- Associated Press - Sunday, January 8, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Eric Holcomb was a struggling Republican Senate candidate a year ago, lagging in fundraising and a virtual unknown in Indiana despite more than a decade at the top levels of the Republican state politics.

On Monday, he will become Indiana’s 51st governor. Holcomb’s inauguration ceremony at the Indiana State Fairgrounds will cap an improbable chain of events that culminated in an election victory made possible when outgoing Gov. Mike Pence became Donald Trump’s vice presidential running mate in July.

Holcomb, 48, will enter the governor’s office without an established political record. His November election win over Democrat John Gregg was his first as a candidate for any office.

When asked whether he could have predicted his good fortune, Holcomb said: “Of course not.”

“If I lie to (about that), you’d think I’d lie to you about anything,” he said.

He’ll assume leadership of the state government without the public profile of his recent predecessors, who spent years in running for and holding public office.

Holcomb’s path was quite different. The former state Republican Party chairman was struggling to raise money in his run for the Republican nomination to run for Senate when Pence tapped him last March to become lieutenant governor, replacing Sue Ellspermann, who resigned to pursue the presidency of Ivy Tech Community College. Holcomb was set as Pence’s re-election campaign running mate only to see the governor’s race shaken up when Donald Trump chose Pence to be his vice presidential pick.

Holcomb was Pence’s hand-picked successor and his years as a top aide to former GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels and U.S. Sen. Dan Coats left him in good standing with members of the Republican state committee, who picked him as the replacement candidate over two sitting members of Congress.

Holcomb touted his work with Daniels throughout the gubernatorial campaign, while rarely mentioning Pence. He’s picked fellow veterans of Daniels’ 2005-2013 tenure for top positions in his administration, while keeping many Pence holdovers to lead state agencies.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma, who will be serving as a legislator with his seventh governor when Holcomb takes office, said he expects Holcomb to be more like the hands-on Daniels than Pence. Pence had never worked in state government before becoming governor and sometimes frustrated lawmakers with vague policy positions.

“But Eric Holcomb is his own man, too,” Bosma said. “He has his own style. It is less combative than Mitch’s was. In a positive way, Mitch got in your face and told you what you needed to know. Eric is more collegial than that.”

Though most Indiana voters hadn’t heard of Holcomb until recently, he is well respected in Republican circles. So far, leaders in the GOP-dominated Legislature have warmly received his proposals, which could give him the latitude to enact an agenda - at least during the honeymoon period of his first legislative session, which kicked off last week.

He is willing to support raising gasoline taxes in order to pay for a GOP-backed plan to fix and improve the state’s infrastructure, a move Pence opposed last year. It remains to be seen, though, if Holcomb will push as hard as Pence did on social conservative issues - he has already said he’s mainly focused on economic issues, workforce development and fighting the state’s drug crisis.

“Instead of playing hypotheticals, I’ll deal with what I’m passionate about pushing and we’ll address those as they come,” Holcomb said. “I understand that different folks are motivated by different strokes, but this is what our team will be focused on.”

The Republican stranglehold on state government will certainly ease Holcomb’s transition into his new job, but he’ll have to show he can transfer his behind-the-scenes experience to being effective as the state’s leader, said Linda Gugin, a retired Indiana University Southeast political science professor who co-edited a book on Indiana’s first 49 governors through Daniels.

“It may be that he has a harder time trying to get the public behind him on issues, especially where he may have differences with the Legislature,” she said.

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