The 2020 Indiana governor’s race always looked like an uphill battle for the challengers, Democrat Dr. Woody Myers and Libertarian Donald Rainwater. A global pandemic likely only made it harder.
But incumbent Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s victory is not quite guaranteed.
In just about any statewide race in Indiana, the typical issues voters say they care most about are jobs and the economy and education. 2020 is anything but a typical year. But in many ways, the candidates for governor are still talking about those usual issues – only, they’re doing so through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Holcomb, the message is 'steady as she goes.'
“Proud of the team, proud of the areas of expertise, proud of the cross-training that’s occurred," Holcomb said. "I think that’s what’s kind of separated us – we were informed by each sector.”
Yet many – notably conservatives, including members of his party in the legislature – have vocally chafed under the governor’s ongoing COVID-19 regulations. Holcomb isn’t worried about that criticism.
"If it wasn’t working – if these decisions weren’t working – I’d be the first to say, 'Let’s try something else,'" Holcomb said.
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The criticism over his handling of the pandemic doesn’t just come from the right, though. There are plenty on the left who think Holcomb hasn’t done nearly enough – chief among them Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dr. Woody Myers.
“In order to manage something as complex as a pandemic, you need good advice and you need to take a good stand based on science and you need to lead,” Myers said.
Myers said he would’ve ramped up testing sooner, been more aggressive in securing personal protective equipment, instituted a more stringent mask-wearing requirement and slowed down the lifting of COVID restrictions.
And he’s got some expertise here: Myers is a medical doctor and former Indiana State Health commissioner.
He’s also the first Black person to run for governor on a major party ticket in the state’s history, in a year when there’s a bright spotlight on racial injustice.
Holcomb, to confront that issue, announced he’ll hire a cabinet officer to address racial inequity and review law enforcement training at the state police academy.
Myers scoffs at the timing – convenient, he said, right before an election.
“I’m not going to need a special officer to look over the work of everybody else and then report on how everybody else is doing," Myers said. "I’m going to hire people from the beginning who know how important diversity is, who know how important inclusion is.”
Myers undoubtedly has a compelling profile, particularly this year. So why hasn’t he gained more traction?
Mike Downs Center For Indiana Politics director Andrew Downs said some of it is bad timing.
“I think you probably had a lot of voters, as well as donors, etc. who were thinking that it was going to be a cakewalk for Eric Holcomb … Then as the racial issues and then eventually things like COVID, by then it was almost too late to mount a traditional campaign,” Downs said.
Gone this year have been the typical door-to-door campaigning, the house parties and fundraising dinners. Instead, it’s things like Zoom meetings – which Downs said aren’t a true replacement.
“The best way of campaigning is candidate-to-voter contact, direct contact,” Downs said.
But the race isn’t a sure thing, either – particularly considering the third candidate, Libertarian Donald Rainwater.
“Citizens of the state of Indiana … they’re tired of being told one thing during campaign season and then getting a different type of government than what they were promised," Rainwater said. "And I think that they’re starting to say, ‘Enough’s enough.’”
Rainwater said Holcomb’s response to COVID-19 has been far too restrictive and that the government can’t solve racial injustice.
So, can the Libertarian affect the race? Downs said it’s absolutely on the table.
“If Rainwater is able to get to 10 percent, that may not be enough," Downs said. "But certainly by the time you’re talking 15 or even 20 percent, then absolutely – if the majority of those voters are coming from the Republican candidate – then the Democratic candidate should have a shot.”
Libertarian gubernatorial candidates haven’t broken 4 percent support in the final vote in the last three decades.
But 2020 is anything but a typical year.