INDIANAPOLIS — Now the fun begins.
With Democrat John Gregg’s selection of Indiana Rep. Christina Hale, D-Indianapolis, as his running mate, the rosters are set for this fall’s gubernatorial campaign. Gregg and Hale will be suiting up for the Democrats against the Republican incumbents, Gov. Mike Pence and Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb.
In person, Gregg, Pence, Hale and Holcomb are among the nicest people in the state. They are, without fail, genial and courteous. It is always easy to be in their company.
That is not, however, the way most Hoosiers will think of them by the time Nov. 8 rolls around. Between now and then, both sides will wage campaigns that are likely to be among the most negative in the state’s history.
Ever since announcing that he wanted a rematch with Pence, the man who beat him in the 2012 gubernatorial contest, Gregg has wasted few opportunities to depict the governor as a needlessly divisive figure, a leader more eager to pursue his right-wing social agenda than he is to promote the broader public interest.
Pence and his surrogates haven’t been exactly passive themselves. Several times a day, every pundit or reporter in the state receives emails from the state GOP or the Pence campaign attacking Gregg as a flip-flopper with a spine as stiff as meringue.
Keep in mind, all of this is occurring before the lieutenant governor candidates even have fully engaged — and it’s always the folks in the second spot on the ticket who serve as the attack dogs.
There’s a reason for this negativity.
Neither ticket can win without it.
Gregg’s challenge is that he’s running as a Democrat in a state that still is heavily Republican. He can’t attract enough votes to take the governor’s office unless he makes the case that Pence doesn’t deserve to be returned to office. His hope is to claim independents and shear away moderate Republicans — particularly moderate GOP women voters — from the governor’s column.
That is, in large part, why he chose Hale as his running mate. She has a record both of working on issues important to women and of reaching to Republicans to work on those issues. We can expect her to emphasize the governor’s lack of empathy for women in regard to reproductive rights, workplace equality and other matters.
Pence’s problem is that he didn’t gain a majority four years ago — he won with a plurality — and he’s used his four years to reinforce all the doubts independent and moderate Republican voters had about him. He and his surrogates tout, with drumbeat regularity, the state’s success in securing new jobs, but knowing observers see through the smoke.
Poverty rates in the state are exploding even as the jobs numbers increase. Many of the jobs coming into Indiana only serve to make Hoosiers work harder and harder to fall further and further behind.
Pence’s replacement of his 2012 running mate, Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann, with Holcomb was aimed, in part, at reassuring the business community and other establishment Republicans that he’s attuned to their interests.
There is, I know, an argument advanced by Pence partisans that the governor’s political problem is not that dire. They point to the fact that he captured more votes in the May 3 primary than Gregg did as evidence that he isn’t that damaged.
By that reasoning, of course, Democrat Jill Long Thompson should have won the 2008 race. In similar circumstances, she captured 200,000 more votes in the primary than Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, did.
Admittedly, I’m getting older, but my recollection is that Daniels served a second term as governor.
The reality is Pence is going to be hard-pressed to make a case for himself, so he has little choice but to discredit John Gregg as an acceptable alternative. The governor’s argument will be that he is the lesser of two evils.
Gregg’s case has to be that Pence’s tenure has been so disastrous that many Republicans should consider doing something desperate — like vote for a Democrat.
Both sides want to win.
And both sides are willing to win ugly.
Let the fun begin.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.