Some in GOP fear Buttigieg run for governor

Even as Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegThe media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Tulsi Gabbard reacts to Afghanistan report, calls out Pete Buttigieg's McKinsey work Buttigieg surrogate on candidate's past consulting work: 'I don't think it matters' MORE's star shines brighter and brighter in the Democratic presidential primary, back home in Indiana there are GOP fears that the young South Bend mayor could drop out and instantly become a threat to win the state's governorship. 

The chance that Buttigieg would bow out of the presidential race to run for statewide office seems to be dropping by the day.

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The 37-year-old Harvard grad, Rhodes scholar and Afghanistan War veteran has caught fire among energized Democratic voters clamoring for a new generation of leaders and eager to oust President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate US sending 20,000 troops to Europe for largest exercises since Cold War Barr criticizes FBI, says it's possible agents acted in 'bad faith' in Trump probe MORE. He’s climbing in the polls and hauled in more than $7 million in the first quarter of 2019.

Yet there are persistent worries among GOP Hoosiers that Buttigieg could shift gears — if his presidential hopes fade — and instead try to unseat Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb in 2020, two GOP sources told The Hill.

“There is a growing concern and an increasing amount of anxiety among the Indiana Republican leaders associated with Gov. Holcomb that Buttigieg could make a switch several months down the road and challenge Holcomb for governor instead,” said one of the GOP sources who hails from Indiana and is close to the state party leadership.

“That’s why the Indiana state party is taking shots at Buttigieg,” the source added.

Buttigieg campaign spokesman Chris Meagher issued a five-word statement in response to this story: “Pete is running for president.”

And in a 20-minute phone interview, Indiana Republican Party Chairman Kyle Hupfer aggressively pushed back on what he called a “fabricated narrative,” insisting that Buttigieg would have no shot at winning a statewide race in Indiana.

Hupfer noted that Buttigieg in 2010 was crushed by Republican Richard Mourdock in the race for state treasurer.

“There is zero accuracy to it,” he told The Hill. "He’s not a viable candidate statewide in Indiana. There’s zero concern by the Indiana GOP that he could come back here and run against the governor.”

Buttigieg would need to file for the governor's race by Feb. 7 — just four days after the Iowa caucuses and four days before the New Hampshire primary.

So far, no Democrat has announced they are challenging Holcomb, though former state House Speaker John Gregg (D) may give it a third try after two unsuccessful bids in 2012 and 2016. Holcomb defeated Gregg by 6 percentage points in 2016; that was a much smaller margin than the nearly 20 points that Trump defeated Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDOJ backs ex-Trump campaign aide Rick Gates's probation request The media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Trump request for Ukrainian 'favor' tops notable quote list MORE in Indiana, which has been trending red in recent elections. 

If Buttigieg did launch a gubernatorial bid, he would do so with a newfound national profile and fundraising base the envy of other candidates.

As Buttigieg prepared to formally launch his presidential campaign last weekend, the Indiana Republican Party took to Twitter to repeatedly attack the two-term mayor of South Bend — a move that some Indiana conservatives viewed as an effort to bruise and bloody Buttigieg ahead of any statewide race.

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“Pete Buttigieg’s South Bend: High poverty, high eviction rates & ‘one of the most dangerous cities’ in America,” the Indiana GOP wrote in one of the tweets.

Because of Indiana’s size, the state GOP is deeply intertwined with Holcomb’s reelection campaign. And Hupfer, who is extremely close to the 50-year-old Holcomb, conceded that the Indiana GOP had stepped up its attacks on Buttigieg during the past week.

But the state party chairman said the flurry of tweets and press releases coincided with Buttigieg’s presidential campaign launch on Sunday. It also had to do with the fact that the mayor, who is married to a man, has directly challenged Vice President Pence’s opposition to same-sex marriage.

Pence, a staunch conservative and evangelical Christian, has remained close to Holcomb and the Indiana GOP. The vice president served as Indiana governor from 2013 to 2017, and Holcomb briefly served as his lieutenant governor.   

“Although [Buttigieg] was portraying himself as the collaborative, friendly Democratic mayor of South Bend, he has decided to build his fortune on attacking the president and vice president,” Hupfer said. “We started to amplify and put his real record out there in defense of our 2020 national ticket. We were not going to stand idly by as [Pence] was being besmirched.”

However, one Indiana conservative said he isn’t buying Hupfer’s story of political loyalty.  

“The Indiana GOP has been obsessed with Pete Buttigieg on social media the past week. Given the fact that the state party chair and Gov. Holcomb are joined at the hip, it is clear they view him as a threat,” said Rob Kendall, a Trump backer and conservative talk-radio host on 93.1 WIBC in Indianapolis.  

“For the Indiana GOP establishment, many of whom ran from Pence while he was governor and were openly Never Trumpers, to say their response is out of loyalty to either one of them would be highly disingenuous,” Kendall added. 

One Indiana GOP politician said he has not taken part in any conversations about a Buttigieg gubernatorial bid. But the politician argued that Buttigieg would certainly be a serious contender for statewide office.

“Pete is a very talented politician. He’s had a meteoric rise in Indiana and nationally and you’d have to be a fool to underestimate him,” said the GOP politician, who personally knows Buttigieg. “Indiana is not a ruby-red state. Obama won it eight years ago; Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyGinsburg health scare raises prospect of election year Supreme Court battle Watchdog accuses pro-Kavanaugh group of sending illegal robotexts in 2018 Lobbying world MORE won it eight years ago. A centrist Democrat with the right message could compete statewide.”

Still, the Republican politician said he didn’t think Buttigieg would ultimately run for statewide office: If Democrats win in 2020, “he will be president, vice president or serving in the Cabinet.”

Rep. Jackie WalorskiJacqueline (Jackie) R. WalorskiCongressional leaders unite to fight for better future for America's children and families The Suburban Caucus: Solutions for America's suburbs Protect American patients and innovation from a harmful MedTech Tax increase MORE (R-Ind.), whose district includes South Bend, had no comment about him possibly running for statewide office. But she praised Buttigieg for putting himself out there on the national stage.

“I respect whoever gets into this fray at the national level; obviously it’s a gigantic undertaking. As a fellow Hoosier, I wish him the best,” Walorski told The Hill. “We don’t agree on very much at all, but I’m there when he calls as a mayor, when he needs help at the federal level.”

Juliegrace Brufke and Jonathan Easley contributed.