- The Washington Times - Monday, December 7, 2015

Indiana has several statewide elections next year that Democrats hope will help them gain more leverage in the red-leaning state, but the contest for governor has stolen the spotlight — a rematch of the 2012 election.

Republican Gov. Mike Pence once again will go up against John Gregg, a pro-business Democrat who has enjoyed a long career in Indiana’s legislature.

“Pence is known for his support of issues involving traditional morality — pro-life, anti-gay rights,” said Marjorie Hershey, a political scientist at Indiana University. “That puts him in conflict with the business-oriented branch of the Indiana Republican Party, which doesn’t want businesses or the state itself linked with discrimination against a group toward whose rights public sentiment has become substantially more favorable in a pretty short time.”

If Mr. Gregg can gain traction, there is a chance he could swing down-ballot votes for Democrats seeking other statewide offices, such as the Senate, said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Describing himself as a “gun-totin,’ Bible-quotin,’ Southern Indiana Democrat,” Mr. Gregg had a long career in the Indiana House of Representatives, where he served from 1987 to 2003. He was speaker of the House from 1996 to the end of his tenure.

His supporters hope Mr. Gregg’s plain-spoken persona will endear him to moderate Republicans seeking a change from Mr. Pence’s leadership.

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“The different advantage we have this time around is that Mike Pence has to run on his record this time,” said Tim Henderson, Mr. Gregg’s campaign manager. “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act this year made Indiana a major national embarrassment, and he just doesn’t have a good record to run on.”

He was referring to the religious freedom law Mr. Pence signed earlier this year to allow businesses to cite religious beliefs as a defense if sued. But the law was written so broadly that critics said it allowed businesses to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. Mr. Pence later signed a revised version to clarify that it did not allow such discrimination, but his favorability ratings still took a hit.

“He’s become kind of a lightning rod,” said Leslie Lenkowsky, a public affairs professor at the University of Indiana.

The stakes for Indiana Democrats are high: In the past 40 years, a Democratic presidential candidate has won the state only twice — most recently President Obama in 2008. But he barely won by 25,000 votes, a slim margin considering his strong campaign infrastructure in the state and widespread national enthusiasm for his presidential bid, Mr. Downs said.

In the same time period, Indiana has had seven governors, three of whom were Democrats.

Predicting the outcome of next year’s gubernatorial race is no mean feat, even if it is a rematch of the 2012 election, Mr. Lenkowsky said, noting troublesome issues in the Pence administration.

For example, the Republican governor has had to address an HIV outbreak in which 250 people have been diagnosed with the virus this year.

In August, a bridge on Interstate 65 — a key thoroughfare between Indianapolis and Chicago — nearly collapsed, causing several accidents and major traffic delays. The Indiana Department of Transportation had graded the bridge as failing for more than a decade, and Democrats said the Pence administration did not do enough to improve the state’s aging infrastructure.

Drew Anderson, a spokesman for the Indiana Democratic Party, said Mr. Gregg could better represent “the crossroads of America” because of his stance on education — he wants to fund statewide pre-kindergarten — and his plan for funding infrastructure repairs and rebuilding.

The Pence campaign officials said they expect the same result in a rematch with Mr. Gregg.

“The Democrats are saying this election is all about Mike Pence’s record as governor,” said Pence spokesman Robert Vane. “And our answer to that is, ‘We hope so.’ Governor Pence has a tremendous record on the issues most important to Hoosiers.”

Mr. Vane pointed to campaign contributions as a sign that Mr. Pence has wide support inside and outside the state.

John Gregg is raising significant amounts of money from outside Indiana,” he said. “National unions, big labor, public sector unions — they’re all financing his campaign, while Governor Pence’s last finance report showed that over 90 percent of his contributions came from Hoosiers and over 90 percent of his contributors were Hoosiers.”

Republicans pointed to the state’s 4.5 percent unemployment rate, its 130,000 new private sector jobs and the Health Indiana Plan 2.0 under Mr. Pence’s leadership as reasons the incumbent should be re-elected.

The gubernatorial election will have a tremendous effect on other elections in the Hoosier State, likely influencing a down-ticket effect. One of the biggest races that would be affected by the gubernatorial race: the election to replace retiring Republican Sen. Dan Coats.

“From the point of view of political parties in the state and partisan voters, winning the governorship is a really big deal,” Mr. Lenkowsky said. “This means that what would determine who captures an open seat in the U.S. Senate could be determined by what happens within the state itself — a challenge for Democrats who want to win back control of Congress’ upper chamber.”

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