By Lesley Weidenbener
INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana voters favor ousting Gov. Mike Pence from office in the 2016 election, primarily over his handling of education and gay rights issues, according to a new poll first obtained by TheStatehouseFile.com.
A majority of voters also say they want to add sexual orientation to the state’s civil rights law, creating new protections for gay Hoosiers, the poll found.
The survey by Republican pollster Christine Matthews found that support for Pence is waning – nearly two months after an uproar over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act he signed into law. Critics argued the law would authorize discrimination against people who are gay, bisexual or transgender.
“The numbers for (Pence) are worse, suggesting that even though RFRA is no longer making headlines, it has not been forgotten,” Matthews wrote in a memo about the poll, which surveyed 800 registered voters from May 29-June 3 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. She conducted a similar poll just after the law passed.
“This may be one of those situations where a sleeping giant has been kicked and is now wide awake,” she said.
Pence campaign spokesman Robert Vane declined to comment on the poll results. He said that “while the insiders will focus on poll numbers, which will inevitably bounce around,” the governor will focus on issues.
Pence plans to announce Thursday he is seeking reelection in 2016. But the poll found that 46 percent of registered voters agree with a statement that the governor’s handling of the religious freedom issue was embarrassing and he doesn’t deserve a second term.
Another 41 percent of voters agreed that Pence may not have handled the issue as well as he could have but that he has done a good job overall and deserves to be reelected. The final 13 percent of voters said they didn’t know.
In head-to-head matchups, the poll found Pence in a statistical dead heat with the two leading Democratic candidates for governor: state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and former House Speaker John Gregg, who lost to Pence in 2012.
“Because John Gregg retains little name ID from his previous run, his standing vis-à-vis Pence is not about Gregg, it’s about Pence,” Matthews said. “Glenda Ritz retains support from the passionate base of education-motivated parents and teachers who helped her defeat Tony Bennett” in 2012.
Indiana Democratic Chairman John Zody said in a statement Wednesday that the “numbers from this Republican poll show Hoosiers are fed up and know that we can do better than Mike Pence.”
And he said Pence “can no longer hide from the Hoosiers he ignored when he chose to prioritize his out of touch ideology ahead of the best interests and well-being of Indiana.”
Republican Bill Oesterle, a businessman who opposed RFRA and supports adding sexual orientation to the state civil rights law, paid for the poll. On Wednesday, Matthews released her memo and 31 poll questions and answers.
“I asked her to perform a very deep, very broad poll – a substantially larger and deeper poll than is typically done,” Oesterle said. “I just wanted to understand what the landscape looks like – to understand how Hoosiers felt about these key issues and what the aftermath of RFRA really looks like.”
The poll sampled 200 additional Republicans – enough to provide detailed data about GOP voters’ views on the race and issues – but neither Oesterle nor Matthews released those results.
Oesterle stepped down in April from his post as chief executive officer of Angie’s List, a company he helped found, to reengage in politics. The manager of former Gov. Mitch Daniels’ first campaign said then that he wanted to help restore the damage RFRA had done to Indiana’s reputation.
The poll found that Oesterle is not alone in his concern that RFRA had damaged the state’s reputation. Four in 10 of the voters surveyed said the law will have a negative impact on the Indiana economy. About 37 percent said the law would have no real impact and 9 percent said it would have a positive impact.
And voters say they want to take steps to ensure RFRA doesn’t lead to discrimination.
A majority of respondents – 54 percent – said they support adding sexual orientation to the state’s civil rights law, which bans discrimination based on gender, race, religion or disability. And 45 percent said they are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports the change as well.
But RFRA isn’t the only issue driving voters. Of the 54 percent of respondents who said it’s time for a new governor, 17 percent said it’s because they disagree with Pence on education issues while 15 percent cited gay rights issues.
Pence has been engaged in a two-year battle with Ritz over education issues. And earlier this year, Pence tried to have the Democrat removed as chair of the State Board of Education, a move that prompted Ritz to run for governor.
Voters also said Pence isn’t doing a good job, the state needs a change, and they’d prefer a Democrat – with each of those reasons earning nods from 11 percent of respondents who want a new governor.
Matthews said the poll also finds that Pence is losing support among college-educated women, a group she said “decides elections and in Indiana, as nationally, can swing in either direction.”
In the poll released in in April, “Pence showed vulnerability with this group and on our June survey, we see even more of this,” she said. “They rate him negatively by nearly a 2:1 margin both in terms of whether or not they like him and whether or not they approve of the job he is doing as governor.”
College-educated women prefer Ritz by nearly 20 points and Gregg by 15, the poll found.
“On this poll we see what may be an even more ominous finding for him which is a significant drop among college-educated men,” who typically favor Republicans by more than 20 points, Matthews said.
Among those voters, Pence has a negative image rating and a 16-point net job disapproval rating.
Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.