Immigration. Protecting law enforcement. Combating China.

The issues are central planks for the Republican National Committee and GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump leading into this year’s election cycle.

They’re also dominant campaign themes for all six GOP candidates running to become Indiana’s next governor.

It’s up for debate what steps the state’s top executive could take to impact immigration or policy toward China. That hasn’t stopped candidates from tethering their campaigns to conservative talking points, argued Laura Merrifield Wilson, associate professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis.

And who can blame them, she asked. Those are the issues to which most Hoosiers respond.

“I think those are easy, low-hanging fruit to attract voters and to convey your positions even though they aren’t somet hing that deals with your level of government,” Wilson said.

National politics have always played a role in Indiana’s primary election for governor, noted Chad Kinsella, a political scientist and director of Ball State University’s Bowen Center for Public Affairs.

But with political polarization reaching new heights, top-level issues are playing an outsized role this year, he argued.

“A lot of them are hitting upon a lot of the red-meat issues,” Kinsella said. “Those are salient issues that are probably going to carry the day.”

A major reason candidates gravitate toward national policies and stray from state issues is because Indiana holds its gubernatorial race during a presidential election year, Wilson explained. Indiana is one of just 11 states with that setup.

Many Hoosiers’ hyper-focus on the presidential race leads to a “horrible coattail effect” that almost forces candidates to nationalize their campaigns, she said. Electing governors during congressional midterms like most states would allow more attention for Indiana-specific issues, Wilson argued.

“Voters’ minds wouldn’t necessarily be clouded and overwhelmed with all the national politics that we have going on,” she said. “You can only handle so much information.”


None of that is to say the six Republicans running in the primary don’t have strong stances on specific state issues, Kinsella noted.

Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch is pushing for eliminating the state income tax in her “Ax the Tax” campaign. Brad Chambers, former director of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation under Gov. Eric Holcomb, has used TV ads to highlight his plan to protect kids from online threats.

Eric Doden, also a former director of the IEDC under past governor Mike Pence, has campaigned on specific policy positions such as implementing zero-cost adoptions and investing in rural parts of the state.

Cam Savage, one of Doden’s political consultants at Limestone Strategies, said focusing on state issues is an important way for candidates to set themselves apart from the pack and go beyond national talking points.

“The great temptation in political advertising is just to do whatever the outrage of the moment is … to just try to capitalize on whatever they’re seeing on Fox News on any given day,” he said.

There’s evidence that approach works as a campaign tactic, Savage noted, but it can be a disservice to voters.

“Our view is that if you want to be governor of the state, you want to lay out a specific plan about what you would do if you were governor and have ideas of your own that you campaign on,” he said.

But in a year dominated by a presidential campaign, that can be a risky strategy to win primary votes, Wilson noted. Specific policy issues can be complicated, and many don’t have the appetite or time for detailed explanations, she said.

“Voters already know about immigration, so you don’t have to educate them in a 30- or 60-second soundbite to say, ‘Hey, this is an issue,’” Wilson said.


Indiana’s Republican candidates also all have to deal with the fact that Sen. Mike Braun is the clear frontrunner to win the governor’s seat. According to the first independent poll released in March, 34% of 526 likely Republican primary voters said they would vote for Braun.

Kinsella said the odds of one of the other five candidates overcoming that lead seems unlikely, especially considering that Braun has an endorsement from Trump and access to national exposure through outlets like Fox News.

“It’s his race to win,” he said. “Name ID is going to be huge, especially in a primary where you have to pick from a whole lot of different names.”

Trying to attract GOP primary voters by highlighting state policy issues simply won’t be enough, Kinsella argued. The five candidates’ policy stances don’t differ enough to really consolidate votes behind someone who isn’t Braun, he explained.

“If there were two or three people on the ballot and you could coalesce around them with enough support and money, there might be a chance,” Kinsella said. “But there’s just too many, and they’re just going to split up that vote.”

However, with the poll showing 43% of Hoosier voters are still undecided in the governor’s race, candidates are pushing hard to gain ground in the lead-up to Indiana’s May 7 primary election. Early in-person voting starts April 9.

That likely means a flurry of ads on TV, social media sites, radio and nearly every other venue available to candidates, along with lots of traveling to on-the-ground events, explained Savage with Doden’s campaign.

“The big picture strategically is that there’s a third of the electorate out there that are sort of undecided or not yet tuned in, and you’ll be doing everything you can to try to reach those voters, Kinsella said.
© 2024 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.