GOP’s Holcomb low profile in month since replacing Pence
INDIANAPOLIS — Most voters around Indiana could be excused if they don’t know much yet about the new Republican candidate for governor.
It has been nearly a month since GOP leaders picked Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb to replace Mike Pence on the November ballot after Pence dropped his re-election bid to become Donald Trump’s vice presidential running mate.
Those weeks have passed without Holcomb airing television advertisements or holding many campaign events to introduce himself to voters across the state against Democratic candidate John Gregg, a former Indiana House speaker who narrowly lost to Pence four years ago.
Gregg started airing TV ads right after the May primary and had been matched by Pence in what was shaping up as a contentious rematch of their 2012 campaign before Pence withdrew on July 15.
Holcomb, who became lieutenant governor in March and has never been elected to office, won the Republican state committee vote 11 days later, but has kept a low profile since then.
The Republican Governors Association has spent heavily on television commercials criticizing Gregg and linking him to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The group’s ads haven’t mentioned Holcomb, while one Gregg ad targets Holcomb for saying he is proud to run on Pence’s record as governor.
Holcomb’s campaign says it will start running TV ads soon, but won’t give any details. Holcomb spokesman Pete Seat said the campaign has been using phone banks, door-to-door efforts and social media to reach voters.
“This campaign has a strategy and a plan and it is being executed,” Seat said. “We’re not in the business of flashing neon signs with what our plans are so that the other side sees them and can respond and react.”
Holcomb, a former state Republican chairman who was a top aide to Pence’s two-term predecessor, Mitch Daniels, has strong ties to political insiders but must become better known with fewer than 80 days before Election Day, said Joseph Losco, director of Ball State University’s Bowen Center for Public Affairs.
“His overall name recognition is still pretty low and, of course, he got a late start,” Losco said. “Gregg’s got some history in the state from his last campaign and he’s been spending money around the state throughout the entire campaign period.”
Holcomb touted his access to Pence’s $7 million state campaign fund ahead of the GOP state committee’s nomination vote. But only about $1.25 million of the governor’s campaign money has been transferred to Holcomb so far in a process complicated by federal rules limiting the size of contributions that now apply to Pence as a federal candidate.
It is unclear whether more of Pence’s money has been transferred to other political groups, such as the Republican Governors Association, or refunded to contributors. Pence campaign representatives didn’t return messages seeking comment, and Seat declined to say whether the Holcomb campaign expected more of the Pence money.
Most of the money from large contributions — those $10,000 or more — that the campaigns have been required to report to state election officials since mid-July are from a handful of sources.
Holcomb’s take totaled nearly $1.8 million as of Friday, the bulk from the Pence transfer and $250,000 from the RGA. Gregg, who had about $5.8 million in campaign money at the end of June, has received just over $1 million in big donations since then.
Gregg spokesman Jeff Harris said the Holcomb campaign isn’t in a strong position after boasting about being able to get Pence’s campaign money.
“It’s clear there are federal violations associated with that and so he’s dead in the water,” Harris said.
The Holcomb campaign says it is having fundraising success.
“We, in turn, are using that in responsible ways to make sure we get the message out to the people who need to hear it,” Seat said. “Which, at this point, is pretty much everyone.”
Gregg had been locking a tight campaign against Pence, criticizing him over Indiana’s average incomes lagging behind national marks and Pence’s focus on social issues, such as last year’s religious objections bill that sparked a national uproar after Pence signed it into law.
Holcomb has said he’s “quite proud” of Pence’s record and argues Indiana has advanced under 12 years of Republican governors after the previous Democratic governors lacked “the courage to take on big problems.”
The close campaign seems in place despite the candidate change. A poll sponsored by Monmouth University released last week showed Holcomb with 42 percent support, with Gregg at 41 percent. That is well within the 4.9 percent margin of error for the poll taken Aug. 13-16.