The race likely to be the most fiercely contested at the November general election largely will go unnoticed by many Indiana voters participating in the May 3 primary.
That’s because neither Republican Gov. Mike Pence nor Democrat John Gregg face opposition in the primary. They will advance to a rematch of their 2012 gubernatorial contest this coming November.
Several high-powered Indiana Republicans, including former Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, reportedly considered primary challenges to Pence after the governor’s support of religious freedom laws prompted boycotts of state business.
The 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act debacle drew harsh criticism from people who believed it allowed businesses to discriminate against the gay community.
But fear of splitting the GOP, and potentially handing an easy victory to Democrats, seems to have saved Pence from the hassle and scrutiny of a competitive primary.
Meanwhile, the continuing divide over gay marriage and civil rights protections — and divisions between business interests and social conservatives that comprise the Indiana Republican Party — is all but certain to result in a June convention floor fight regarding the party’s issue platform.
That fight could further alienate moderate Hoosier Republican voters, who already may be distancing themselves from the party if businessman Donald Trump or U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, become the GOP presidential nominee.
Shoring up the base perhaps explains why Pence has been aggressively attending Lincoln Day dinners and other Republican events across the state in this election year.
He’s often accompanied by new Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, the former chairman of the Indiana Republican Party and the 2008 campaign manager for Gov. Mitch Daniels, Pence’s popular predecessor.
At such events, the governor touts his record presiding over a steep decline in Indiana’s unemployment rate, reducing taxes every year of his term, focusing the state’s education system on workforce development and expanding health care access for low-income Hoosiers.
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He also takes credit for persuading the Republican-controlled General Assembly to enact this year a $1 billion infrastructure plan that does not increase taxes.
“We’re setting the pace in economic reform, in education reform, in health care reform, in virtually every area,” Pence said last month in Boone County. “We’re going to finish the work that was begun 12 years ago when we turned Indiana around.”
Hoosier Democrats united behind Gregg as their nominee after state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz quickly exited the gubernatorial race.
Gregg’s campaign is focused on wooing moderate Republicans now regretting their 2012 support for Pence following the governor’s sharp right turn on social issues, including abortion, immigration and civil rights. Pence previously indicated those would not be a priority for him.
If elected in November, Gregg has promised to end Republican attacks on public schools, work across party lines to develop sustainable road funding, add protections for LGBT Hoosiers to Indiana’s civil rights laws and seek to attract high-paying jobs to Indiana, not just a lot of minimum wage jobs.
“The big difference is that Mike Pence wants to be governor. That means he’s concerned about the title and the trappings,” Gregg said. “I want to serve as governor.
“I want to serve the 6 million people. I want to work on their problems because they’re all of our problems. I want to put them first.”
Pence defeated Gregg in 2012 by just 75,408 votes out of nearly 2.6 million cast.
In Indiana’s only other gubernatorial rematch, in 1831, incumbent Gov. Noah Noble won a second term.