By ERIC BRADNER
Evansville Courier & Press
The vacancy atop the Indiana Republican Party gives Gov. Mike Pence the best chance yet to make his own mark on the state’s most powerful political party and to get some real distance from his predecessor.
State GOP chairman Eric Holcomb announced last week that he is resigning, effective July 9. He will take an Indiana-based job with U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, likely positioning himself to steer officially or unofficially the senator’s 2016 run for re-election.
Holcomb’s sharp political mind and effective fundraising skills suited him well for the role of state party chairman. But the reality is, he got the chairman’s job due to his work with former Gov. Mitch Daniels. He agreed to stay on for a while longer to help Pence’s transition and see his first legislative session through, but he wasn’t picked by Pence in the first place.
Republicans have the political power to do anything they want, but there are a number of areas of disagreement within their party. The next party chair will have to maintain the peace, and that task could be harder than it has been.
So far, Pence hasn’t truly been confronted with those splits. The Statehouse has felt for the first five months of Pence’s tenure, and partly by the new governor’s design, like a building in transition.
A number of Daniels’ cabinet officials were held over, and several 2012 campaign aides were brought on board for the early days even though they intended to transition out quickly. Those folks are now leaving.
Meanwhile, Pence’s communications shop for better or worse is tightening up, working to centralize responses to media inquiries that previously would have been farmed out to the experts working for state agencies.
And Pence’s budget director, Chris Atkins, last week announced a new series of measurements on which 2 percent of state agencies’ budgets will depend. It’s a step toward carrying out Pence’s campaign pledge of “performance-based budgeting.”
These are all moves that reflect Pence’s recognition that it is now his Republican Party and his state, operating under the budget that he signed. The credit and the criticism now falls onto his shoulders.
Now that he’s made it through the transition, the reality that to the victor in governor’s races goes the spoils is also becoming clear.
Pence last week appointed four new members to the Indiana University board of trustees. Among them was Randall Tobias, who gave Pence’s gubernatorial campaign more than $35,000 in 2012 and gave Pence another $10,000 in May.
In a purely political sense, how he handles selecting a new state Republican chairman is a critical decision.
His party has reached extraordinary heights in Indiana, controlling supermajorities in the House and Senate, as well as seven of nine congressional seats and every statewide elected office except one (state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz is a Democrat).
Selecting the next state party chair is an opportunity for Pence to solidify his status as the top Republican dog and to put someone in place who can run the party and defend its values the way he’d envision.
As Holcomb’s replacement is selected, there are a number of variables, such as whether Republicans want a full-time chair, such as Holcomb, or a part-time one, like his predecessor, Murray Clark.
For now, though, all eyes are on Pence.
— Eric Bradner is the Statehouse reporter for the Evansville Courier & Press.