The Week in Politics: Picking Pence's Successor and a Blow to Voting Restrictions

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | July 22, 2016

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Republicans Prepare to Pick Pence's Successor

With Mike Pence running for vice president, Indiana Republicans need a new candidate to run for governor in his place. Whoever they select will start out as the favorite.

"It is a Republican state, which puts any Democratic candidate at a disadvantage," said Andy Downs, who runs an academic center on Indiana politics.

The 22 members of the Republican State Committee will meet in Indianapolis on Tuesday to choose the party's nominee. The three leading candidates are Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb and U.S. Reps. Susan Brooks and Todd Rokita. Given such a small pool of voters, the hopefuls and their supporters worked committee members hard at a Hilton Garden Inn outside Cleveland where the Indiana delegation was staying during this week's Republican National Convention.

The early frontrunner is thought to be Holcomb, who was picked as lieutenant governor just this past March. But to take his current job, Holcomb left a U.S. Senate race in which he was struggling. He's well-liked as a former state party chair, but the fact that he's never won public office is a strike against him.

Rokita, by contrast, is not only sitting in Congress but has won two statewide elections as a former secretary of state. He's been campaigning hard, but his strongly conservative stance on social issues such as abortion and gay rights may uncomfortably echo those held by Pence, whose unpopularity as governor largely stemmed from his handling of a gay rights issue last year.

Republicans have made no secret of the fact that they're glad Pence's ascension to the national ticket gives them a chance for a reset in the governor's race against former state House Speaker John Gregg.

"The entire John Gregg playbook of it being a referendum of Mike Pence has been thrown out the window," state committee member Nick Barbknect told the Indianapolis Star. "There's no reason for us not to take advantage of that."

That might suggest an inclination toward Brooks, who would be expected to perform well among the suburban and female voters whom Pence had alienated. Rumor has it that Brooks has nine of the 12 votes she would need in hand. But in a tightly held contest, it's anybody's guess what deals have been cut in backrooms of the Hilton Garden Inn.

For their part, Democrats are not conceding the race. The GOP candidate will face a sprint, while Gregg has been running for a long time -- he was Pence's opponent four years ago. As of June 30, Gregg had nearly $6 million cash on hand. He received another injection of $500,000 on Tuesday from the Democratic Governors Association (DGA).

"Pence might be fleeing Indiana, but he leaves behind a massive mess for Republicans in the Indiana governor’s race," DGA executive director Elisabeth Pearson wrote in a memo about the race. "Indiana Republicans will be stuck with a candidate with virtually no statewide name ID."

Indiana Democrats hope the presence of Evan Bayh, a popular former governor and senator who was a late entrant as their U.S. Senate nominee, will bolster Democratic voting. It would be quite a coup for the party to end up holding both the governorship and both U.S. Senate seats in the Midwest's most conservative state.

But the odds are against that happening. Even as Republicans start over from scratch, Gregg will have to thoroughly retool his campaign message.

"The loss of Pence from the ticket may end up doing Gregg more harm than good," said Downs, who teaches at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Voter ID Laws Dealt Blows by Courts

On Wednesday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Texas voter identification law, which is often described as the strictest in the nation, is racially discriminatory and violates the Voting Rights Act.

"The record shows that drafters and proponents of SB 14 were aware of the likely disproportionate effect of the law on minorities, and that they nonetheless passed the bill without adopting a number of proposed ameliorative measures that might have lessened this impact," the court found.

The court noted that the law, which has been rejected by four different courts in as many years, does "nothing to combat mail-in ballot fraud," even though that type of fraud is much more common than in-person voter impersonation. In fact, according to the court, there had been only two convictions of in-person fraud out of 20 million votes in the decade leading up to the law's passage in 2011.

"The court got it right, recognizing the stink of discrimination," said Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott  argued that the decision was misguided.

"Voter fraud is real, and it undermines the integrity of the election process," he said.

The ruling was seen as a victory for voting rights advocates, since it sends a signal to other states not to impose similar requirements. The appellate court did not strike down the Texas law, however. Instead, it called on a lower court to offer remedies to citizens whose ability to vote has been hampered.

Perhaps that will look something like an order issued by a federal judge in Wisconsin on Tuesday. There, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman said that citizens should be allowed to vote in November if they sign an affidavit stating that they could not obtain the required photo ID.

The Last Word

Asked whether he regrets not attending the GOP National Convention, Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said, "What convention?" according to Bethesda Magazine.

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