Since 1999 I've done an annual exercise, the Howey Politics Indiana Power 50 List, and this year's version finds Vice President Mike Pence, Gov. Eric Holcomb and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg atop this compilation.
Each of these men has an opportunity to transform American and Hoosier politics. Augmenting this year's list is the We Ask America Poll conducted in early December for the Indiana Manufacturers Association. As Pence appears to be heading off thinly veiled attempts by key presidential senior advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump to get him off the 2020 ticket, Hoosiers by 47.4% approve to 47.7% disapprove of President Trump’s job performance. This is consistent with 2019 polling by Ball State University and Morning Consult.
On the national right/wrong track, just 37% of registered voters in Indiana feel that the country is headed in the right direction, while a majority, 52%, say that things are on the wrong track, including 51% of independents and 26% of Republicans. Among female voters, the right/wrong track split is 29%/58%. This is a fascinating statistic, given the record-low unemployment (54% of Hoosiers think of the jobs situation as “good times”) and the bullishly unbridled stock markets.
As for the Indiana right/wrong track, 47% see the state on the right track, while 36% say wrong track. Holcomb’s job approval stands at 51% while 25% disapprove and a relatively high 25% have no opinion. That may be a reflection on how Trump dominates news cycles.
As for his reelection, an almost identical 51% believe Holcomb deserves a second term with 25% saying he “probably” does, while 24% say no.
Buttigieg is in a three-way tie in Iowa and is competitive in New Hampshire after raising north of $70 million. He picked up his first endorsement from the Congressional Black Caucus on Thursday, a key development given that's a huge constituency in the third state to weigh in, South Carolina. If he prevails in those first two states, with Politico describing him as the “linchpin” in the race, that could propel him well into the national realm.
As for Pence, who can question the vice president’s killer instincts on his lifelong quest for that 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. address? He anted up for the veep nomination at a time in 2016 when most establishment Republicans were brandishing 10-foot poles toward the Manhattan billionaire. He was the difference maker during the post-“Access Hollywood” home stretch victory run. He appears to have weathered Trump’s most wild and profane excesses, from the race-baiting MAGA rally tropes aimed at The Squad, to Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, to the Ukraine scandal that brought on the current impeachment debacle, and now Jarvanka’s Machiavellian behind-the-scenes palace coups.
Awaiting Pence in 2020 will be the likely futile inside attempts to force him off the ticket this spring and early summer, amid the “anything goes” antics of Trump in his bid to use impeachment to beat the “socialist” Democrats and win a second term. Pence has proven to be a Trump-era survivor with a Teflon veneer.
As for 2024 when he can run in his own right, Pence could find himself up against the Trump dynasty. In his new book “Triggered,” the president’s eldest son writes, “From the moment the nurses at New York Hospital inked the name ‘Donald John Trump Jr.’ onto my birth certificate, you might say I’ve been following in the footsteps of my father.”
Holcomb enters 2020 in the consequentially strongest position of any modern Hoosier governor. Not only does he have an $8 million cash advantage over his eventual Democratic challenger, most likely former Indiana and New York City health commissioner Woody Myers, he faces reelection with Trump and Pence atop the ticket, and may be in a position to select the next attorney general if the Indiana Supreme Court gives him that opening after a two-year license suspension was recommended for Curtis Hill, as well as appointing the next superintendent of public instruction. With the change of the guard underway in the Indiana General Assembly leadership, he faces a second term where he will be the senior power broker.
As the We Ask America pollster noted, “Among those (who) are unsure, the governor’s job approval sits right-side up at 22% approve/12% disapprove. While there exists a path to knocking off the governor, it’s a narrow one.” Holcomb appeared to open the door to teacher pay raises this year after some 15,000 teachers turned out for the “Red for Ed rally at the Statehouse last November. That constituency represents the greatest peril to his reelection, so if he can neutralize that grassroots movement that helped defeat Supt. Tony Bennett in 2012, he faces a glide path in 2020.
As for South Bend’s “Mayor Pete,” can Buttigieg become the first Hoosier to win a Democratic nomination for president? Or the first Hoosier nominee since Wendell Willkie in 1940? And if he does, could he carry Indiana in November? Those are the current $64,000 questions, but at this point, our take is the sky is the limit for this 37-year-old former mayor.
If he were to win the nomination and upset Trump this November, he would be the youngest president (Trump is our oldest), and the first mayor to go directly from city hall to the White House. If Buttigieg is denied the nomination, it would be easy to see him on the ticket, or in a future Democratic administration.