INDIANAPOLIS – In the span of just a few short months, the Indiana governor’s race went from a standard re-election campaign devoid of drama to a jam-packed race with a vulnerable incumbent.
And last week the field got even bigger when Democrat Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz stepped into the race alongside former House Speaker John Gregg and Sen. Karen Tallian.
Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Mike Pence has managed so far to hold off any primary challengers despite angering some conservatives with the tightrope he is trying to walk between religious rights and civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers.
"It is absolutely one of the more interesting governor races," said Christine Matthews, president of Bellwether Research and Consulting in Virginia. She has polled extensively in Indiana for years, often for Republican candidates and officials.
"There’s national attention because of the religious freedom fight and how Pence recovers – if he can," she said. "Plus if Glenda wins she is a very different kind of candidate that will attract a lot of attention."
A poll she did in April showed Ritz in the margin of error in a theoretical matchup with Pence.
"She represents a real threat to Pence," Matthews said. "Gregg is also polling close to Pence and that reflects Pence’s weakness. Her name ID is a little higher than Gregg’s."
Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, said momentum to find a legitimate Republican to challenge Pence in the primary has waned.
So the real question is which Democrat makes it to the general election. And how much damage the Democrat Party does to itself with a primary fight.
"This has more potential to hurt them than help them," Downs said of a three-way race that eats up dollars that could be saved for the November 2016 election. "It fractures the party and is harder afterward to get behind a single candidate. You also increase the likelihood that they will expose weaknesses in each other that Republicans can use later."
Win Moses, longtime Democrat and former Fort Wayne mayor and state representative, handicapped the pros and cons of each Democratic candidate.
First up, Ritz
Moses said she is "Mother Theresa on education but other than that I have no idea where she stands on taxes or the environment or public safety. A lot of positions need to be explained. That’s the biggest con."
Her biggest advantage is the 1.3 million votes she earned in the 2012 election. But he said that was "in contrast to Tony Bennett. It wasn’t about Glenda Ritz. You can’t win the governorship that way."
Matthews said she believes Ritz’s passionate support from her education base means she has the potential to be more of a motivating figure. She also believes Ritz can replicate the success she had with a grass-roots social media campaign.
"What they did was very much below the radar. There was no big splashy TV, a lot of targeted digital ads and social media," Matthews said. "They counted on a very, very passionate base to carry her across the finish line and it did."
Next up, Gregg
Moses said Gregg can raise a lot more money than Ritz, who struggled with fundraising in her superintendent race.
He has connections all over the state from his 2012 run against Pence, where he came up just short.
"He has experience, a pleasing personality. He can bring people together."
Moses said Gregg had the worst gubernatorial ads last time and if he is to be successful, he has to be more straightforward and businesslike rather than funny.
He also has been more socially conservative in the past and will have to be clear on how his stance has shifted.
Moses said "you just aren’t human" if you don’t like the northwest Indiana attorney.
"She is a vivacious and bright and earnest in why she wants to run. She wants to have a real dialogue and will focus on issues," he said.
But she has no experience with fundraising on such a wide scale and is generally known only in Lake County.
Moses said the unknown about her is her progressive stance on medical marijuana. She has filed bills to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana as well as to allow and regulate marijuana for medicinal purposes.
The cost of a full governor’s campaign will probably be about $20 million each.
The Indiana Republican Party didn’t respond to requests to talk about Pence.
"You have to feel for Pence. He’s trying to repair his general election wounds but now the base that has counted on him as a conservative is causing him problems," Matthews said.
Pence last week drew the ire of the American Family Association of Indiana for sending a tepid welcome letter to the Indy Pride festival for gays, lesbians and transgender people.
She said Pence has two distinct groups against him – those in the education arena that feel he has overstepped with Ritz and those from the religious freedom debate who feel he is OK with some discrimination.
And those groups don’t overlap.
But Matthews doesn’t believe the right will abandon Pence because it doesn’t have a better alternative.