INDIANAPOLIS – Having a beer in late 2014 with Eric Holcomb at the Old Point Tavern below my office, I posed this question: Have you ever thought about running for office yourself?
“Yes,” Holcomb responded. Others had suggested the same thing. He had run for an Indiana House seat in 2000 but lost. Beyond that, he had compiled an impressive resume working with U.S. Rep. John Hostettler, Mitch Daniels in his first 2004 gubernatorial campaign and managing his 2008 re-election.
Holcomb had been Daniels’ deputy chief of staff, Republican state chairman and at this point was working for U.S. Sen. Dan Coats.
When you get to know Eric Holcomb, now Indiana’s governor-elect, you find an enduring sturdiness wrapped around a fine sense of humor, and an inherent optimism, all towering above a cool set of cowboy boots.
You can have an informed conversation with Holcomb about AC/DC (the rock band) or about President Abraham Lincoln, at whose Illinois home and grave he spent part of his bachelor’s party.
As we talked about his own political future, he tells stories that hint at how he constantly moves the ball up court. Retrieving ballot petitions for Gov. Mitch Daniels, he found a cantankerous clerk down in Southern Indiana, unmoved by his mission. The office closed for lunch, and Holcomb found a nearby florist. He returned at 1:01 p.m. with a bouquet and a smile. Mission accomplished.
As the suds formed a final mustache on our upper lips, neither of us knew what was in store. About three months later, Coats announced he would retire. Within hours, Holcomb kicked off his U.S. Senate campaign, saying, “This campaign will seek to attract people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives and experiences. We will welcome and engage them. This campaign will be about Indiana’s voice and anyone who knows me knows, this campaign is going to have some fun along the way.”
He spoke these words just hours before Gov. Mike Pence would sign the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that would eventually force him away from a 2016 presidential candidacy.
As we now know, that fateful week in March 2015 kicked in motion one of the most improbable chapters in Hoosier political history. Holcomb’s Senate campaign never really found traction, but it did get the attention of Pence when he needed to replace Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann. Holcomb was his man. No one knew Pence himself would capture the attention of a billionaire mogul named Donald Trump.
Had Pence not traveled to New York to retrieve that vice presidential bid July 14, a Trump ticket with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on board might have crashed and burned because of the conviction of two top aides in the “Bridgegate” scandal.
With Pence going nationwide, Holcomb had his own tipping point moments.
Ten days after Pence secured the vice presidential nod, Holcomb found himself at historic crossroads. Never before had just 22 people held an Indiana gubernatorial nomination in their hands as the Republican Central Committee did. As the caucus date of July 26 neared, Holcomb had the big momentum.
He had nominated Pence at the Republican National Convention on national TV. He spent much of the week at the Hilton Gardens Hotel near the Cleveland airport and on the convention floor making his case, while U.S. Reps. Susan Brooks and Todd Rokita did the same, sometimes just a few feet away.
When Holcomb, Rokita and Brooks drove back to Indiana that Friday, July 22, the Holcomb team was expressing button-popping confidence. Pence had endorsed him that Friday, as had Speaker Brian Bosma, Senate President David Long and U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, along with Marsha Coats, the national committeewoman.
There were rumors the campaign pushed that Holcomb had up to 16 votes when Monday, July 25, rolled up, but other insiders were describing the process as “fluid.”
Committee members seemed to be concentrating on the “electability” question. Some were pushing for a Brooks/Holcomb ticket, a combination that would be the best of the top two choices.
And then came Tuesday, July 26. The ultimate confirmation that Holcomb didn’t have it sewed up came when the first ballot took almost an hour, ending up 11 votes for Holcomb, nine for Brooks and two for Rokita. At least one Holcomb vote didn’t materialize.
Chairman Jeff Cardwell commenced the second ballot almost immediately, but sources in the room tell me that in the brief interlude between the two ballots, former legislator Dan Dumezich, of Schererville, was in an intense conversation with Clark County Sheriff Jamey Noel, an ardent Holcomb supporter, in a backroom corner.
The second ballot results were never released by Cardwell, but most believe Dumezich had switched his vote from Rokita to Holcomb, giving him the magic 12th vote.
Gov.-elect Holcomb spent 2015 and 2016 meeting and convincing Hoosiers he was the real deal. He tried to shoot a basketball in every high school arena in the state. When he hit that three-pointer at the buzzer last July, his improbable journey will make him Indiana’s 51st governor in January.