Changes at the Indiana Republican Party – What does it Mean?
Yesterday the presses blew up as Robert Burgess brought us the news that several members of leadership team of the Indiana Party would be stepping down ranging anywhere from later this week to a month or so in the future. Those departing include Chairman Eric Holcomb, Vice Chairman Sandi Huddleston, Treasurer Peter Deputy, National Committeewoman and former Lieutenant Governor Becky Skillman and Executive Director Justin Garrett.
Speculation has swirled around what may have prompted these resignations. Speculation has ranged from frustration with the intraparty disagreements during the last legislative session to downright ridiculous allegations of wrongdoing. The most straightforward explanation is probably the most reasonable – we are at the slowest point of the four year election cycle for the party and this provides an ideal time for a shift change. There is absolutely no evidence of any wrongdoing and most people informally surveyed about the tenure of Holcomb’s team have provided positive reviews.
Holcomb came on board after a long tenure of service helping former Governor Mitch Daniels get elected. There was widespread speculation that he would be stepping down after the elections in November but Governor Mike Pence made it clear he would prefer that Holcomb not leave right away, so he and his team were reelected to a new term at the party’s quadrennial reorganization that takes place every spring following a gubernatorial election. His decision to remain through the legislative session seems to have been a positive influence during what could have been a contentious intraparty fight.
While it isn’t terribly surprising that other members of this leadership team might look to step down, it is odd that Skillman would also leave at this time. When she was elected at the state party’s convention last summer she was about to complete a strong eight years as Daniels’ lieutenant governor and didn’t necessarily have a clear career path once she left office. However, she became the perfect choice to lead regional economic development organization Radius Indiana after the tragic and unexpected death of their President and CEO, former Toyota of America executive R.J. Reynolds. She has mentioned to several media outlets that the demands of leading Radius are not compatible with her continued service representing Indiana on the national committee.
So what does it mean for the party? First, the party is in a fairly strong position. Outside of a setback in one of the statewide offices, most of the critical targets of a state political party are firmly held by Republican officeholders. The party is on solid financial footing and the current team has set up the organization so that it is running with a “baseline” crew, leaving any expansion to their successors.
Second, Gov. Pence will most likely have the opportunity to install candidates of his choice in key positions at the state party. Because he tends to prefer a more direct appeal to voters as an outreach strategy, having an organized presence at the state party organization to compliment those efforts can help the governor drive more value through those activities. One of the most significant commodities a public official has to manage is their time. Historically, Gov. Pence’s team has done an admirable job of that during his service in the U.S. House of Representatives – these vacancies give his team an opportunity to put people in place to steer the party in directions that compliment this approach.
A question that immediately comes to mind is whether or not Team Pence already has a good idea of who will fill these positions. Given the timing of the resignations, with many taking effect immediately after the state party dinner there is a clear possibility that Gov. Pence’s team has a slate of candidates in mind to fill these positions already.
So who will we see in these vacant positions? Hoosier journalists have already aired a few names. One we know that won’t be part of the conversation is Gov. Pence staffer Chris Crabtree. Crabtree has extensive political and government experience but has indicated that he is not interested in seeking the state chairman position. Other possibilities named include former State Representative Dan Dumezich, former state party Executive Director Jennifer Hallowell, and former Republican National Committee Chief of Staff Anne Hathaway. Another name that has been forced into the conversation is House Republican Campaign Committee Executive Director Mike Gentry via a Facebook page and Twitter account set up to advocate his candidacy. Here’s a quick look at each of these possibilities:
Dan Dumezich has been an active fundraising force in northwest Indiana, most notably for presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Given that the primary role of the party chairman is to raise money, his experience may give him an edge when considered against other possible candidates. His experience holding office and representing the Region could help Gov. Pence and the state party continue the strong efforts that were initiated by the Governor Daniels campaign in 2004 to neutralize voter fraud and other questionable electoral practices in that part of the state. Given the recent attention to these issues that resulted from the conviction of Democrat Party officials in South Bend for election violations, this may be an area the state committee and the governor is interested in pursing.
Jennifer Hallowell has developed an extensive resume since leading the state party. She served with outgoing chairman Holcomb on Governor Daniels’ election team and then launched her own consulting company that has worked on successful campaigns for Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, Congressman Luke Messer as well as various presidential campaigns. Many of her team members have experience working at the state party or on critical campaigns and she would be more likely to come in with her own team. While this might ease a transition, few of these staffers have any direct experience working with Gov. Pence’s team, which would diminish the opportunity this raft of vacancies provides for the governor install folks who are familiar to his system and have established relationships with the official staff.
Anne Hathaway has proven herself on many different stages as a smart, effective political operator. After serving many years as the regional political director for the Republican National Committee in the midwest, she was promoted to Chief of Staff during the final years of President Bush’s administration. She was the principal consultant to Senator Dan Coats’ successful campaign. Again, she does not have as many direct ties to the Pence administration. Selecting either Hathaway or Hallowell would represent the first time a woman has lead the Indiana Republican Party.
Mike Gentry has not been mentioned in any articles as a potential candidate, but it is clear there is some effort being made on his behalf. A Facebook page and Twitter account have been set up to support this idea, but it’s not clear that Gentry actually supports the effort. His relationship with Speaker Brian Bosma and the static that developed between Gov. Pence and Speaker Bosma during the legislative session might make this choice much less likely. However, he could be viewed as a diplomatic choice designed to promote party unity. That said, unless Gentry were to make some statement indicating he actually is interested in the position, and the fact that Gov. Pence might already have an idea of who he would like in these positions makes the success of any “grassroots” effort to influence the party chairs unlikely at best.
An interesting side note to the Gentry campaign is that it sets up a contrast to the battle over the Governor’s tax cut proposal. While the legislature had their approach, Gov. Pence took a more grassroots strategy which was complimented by independent efforts from Americans for Prosperty’s Indiana Chapter. In this case Governor Pence may have already made a selection while Speaker Bosma’s allies try to apply grassroots pressure on Gov. Pence to make a different decision. I anticipate this strategy for being selected for the vacancy as party chairman will be far less successful than Gov. Pence’s efforts on behalf of his tax cut proposal.
Speaking of AFP, a Pence ally that might deserve consideration would be their state director Chase Downham. AFP set up a statewide network of activists who provided key assistance to Gov. Pence in his efforts to enact a historic tax cut this session. Prior to working with AFP Downham was involved with the state chamber’s PAC and has experience raising money, developing volunteers and managing campaaigns in both of those positions. Downham’s selection might draw the ire of legislators who did not appreciate AFP’s advocacy for the tax cut, but he certainly has assembled a resume that would be a good fit to lead the party and his organization is clearly aligned closely with Gov. Pence’s policy priorities.
It is entirely possible the choice to lead the party may come from someone other than these choices. There are many unconventional choices out there as well. Allen County Republican Party Chairman Steve Shine has taken a larger role at state party events and received high marks from the Pence campaign for his ability to get things done. That said, they may not want to introduce any chaos to one of the larger sources of Republican votes statewide as there would be no clear successor to Shine in Allen County. Former St. Joseph County Chairman Chris Riley could also be considered given his tenure was widely lauded for his efforts to develop the party in a heavily Democrat county.
Other candidates out there may also deserve consideration. The state committee may want one of their own, like 5th District Chairman Kyle Hupfer, 7th District Chairman Tom John or 7th District Vice Chair Jennfier Ping – all who have extensive experience working with the state committee.
With all of the vacancies available, it’s certainly possible that some combination of the above may be considered. I could certainly envision a state party chaired by Dumezich, run by Downham with Hallowell as vice chair and Hathaway representing Indiana on the Republican National Committee. Share your thoughts on how you think this will play out and feel free to contribute your own suggestions in the comments section below.