INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana Republican leaders selected Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb on Tuesday to replace Gov. Mike Pence on the November ballot, backing the governor's preferred successor over two members of Congress who also sought the nomination when Pence withdrew to become Donald Trump's running mate.
After a private meeting, the 22-member Indiana Republican state committee announced it had decided Holcomb was best positioned to retain the governor's office. He'll face a tough fall matchup against Democrat John Gregg, a former Indiana House speaker who narrowly lost to Pence in the 2012 election.
"We ... cannot allow our state to slip, drift, go backward to those days of debt and delayed payments," Holcomb said. "The only way we continue Indiana's progress is by joining together, which is what we have done."
Holcomb, a 48-year-old former state Republican chairman who has never been elected to office, was only recently appointed lieutenant governor after Pence's prior running mate stepped down in March. He spent the previous 10 months running for this year's Republican U.S. Senate nomination but had little fundraising success and dropped out to accept the lieutenant governor appointment.
U.S. Reps. Susan Brooks and Todd Rokita also sought the GOP nomination for governor, with supporters arguing they were better candidates to extend the GOP's 12-year hold on the governor's office.
Brooks said she was the most qualified, pointing to her time as a U.S. attorney under former President George W. Bush, while sounding a more moderate tone on divisive social issues that have been a hallmark of Pence's tenure.
Still, a rejection of Holcomb could've been embarrassing for Pence just days after his ratification as the Republican vice presidential candidate. And Holcomb pressed his case over the weekend, arguing he had been promised assistance from Pence's more than $7 million campaign fund, which he said was "something no other candidate in this race can boast."
But now some elections experts are questioning how much of Pence's campaign largess can be transferred to Holcomb under federal rules that apply to Pence now that he is running for federal office. Indiana's fundraising laws may be wide-open, but federal rules prohibit transferring corporate money or donations over $2,700, said Larry Noble, of the Campaign Legal Center.
"He should be able to get some of it, I presume," Noble said, noting that the Federal Election Commission could revisit the matter. "But for right now, it's the rule."
Pence spokesman Marc Lotter said the governor's legal team is looking into the matter.
"Gov. Pence will follow the law and you can be assured he will do everything he can to support Eric Holcomb and make sure he has the resources necessary to be elected the next governor of the state of Indiana," he said.
Either way, Holcomb will have to quickly ramp up a statewide campaign to build his name identification and spread an agenda that is likely to hew closely to Pence's positions. Gregg's campaign, meanwhile, has largely shaped up as a referendum on Pence's four years in office, which have included troubles such as last year's national uproar over the state's religious objections law that opponents maintained allowed businesses to refuse services to gays and lesbians.
In an interview with the Associated Press Gregg offered congratulations but said he remained focused on "cleaning up the mess that's been made" by the "Pence-Holcomb administration."
"I'm still John Gregg and I'm the only one who's running for governor who has been running for governor. This job is too important to be a consolation prize," he said. "I want to serve as governor and Eric Holcomb wants to be governor — and there's a big difference there."
Holcomb ducked questions about LGBT rights on Tuesday and declined to say if he would support a "truce on social issues" once advocated by Daniels, his former boss.
He has previously said Pence "struck the right tone" on LGBT rights and that such issues as infrastructure improvements, education and job creation should have the state's focus.
"We'll play it as it comes to my desk, should I be honored with being the next governor," Holcomb said. "We have a balance right now of protecting our religious liberties while making sure that we're not discriminating."