INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana’s Republican governor has consistently touted face masks to slow the spread of the coronavirus and prominently wears one in his reelection ads, even as President Donald Trump resists their use.
Gov. Eric Holcomb's statewide mask mandate and six months of other coronavirus restrictions has stirred discontent among conservatives, complicating his front-runner campaign against underfunded Democratic challenger Woody Myers.
Longtime reliable Republican voters such as Renee Willis complain Holcomb’s coronavirus orders have been “overbearing.” She partially blames the governor for the loss of her daughter’s job as a manager at a Greenfield restaurant and intends to vote for Libertarian candidate Donald Rainwater in an act of “civic outrage.”
“People have lost jobs, businesses are being forced to shut down .... we haven’t been able to go to church or see elderly family members, they’re being forced to wear masks,” said Willis, 57, of New Palestine, just east of Indianapolis. “Our constitutional rights have been infringed upon, and we’re sick of it.”
Holcomb has largely lifted the state’s travel and business restrictions since May while keeping in place limits on crowd sizes for restaurants, bars and public events as the state health department has recorded more than 3,500 deaths with confirmed or probable COVID-19 infections.
Most visible, however, is the statewide mask mandate that has drawn much public ire even though Holcomb dropped any possible criminal penalties for violators before it took effect July 27 in the face of objections from some law enforcement officials and conservative legislators.
The current mask order is set to expire Saturday, and Holcomb is expected to discuss any extension during his weekly coronavirus briefing Wednesday.
He vigorously defended mask wearing last week as helping keep COVID-19 death and hospitalization rates far below what they were during the worst of the outbreak in April and May.
“Here’s the deal, the virus hasn’t changed. It is still uber infectious, it is still ravaging different parts of the country,” Holcomb said. “The more that we do the things that work, the better off we’ll be and we’ll continue to see folks go back to work.”
Republican state Sen. Jim Tomes, whose district covers Evansville and rural areas west of the city, said many people he has talked with feel “they’ve done their fair share” to fight the coronavirus and are going to vent their frustration with the governor at the ballot box.
“There are a lot of folks that just want to go back to living like Americans again,” said Tomes, who spoke during a Statehouse protest of the mask order in early August.
Those disgruntled voters are unlikely to support Myers, the Democratic candidate, as he called for a statewide mask order weeks before Holcomb issued one and believes it should include possible criminal penalties. Myers, a physician and former state health commissioner, has said Holcomb “stalled for months, caving to the anti-science conservatives.”
That has provided an opening for Rainwater that Libertarian candidates typically don’t see.
The Rainwater campaign hasn’t been able to keep up with requests for yard signs and has been raising enough money to start running cable TV and radio ads next week, which Libertarians haven’t done for many years, campaign manager Sam Goldstein said.
Holcomb might still try to save face by adjusting the mask order or easing other restrictions, Goldstein said, but “that is not going to detract from the support we’re getting from his wing of politics.”
Holcomb, who became the Republican nominee four years ago when Trump picked then-Gov. Mike Pence as his vice presidential running mate, has considerable backing and control of the state Republican Party. He has a substantial campaign bank account after raising more than $9 million through June, while Myers had less than $100,000 in the bank.
Holcomb will keep following the advice of medical experts while recognizing the frustration many people feel after so many months, said Kyle Hupfer, the governor’s campaign manager and the state Republican chairman.
“We’re certainly not living in a cave — we see and hear that,” Hupfer said. “But at the end of the day, true leadership is about doing what’s right and what’s best for all 7 million Hoosiers. At some point, when you are the governor of a state you have to put that first, well ahead of any political repercussions.”
Holcomb has held together the support of Republican leaders, with only one elected official — state Rep. Jim Lucas of Seymour — publicly announcing support for Rainwater.
Conservative activist Monica Boyer said she senses many of the frustrations with Holcomb that existed when longtime U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar lost the 2012 Republican primary to a tea party-backed challenger. Boyer said she’s been a Republican her whole life but decided to back Rainwater like many around her northern Indiana hometown of Warsaw over issues such Holcomb ordering churches closed during the first several weeks of the pandemic.
“He is ignoring his base, Mike Pence’s base, (of) social conservatives,” Boyer said. “And actually, he’s doing more than ignoring us. He’s rolling over us with the bus and re-rolling over us.”
Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.