The Week in Politics: Indiana's Tight Governor's Race, Election Law Rulings and More

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | August 26, 2016

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Indiana Governor's Race a Jump Ball

Indiana is generally a Republican state, but it's possible that Democrats will end up controlling its three top elected offices after this fall's election.

Recent polls have shown Democrat Evan Bayh, a former governor and senator, with a healthy lead in an open U.S. Senate contest. (Democrat Joe Donnelly is the state's other senator.) Things are tighter in the race to replace Gov. Mike Pence, who is the GOP nominee for vice president.

Pence was running for re-election until he got the call last month from Donald Trump to join the national ticket. His replacement, Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, has understandably gotten off to a slow start. "People don't know Holcomb," said Laura Merrifield Albright, a political scientist at the University of Indianapolis. "So much of it is getting his name out there."

Holcomb's task is that much harder because federal rules prohibited Pence from transferring $7 million from his campaign fund. Pence did send Holcomb nearly $1.25 million earlier this month, but Holcomb started off at a big cash disadvantage against Democrat John Gregg. "Getting out of the starting blocks has been kind of difficult for him," said Andrew Downs, a political scientist at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. "Holcomb has probably had to spend more time raising money than he'd hoped to."

Gregg, a former state House speaker who ran against Pence four years ago, has been trying to blame Holcomb for the purported sins of the governor's administration. Some voters might find that a stretch, given that Holcomb only became lieutenant governor in March.

Pence's approval ratings are low. But Holcomb's bigger problem might be Pence's place on the national ticket. Indiana is not one of the red states where Hillary Clinton is expected to have a chance. Nevertheless, having a native son running means much of the media focus is on the presidential race.

Between that and the Senate race, it's difficult for the gubernatorial candidates to get much attention, Albright said. That's bad news for a relative unknown like Holcomb.

"I anticipate the race will be pretty close up until Election Day," Downs said. "We can be looking at the prospect of a governor and two senators in Indiana being Democrats."

Not Too Early to Get Election (Law) Results

It was another busy week on the election law front, as voting rights advocates continue to challenge recent restrictions in the courts.

In-person absentee voting will start as early as next month in Madison and Milwaukee, thanks to a ruling from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday. The court refused a request to stay another court's ruling striking down Wisconsin laws that restricted early voting.

The result was different in Ohio. On Tuesday, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals did overturn a lower court ruling regarding early voting. The lower court had restored a six-day period in the state known as "Golden Week," when citizens could both register to vote and cast early ballots.

Golden Week was eliminated by a 2014 state law, which Judge David McKeague, writing for a 2-1 majority, wrote still allows a "really quite generous" 29-period of early voting.

Also on Tuesday, yet another federal appeals court, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, heard arguments in a case that turns on the question of whether Kansas can ask people for proof of citizenship when they register to vote.

One idea for monitoring elections never got off the launch pad. Bob Heltman, who chairs the Henderson County Board of Elections in North Carolina, floated the idea last week of deputizing armed civilians to patrol polling places on Election Day.

That approach was quickly ruled out of bounds.

"This is a natural consequence of [Donald] Trump's election rigging talk," wrote University of California, Irvine law professor Rick Hasen on his Election Law Blog.

Runoffs Determine Winners in Some Oklahoma Races

Oklahoma held runoffs Tuesday in 13 legislative districts. In many races, the winners of the runoffs look like sure bets, with newcomers set to replace term-limited incumbents in districts dominated by one party or the other.

A group called Oklahoma Parents and Educators for Public Education has been backing teachers and other friends of traditional public education in a number of races. The group enjoyed some success in the primaries back in June, knocking off a pair of incumbents.

Its momentum continued on Tuesday, when the group's preferred candidates won in two of the races that garnered the most attention.

Adam Pugh, who came within eight votes of winning outright in June, came out on top in the runoff against Paul Blair. Having won the GOP nomination at the end of a long and fairly expensive fight, Pugh will now be heavily favored to win the seat being vacated by state Sen. Clark Jolley.

Former Ada Mayor Greg McCortney also won a GOP Senate runoff, beating former "Amazing Race" contestant Jet McCoy. McCortney will face public school teacher Eric Hall in the race to replace outgoing Democrat Susan Paddack.

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