Pence gave Democrats lots of campaign fodder

INDIANAPOLIS — It was just hours after the General Assembly adjourned for the year that one Democrat said he planned to run for governor and another said she was thinking about.

No surprise.

After all, Republican Gov. Mike Pence, who appears poised to seek a second term, gave his opponents plenty to work with.

There’s the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Pence not only signed into law but defended even as business leaders and gay rights opponents said it would promote discrimination.

There’s the elimination of the common construction wage, a change that will likely mean reduced pay for workers on public projects. Democrats and even some Republicans argued that’s the wrong move in a state where per capita income trails the rest of the nation.

And there’s the governor’s push to strip the only statewide elected Democrat — State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz — of her position as chairwoman of the State Board of Education. The ultimately unsuccessful move has been part of a larger, mostly successful effort by Pence and GOP legislative leaders to diminish Ritz’s authority.

All three of these legislative priorities for Pence are tailor made for political commercials.

Whatever voters may think of the reasons that Pence says he backed RFRA, he just did himself no favors ducking questions from ABC’s George Stephanopoulos about whether the law allowed or promoted discrimination. And then, Pence signed into law a “fix” that managed to anger his most conservative supporters. So it’s not clear who he has left supporting him on this one.

But you can bet you’ll see part of that Stephanopoulos interview on TV again in the form of television commercials against Pence.

The common construction wage debate pits unions against, well, Republicans really. Often these issues come down to labor verses business owners. But even some construction company owners came to the Statehouse to protest a change to the common construction wage system, which lets local governments set minimum pay for workers on larger projects.

Still, the bill passed the House and Senate.

Democrats seem to think they can make a lot out of this issue politically, but it’s not clear they’ll be successful. They thought the same about right-to-work, a change Republicans pushed into law that labor leaders said could destroy unions.

But the arguments never seemed to catch on with voters, who sent even larger Republican majorities to the Statehouse in the first election after right-to-work approval.

Finally, there’s the Ritz mess. The Pence and Ritz administrations have been at odds, almost at war, since they were elected in 2012. And frankly, it’s not hard to blame both sides for the problems.

Still, it’s not tough to imagine the commercial that accuses Pence of trying to undermine the will of voters by taking Ritz out of a role that’s a statutory part of the job. Republican leaders seem to have thought better of the move and postponed the change until after the next election. But it won’t be hard for opponents to make the case against Pence.

Of course, none of that matters if Democrats don’t have the right candidate actually making the argument. John Gregg, who lost to Pence in 2012, announced that he’s in the race. And Ritz said she’s thinking about it. Other Democratic leaders are also weighing a bid. To unseat Pence, they need to use their primary to figure out who can take on Pence the best.

Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor at TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at 379-5639 or johannesen@therepublic.com.