Pence exit spurs mad sprint among Hoosier Republicans

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Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s decision to select Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his vice presidential running mate on Friday ends a week of unprecedented chaos in Hoosier State politics — and sets off a monthlong scramble between ambitious Republicans hoping to ascend the state’s political ladder.

Already, three candidates have formally said they will seek to run for Pence’s job: Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb and Reps. Susan Brooks and Todd Rokita. 

{mosads}Another potential candidate, state House Speaker Brian Bosma, took himself out of the running on Friday.

The three candidates will vie for the votes of 22 members of the state Republican Party’s executive committee, which has 30 days to choose a replacement. Those members are taking a wait-and-see approach, several Indiana political observers said, while the final field shapes up.

“It’s way too early to get a handle on how the central committee will vote,” said Brian Howey, publisher of Howey Politics Indiana. “They know this could be a bloody process.”

The situation, Howey said, is unprecedented: The state central committee has never had to replace a gubernatorial nominee so late in the process.

Pence’s selection as Trump’s vice presidential nominee will reverberate beyond the governor’s race. Both Rokita and Brooks had to withdraw from their respective reelection bids to run for governor; Holcomb, too, had to quit his bid for a full term as lieutenant governor. The central committee will have to choose replacements for those three offices as well.

All three contenders are seeking promotions after short tenures. Rokita won his Fourth District, stretching from the northwest suburbs of Indianapolis to the Illinois border, in 2010, beating state Sen. Brandt Hershman and 11 other Republicans in the GOP primary that year. Brooks won her Fifth District seat, running from northern Indianapolis to Kokomo, in 2012, beating former Rep. David McIntosh and emergency room physician John McGoff with just 30 percent of the vote.

Holcomb, a longtime senior aide to former Gov. Mitch Daniels and Sen. Dan Coats, has been in public office for only a matter of months: He mounted a campaign for Coats’s Senate seat in 2015, but dropped his floundering bid to accept Pence’s offer to become lieutenant governor. He assumed office on March 3, just five months ago.

Ordinarily, a party losing its gubernatorial nominee four months before Election Day would severely damage, if not end, their hopes of holding the seat. 

But Indiana Republicans aren’t so sure that Pence’s exit will be entirely bad: His home-state approval ratings sank by 15 points after a controversy over a religious freedom bill last year. And he faced a difficult re-election bid against former state House Speaker John Gregg, who came within 80,000 votes — about 3 percentage points — of winning the governor’s mansion in 2012.

National Republicans have not yet polled the possible replacement candidates against Gregg, but the Republican Governors Association has already spent millions of dollars assaulting Gregg’s record in the legislature.

In a statement Friday, the RGA said it was confident Indiana Republicans would pick “a strong new gubernatorial nominee who will win this November.”

The dominoes falling within Indiana Republican circles come just days after Hoosier Democrats executed their own dramatic ballot switch: On Monday, former Rep. Baron Hill ended his long shot bid for a U.S. Senate seat to make way for former Sen. Evan Bayh, who is mounting an unexpected comeback bid six years after leaving the Senate.

“I missed public service virtually since the day I retired from Congress,” Bayh told Indianapolis Star political columnist Matthew Tully. “I didn’t miss Congress. I missed having the opportunity to help improve the lives of the people I served.”

Bayh’s entry into the race, at the urging of former Democratic colleagues in the Senate, scrambled what appeared to be a virtual lock for Republican nominee Todd Young. Polls showed Young crushing Hill; Democrats in Washington have passed around polls that show Bayh, who has won five statewide elections since 1986, leading Young.

Along with his statewide profile and winning record, Bayh brings another advantage over Hill: His mammoth war chest. Bayh left the Senate in 2011 with a federal bank account of more than $9 million, money he can use to pay for his campaign this year.

Young has raised a total of about $5.1 million for his bid so far, his campaign said this week. But a costly primary sapped much of Young’s resources: As of April 13, the last time Young’s campaign had to report its fundraising totals, the campaign had just under $1.1 million in the bank. 

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