SOUTH BEND — Anticipating a dynamic year ahead in politics, Indiana “stands at a nexus that eclipses the nation and world” and several Michiana politicians will play key roles, according to syndicated political columnist Brian Howey.
The Howey Politics Indiana founder recently released his annual “Power 50,” his prediction of which elected officials are “most likely to define the issues and shape what looks to be a third consecutive compelling year. Topping his list are two Republicans, Gov. Eric Holcomb and governor-turned-vice president Mike Pence, followed by Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly.
A crowded field of Republicans, led by U.S. Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer, will compete in the May primary election to knock off Donnelly, seeking his first re-election to the Senate. Howey expects the candidates to spend a combined $100 million on the race.
Howey writes that Donnelly “should be feeling pretty good about his chances for re-election right now,” given Republican President Donald Trump’s unpopularity, perhaps evidenced by the recent election of Democrat Doug Jones to Alabama’s open Senate seat, the first time in a generation that state has sent a Democrat to the Senate. Donnelly is flush with campaign cash – reporting $4.6 million in his war chest at the end of 2017’s third quarter.
Donnelly has developed a reputation in Washington for working with Republicans, Howey said, and last year was a key backer of legislation that would make changes to the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which has a “good chance” of winning approval in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Donnelly also has “an authentic common touch,” Howey writes. “He connects with Hoosiers when he interacts with them. It’s the characteristic that will make him tough to beat.”
Next on the list from the South Bend area, at No. 15, is Democratic Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He collected some “impressive” endorsements last year in his bid to become Democratic National Committee chair, and in September appeared in Iowa.
“Many believe he’d be more likely to seek the vice presidential nomination in 2020 as opposed to a run for governor,” Howey writes. “Hoosier Democrats could press him to run for governor if there’s no noticeable traction for anyone else this coming year.”
At No. 25 is third-term Republican U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski. Democrats Mell Hall, Yatish Joshi and Pat Hackett will compete in the May primary for the chance to face Walorski in November. Howey considers Hall, a former CEO at South Bend-based health survey firm Press Ganey, the most likely to emerge from the primary.
Although the Cook Partisan Index rates Walorski’s 2nd congressional district as a “plus-12 Republican district,” meaning Republicans typically win by at least 12 percentage points, historically it has been very competitive in mid-term elections.
“Should a (anti-Trump, Democratic) wave develop, the 2nd could come into play,” Howey writes. “Walorski’s unwillingness to debate or hold town halls is indicative of how fragile she perceives her own political position.”
Coming in at No. 28 is Democrat Jim Schellinger, a South Bend native who heads the Indiana Economic Development Corp. Under Schellinger’s watch, Indiana has attracted a record 164 commitments from companies to locate in the state, including $5.4 billion in expansion plans and 18,000 new jobs. Schellinger is among the many public officials across the nation trying to lure Amazon’s planned HQ2 facility.
Next, at No. 29, is Michigan City native Christina Hale, a former state representative who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor with Democrat John Gregg in 2016. She now heads Leadership Indianapolis and is seen as a “rising star” in the party. Some Democrats have asked her to run for Secretary of State or the 5th District U.S. House seat this year, but she “prefers to stay on the gubernatorial track,” Howey writes.
“The key question there is whether she goes in 2020 or, more likely, waits for a potential open seat in 2024,” Howey writes.
State Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen, comes in at No. 36. Following the retirement of Sen. Luke Kenley, longtime chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. This year is a non-budget session for the Indiana General Assembly, giving Mishler a year to get his feet wet in the new job.
“This is an extraordinarily rare transition,” Howey writes.
Finally, at No. 48, is Curtis Hill, Indiana’s Republican attorney general and former Elkhart County prosecutor. Hill has been willing to buck Gov. Holcomb, as seen in his declaration that medicinal use of marijuana-derived CBD oil, which does not contain the plant’s mild-altering THC, is illegal. As the state struggles to manage a heroin epidemic that many believe has yet to peak, Hill also has opposed Holcomb’s support for county needle-exchange programs to prevent the spread of AIDS, and “declared most drug addicts as unable to rehabilitate,” Howey writes.