriage plank vote Holcomb and Hupfer lost at the Evansville convention, some social conservatives are urging Hill to challenge Holcomb, but that would be a fool's errand. A popular Indiana governor is not going to get beat in a primary.
When you add all of this up, and ponder a potentially open White House in 2024 (or, perhaps, a Democratic incumbent), don’t be surprised if you start hearing Team Holcomb talk about a presidential run after his boot heels amble out of the Second Floor.
Brian A. Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.