Commentary: A referendum, not an election

By John Krull

INDIANAPOLIS – When Democrat John Gregg runs against Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, in the gubernatorial campaign next year, the wisest strategy for the challenger might be to sit quietly in a corner somewhere.

John Krull, publisher,

John Krull, publisher,

Column by John KrullAny activity on Gregg’s part will just distract attention from the overarching issue – Pence’s contentious and divisive leadership.

In one way or another, I’ve been writing about Indiana politics for nearly 40 years. I’ve known eight governors, lawmakers by the hundreds and also-rans by the score. I long ago lost count of the number of committee meetings, press conferences and campaign events I’ve covered.

And I never have seen a political leader as polarizing as Mike Pence.

Hoosiers either love him or detest him. There seems to be no middle ground.

That’s why the Democratic candidate for governor is likely to be all but irrelevant to the outcome of next year’s election.

I know there are Republicans who believe – and Democrats who worry – that Gregg’s history of landing on both sides of difficult issues at different times will make him vulnerable.

In any normal election year, Gregg’s opponent could have a lot of fun putting together a narrative of the Democratic candidate’s debate with himself. Gregg has staked out, at varied times, differing positions on same-sex marriage, education reform and other controversial issues. Putting together TV spots made up of sound bites showing Gregg debating with himself in most campaigns would be devastating.

But this is not likely to be most campaigns.

The only other elected Indiana official in recent years who has aroused feelings of similar intensity was former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett. One of the architects of Indiana’s education reform movement, Bennett aroused both fervent loyalty and passionate animosity.

He headed into his 2012 re-election campaign as a presumed heavy favorite and he stayed that way – right up to the moment Democrat Glenda Ritz beat him in a surprising and somewhat lopsided upset.

Going into that race, not many Hoosiers knew anything about Ritz. Even after she won, her stateside name recognition in polls barely registered in the double digits.

That didn’t matter. Voters didn’t really care who Ritz was.

They knew, though, who Bennett was and that was enough. The people opposed to him would have voted for a statue in the park rather than Tony Bennett.

Hoosiers wanted Bennett gone so much that they voted him out of office in an election year with an otherwise strong showing for Republican candidates. The GOP presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, trounced Barack Obama in the statewide polling and every other statewide Republican candidate but a guy who wanted to link God’s will to rape won. Most won big.

There was one exception. We’ll get to that in a moment.

Mike Pence has moved into Bennett country.

His strident positions on education, same-sex marriage, Indiana’s ill-advised Religious Freedom Restoration Act and, now, the issue of Syrian refugees have made him almost radioactive.

To get a sense of how fervid the opposition to his governorship has become, one only has to drive through neighborhoods in normally solid Republican districts and count the “Pence Must Go” signs in people’s yards.

Those folks likely haven’t stopped being Republicans. They’ve just stopped being Republicans who will vote for Mike Pence.

That’s a problem for the governor.

When Pence ran the first time around in 2012, he received less than 50 percent of the vote, winning election with a plurality rather than a majority. He was the exception to the otherwise strong Republican showing.

What has he done in the past three years to alleviate the misgivings of the larger-than-half portion of the state’s voters who didn’t pull the ballot for him the first time around? What has he done to dampen the anger of those who oppose him? What has he done to gain more support than he had the last time he was on the ballot?

Not much.

Instead, he has put himself at the center of every issue dividing Hoosiers for the past three years.

The ballot next year will say Hoosiers have to make a choice between John Gregg and Mike Pence.

In reality, the choice will be much simpler than that.

Mike Pence, yea or nay?

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.


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