By Lesley Weidenbener
Lesley Weidenbener, managing editor, The Statehouse File
INDIANAPOLIS – I’m not sure what led Eric Holcomb to resign his post as chairman of the Indiana Republican Party just a few months after winning a new term, but the result is a big win for Gov. Mike Pence and probably the party.
Not only did Pence get to handpick a new chairman – Tim Berry – but he’ll get to pick the person who finishes Berry’s term as state auditor. The latter is a move that could help the GOP avoid or at least lessen a difficult political dilemma, one involving state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.
Pence’s choice of Berry still must be confirmed by the Republican State Committee, but that’s considered a formality.
Berry, meanwhile, will resign his position as state auditor, where he’s in the third year of a four-year term. That means Pence will be able to appoint a successor, someone to serve the last 17 months or so of the term and presumably run for the office in 2014.
That’s important because the new auditor would come into the 2014 Republican State Convention – where delegates choose a nominee for the office – as the frontrunner, if not the consensus pick. It makes it unlikely that Republicans will be divided over a nominee for an office that the public barely cares about. That can happen when there’s no incumbent and no heir apparent.
Just look back to 2008 when Greg Zoeller won the nomination for attorney general over Jon Costas, who was then-Gov. Mitch Daniels’ pick for the position. That caused some ill will in the party, although a gracious Daniels was able to heal those wounds quickly.
Still, a 2014 battle over the nomination for auditor could become particularly dicey if Mourdock jumps into the race. Mourdock is finishing up his second term as state treasurer and there’s been broad speculation that he’s eying the auditor’s office next. That’s precisely the path Berry followed.
But Republicans remain uneasy about Mourdock.
Last year, Mourdock defeated then-Sen. Richard Lugar in the GOP primary and then went on to lose to Democrat Joe Donnelly, who is now the state’s junior senator. It’s a race Mourdock should have been able to win easily. After all, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won Indiana, despite an easy reelection victory by President Barack Obama. And Pence won. And Republicans nabbed super majorities in both the Indiana House and Senate.
But Mourdock proved to be a controversial candidate. He said on MSNBC that the highlight of politics “is to inflict my opinion on someone else,” a statement that went over fine with many partisan voters but frustrated a number of more moderate Republicans.
Then just weeks before the general election, Mourdock said at a debate that pregnancies that result from rapes are God’s will, a comment that set off a firestorm that likely contributed to his loss.
That background would seem to make him an unlikely choice to be the party’s nominee for any office. But Republicans are of two minds about Mourdock. Many conservatives say his statements were taken out of context or misunderstood and they blame the press – not Mourdock – for the loss in the Senate. They’d like to see Mourdock redeemed.
More moderate members of the party, though, are still angry about Mourdock’s ouster of Lugar and blame him for losing the Senate seat to Democrats.
It’s a split that could get pretty ugly if it played out publicly in 2014.
But now Pence has an opportunity to help the party avoid that problem. If he’s careful and appoints a new auditor that can help unite the party, a 2014 convention floor fight is unlikely to be disruptive – even if Mourdock opts to run.
That would be good for Pence and for the party.
Lesley Weidenbener is managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.