INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – The press releases blasted out by Gov. Mike Pence’s de facto attack dog, the Indiana Republican Party, are trained like a laser on the hot-button political issue of the day.
But as Pence seeks re-election, one recurring theme is that most end with the same question: What does John Gregg, his Democratic opponent, think?
Thus far, Gregg has largely been reticent to say.
“What we’ve heard from John Gregg is pretty much nothing except he dislikes everything the governor is doing,” said state Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury. Alluding to Gregg’s campaign logo, which incorporates the candidate’s facial hair, Yoder added: “You can only go out and say, ‘Hey, look at my mustache’ so many times before you have to put out an original thought.”
Indiana’s next gubernatorial election may be nearly a year away, but Republicans leery of Pence’s low approval rating are showing a newfound willingness to go on the attack. Whether directly related to the job of governor or not, in recent months they have demanded to know Gregg’s position on a slew of issues – especially when it could tie Gregg to President Barack Obama, who is deeply unpopular in Indiana.
Robert Dion, a professor of political science at the University of Evansville, said the early involvement of Pence’s proxies in the rematch with Gregg, who was narrowly defeated in 2012, shows the race “has the makings of a barn burner.”
“It is a little early for this kind of pressure, but it does serve one purpose and that is to indicate the rematch is going to be different from four years ago,” Dion said.
One reason many believe the last race was close is Pence’s refusal to go on the offensive, despite a large early lead that dwindled in the polls. Now Republican operative Robert Vane, who recently left Pence’s campaign to head up communications for the state party, is trying to smoke out Gregg, as the former coal lobbyist and House speaker keeps a low profile to focus on fundraising.
Gregg’s campaign says it’s ironic that Republicans are targeting him for not commenting, pointing out that Pence refuses to say if he supports expanded protections for gay, lesbian and transgendered people. The politically charged issue was pushed to the forefront partially by Pence’s handling of Indiana’s religious objection law, which provoked a national backlash.
“The governor’s quick to run to the mic on federal issues,” said Gregg campaign manager Tim Henderson. “But on an issue like that (LGBT rights), he’s still studying whether we should be able to discriminate?”
Still, Gregg has ducked several substantive issues, including how to improve Indiana’s lowly rated roads. Democrats have mercilessly attacked Pence over that issue, but he’s proposed a plan of action while Gregg hasn’t. The Democrat also hasn’t endorsed a roads plan put forth by his party. His campaign says a plan is forthcoming, but would not say when it will be released.
With regard to Obama’s new federal air quality standards, Gregg, whose career is inextricably linked with the coal industry, vaguely said he is in favor of developing a statewide plan instead of being forced to adopt a federal plan. He did not offer specifics.
And Gregg has also not said how he would handle the settling of Syrian refugees in Indiana, after Pence blocked state agencies from disbursing federal refugee aid amid national securities concerns following the deadly attacks in Paris.
“John Gregg is a private citizen right now. He doesn’t get intelligence briefings like Mike Pence does,” Henderson said. “We’re giving the governor the benefit of the doubt.”
Many of the questions Gregg has ducked relate to the hyper-partisan federal issues that Pence, a former congressman, is fond of talking about despite them having a limited connection with day-to-day state operations.
When Obama sought to scuttle the Keystone Pipeline – something the governor has no control over – Republicans aggressively urged the media to get Gregg’s opinion.
Republicans also demanded that Gregg watch a series videos released by anti-abortion activists that purportedly show Planned Parenthood officials negotiating the sale of fetal tissue. Gregg, who opposes abortion rights, declined to comment because he had not seen the videos, which Planned Parenthood says were deceptively edited.
“I take it as a good sign that they are attacking us this far out,” Henderson said. “It tells me they’ve done polling and they don’t like what they see.”