INDIANAPOLIS—Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has commanded media attention managing the COVID-19 crisis through this primary season as Woody Myers, now his Democratic challenger in the fall election, has struggled for visibility.
Myers, a physician and former state health commissioner, has remained in the background as his virtual news conferences and news releases are eclipsed by the governor’s regular televised and online briefing about the novel coronavirus pandemic
Political races are usually more difficult for the challenger than the incumbent, but COVID-19 has added an unprecedented layer of complications for Myers as he gears up for the November election. He’s running in a Republican state with low funds and low visibility and his ability to campaign in person is limited because of the weeks-long shutdown because of the virus.
“He certainly will not be guaranteed the kind of attention that Holcomb gets, and he doesn’t have the authority of the office behind him,” said Andrew Downs, a professor of political science at Indiana University-Purdue University Ft. Wayne. “All of the advantages of being an incumbent are amplified at this time.”
That includes money. Holcomb has $7.1 million in his campaign funds compared to Myers’ balance of a little more than $22,000 as of the end of March.
But it’s the pandemic that has altered the dynamics of the election as the focus has been on Holcomb through the weeks of the statewide stay-at-home orders and now as the state is gradually reopening for business. During his updates, he exudes confidence and assures his people that he is on their side with his “we’re all in this together” theme.
And so far, that visibility and attention is working in his favor. Most polls, including one conducted by his own campaign at Holcombforindiana.com, finds that 79% of Hoosiers approve of his overall performance as governor. Additionally, 83% approve of his handling of COVID-19 pandemic.
Given Myers’ expertise as a medical doctor and his roles as a former Indiana health commissioner, New York City health commissioner and healthcare executive, he should be expected to make more of a mark.
Downs said that both candidates are handicapped by the inability to campaign in person in the traditional way, but he admits that Holcomb can easily adapt given his office.
Kyle Hupfer, Indiana GOP chairman and Holcomb’s campaign manager, said the virus has changed the approach but they adjusted. Holcomb was planning to attend many Lincoln Day dinners, he said, but they were all cancelled, along with his plans to travel around the state. They’re primarily relying on phone calls to rally support, but they hope to start knocking on doors in June.
Myers said he had been on the campaign circuit, hosting events in 36 counties before COVID-19 shut down most activities, and now plans to visit the remaining counties before summer. He’s had to campaign mostly online recently, where he sees less engagement and energy than at in-person events.
“I prefer the old way, but we’ve had to adjust,” Myers said.
Downs said it’s always difficult for the challenger to earn attention: The opponent only gets noticed if they’re challenging something or proposing something, but everyone listens to the officeholder—especially during a health crisis.
Myers said Holcomb benefits from the spotlight and takes full advantage of it.
“I do sometimes wonder if all of the topics being discussed are COVID topics,” Myers said. “I think the governor has slipped in a few conversations that aren’t directly relevant to the public health emergency.”
For example, he has taken some time to tout economic achievements during his current term, Myers said.
Downs said that besides raising a lot more money, if Myers wants to be competitive he needs to hold more briefings about COVID-19. With his impressive resume in healthcare, he can propose what the public needs to do next, partially stealing Holcomb’s microphone, Downs added.
Additionally, Downs said that Myers needs to find a better way to reach people online. He released a COVID-19 response plan, but not many knew about it. He said the plan likely missed most Hoosiers because they care about reality more than a politician’s analysis.
Downs suspects people are thinking, “I want to go back to work, so don’t tell me what you would do: Tell me what we are doing.”
The governor made a smart decision to emphasize public health at first and progressively talk more about the economy, he also said, adding, “It made him appear as though he was thoughtfully considering these things: He didn’t just jump in and say, ‘Yep, open the economy back up.’”
Hupfer said that Holcomb’s response has been “methodical” and “data-driven,” but Myers has criticized Holcomb’s reopening program.
“If there was ever going to be a candidate who was going to criticize the governor’s handling of a pandemic, Woody Myers is probably that candidate,” Downs said.
Myers said he would have handled many things differently if he was the governor. Myers said he would have employed fewer steps and given the public more time to prepare for each. He would have updated the public with a cautious, nonaggressive timetable.
“Other than celebrating our nation’s history, there is nothing magical about the Fourth of July, which is when the governor has targeted the state to reopen. I would not have set a date like that.”
Myers also said information to the public is the primary concern, so he would have been very transparent about all developments. The nursing home situation, he said, should not be a mystery. Holcomb and the Indiana State Department of Health have refused to identify long-term care facilities by name where COVID-19 has spread.
The pandemic is far from over. On Monday, the state reported 430 new cases of the virus for a total of 35,237 and 46 additional deaths for a total of 2,022.
Myers said that he is worried when he sees the numbers. He knows Hoosiers are struggling financially, but he fears a resurgence of the virus in his state, which is why he would have opened the state slowly.
Isaac Gleitz is a reporter with TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.