NOBLESVILLE, Ind. — Gunfire echoed and the acrid smell of burnt gunpowder filled the autumn air on a recent weeknight as a group of about 100 unmasked voters took turns firing on targets at Bare Arms Shooting, an outdoor gun range in this northern suburb of Indianapolis.
They arrived at this fundraiser to support Libertarian gubernatorial nominee Donald Rainwater, a candidate who was, until this summer, a total obscurity.
Indiana is a staunchly Republican state, and its staunchly Republican, cowboy-boot-wearing governor, Eric Holcomb, seemed like a shoo-in for much of the campaign. A one-time staffer for heavy-hitting Hoosiers including former Gov. Mitch Daniels, Sen. Dan Coats and Vice President Mike Pence’s lieutenant governor, he raked in millions of dollars for his re-election bid, triangulated his Democratic candidate by wooing labor unions and sidelined the high-dollar political arm of Indiana teachers’ union, which didn’t make an endorsement in the race. Holcomb’s Democratic challenger barely has a campaign, with so little money he still hasn’t run a TV ad.
Early on during the pandemic, Holcomb proved to be something of a steady hand on the tiller, taking the threat of Covid seriously, and deferring to the counsel of the state’s top health officials. He issued a robust stay-at-home order on March 24, shuttering non-essential businesses. He didn’t go as far as Northeastern Republican governors like Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan or Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, but did go further than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who resisted instituting strict Covid precautions.
Most controversially, Holcomb has kept a mask order in place, requiring Hoosiers to wear masks when indoors or in public places where social distancing isn’t possible. And for Rainwater, that was all the opportunity he needed.
Since at least July, Rainwater, a 57-year-old Navy veteran and software engineer, has been hammering the governor on his mask policy and his restrictions on non-essential businesses, saying the government should have no role in either matter. “We are not subjects; we are citizens,” Rainwater said in a recent television appearance. And he’s becoming something of a movement. A September Indy Politics/Change Research poll of 1,033 likely voters showed Rainwater surging at 24 percent, 12 points behind Holcomb at 36 percent and six points behind Democratic candidate Woody Myers at 30 percent. Rainwater signs have popped up next to Trump signs across the state—signaling that a portion of Holcomb’s base is bailing on him but sticking with the president.
At the fundraiser, for a $50 campaign contribution, Rainwater supporters fired 15 rounds with AR-15s and SIG Sauer P365 semi-automatic pistols, taking out their irritation with the mask requirement on paper silhouette targets affixed to cardboard backers. Near a tent full of guns, Rainwater held court for Hoosiers eager to kvetch about wearing masks and Holcomb’s 2017 gas tax hike. “What has gone on for the last seven months has really brought people’s awareness to the potential damage that big government overstepping its boundaries and conducting itself in an unchecked manner can do,” he told me, after breaking away from the crowd, adding that his campaign is struggling to keep up with the demand for yard signs.
“This rise in the Libertarian vote is because of these anti-maskers,” John Gregg, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 2012 and 2016 who declined to run again this year, told me. “We’ve got a lot of crazy-ass people in this state.”
These Covid-era politics could upend what has been a largely stable governor’s race. Rainwater’s Facebook page has earned 25,000 followers, and a Republicans for Rainwater Facebook group with the tagline “Give ‘Gas-Tax-Mask-Mandate’ Holcomb the boot!” has amassed nearly 15,000 members. Libertarian presidential candidate Jo Jorgenson held a rally for Rainwater here recently that drew a few hundred people. The candidate has also pocketed $187,000 in contributions, according to campaign filings, much less than Holcomb’s $6-plus million and less than Myers’ $464,000. But the Libertarian has more cash on hand than the Democratic candidate, which he funneled into statewide radio and a television ad, beating the Democrat onto the air—unprecedented in modern Indiana politics.
“I’d say 70 percent of [Rainwater’s] support is from those who are disgruntled by Holcomb,” Rainwater’s campaign manager Sam Goldstein, an accountant by day who oversees a campaign staff of 15, told me. “If the Covid hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be doing this good.”
To be sure, if Hoosiers flock in droves to the Libertarian candidate, the trend would cut against a larger movement in the American electorate away from third parties. And, weeks out from Election Day, Holcomb still has a sizable lead in the polls.A SurveyUSA poll of 527 likely voters pegged Holcomb at 30 points ahead of Myers, leading with 55 percent to Myers’ 25, and 45 points ahead of Rainwater, with 11 percent undecided. The poll also found that 75 percent of Hoosiers approved of his mask mandate, with 22 percent disapproving.
“There may be some movement, but there is not a lot of volatility in this race,” said Indiana Republican Party Chairman Kyle Hupfer, who is also Holcomb’s campaign manager.
Still, the far-right anti-lockdown and anti-mask fervor propelling Rainwater is making a dent. For now, it seems to have pressured Holcomb into reopening the state weeks before the election. Late last month, while keeping the state’s penalty-free mask order in place, Holcomb lifted capacity limits on restaurants and gatherings. Rachel Hoffmeyer, the governor’s press secretary, told POLITICO the timing of the reopening had nothing to do with the election. “The Governor makes decisions based on data and the guidance of medical experts,” she said. But now, Holcomb faces a difficult political and public health decision: Hospitalizations are surging, ICU beds are becoming scarce and new infections are surging at record highs in the three weeks since he’s reopened the state.
Indiana has always had a stubborn, somewhat libertarian streak in its politics. There is still no shortage of consternation 15 years after former Gov. Mitch Daniels adopted daylight saving time as part of his economic agenda in 2005. That quality was on display here back in April, not even four weeks into Indiana’s stay-at-home orders when the pandemic was ascendant. The day after President Donald Trump issued a series of tweets demanding blue state governors to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”—a reaction to those state’s restrictive Covid policies—about 200 protestors gathered outside of the governor’s English Tudor residence, demanding that Holcomb open up this red state. “LIBERATE INDIANA! NO MORE NANNY STATE! ALL JOBS ARE ESSENTIAL!” read one sign. “IF HOLCOMB’S JOB IS ESSENTIAL, EVERYONE’S JOB IS ESSENTIAL,” read another. “Fauci was wrong,” read yet another.
Holcomb, who has governed largely as a sunny technocrat after he won a 106-day campaign following Trump’s selection of former Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate, declared a public health emergency here on March 6. He instituted his first stay-at-home orders on March 24. His coronavirus media briefings have been quite different from Trump’s, with Holcomb largely deferring questions to health experts. Holcomb’s Covid mandates have largely tracked with more moderate GOP governors in states such as Ohio. Still, Holcomb’s mask mandate came relatively late trailing surrounding red states like Kentucky, where Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear instituted a mask order nearly a month before Indiana’s. The mask rule, announced on July 22, rule didn’t go into effect until July 27.
Even so, some conservative Republicans say that Holcomb has overstepped his bounds.
When he announced plans for a mask mandate with the penalty of a class B misdemeanor, the state’s Republican Attorney General Curtis Hill issued an advisory opinion arguing that Holcomb lacked authority to do so. “The wisdom of wearing masks—or of laws requiring such measures—is not the issue here,” Hill wrote in a statement. “Rather, the issue is whether we are following the proper and constitutional processes for enacting laws and whether we are respecting the distinct roles of each branch of state government.” Hill questioned whether Indiana’s Emergency Management and Disaster Law gave Holcomb license to enforce the mandate. “By this point in the pandemic—more than four months since the emergency declaration—it’s time to show some deference to the branch of government actually charged by our state constitution with the responsibility for enacting laws,” Hill said. Holcomb quietly removed the criminal penalty.
That’s when Rainwater started gaining traction—in July, when Holcomb instituted his mask order and around the time Covid-restriction fatigue began to take root here. When the Indy Politics poll showed Rainwater surging in September, large-dollar contributions and grassroots enthusiasm started to rise.
The blowback on Holcomb’s right flank even led Republican State Rep. Jim Lucas to endorse the Libertarian candidates recently. The high school economics teacher, Andy Lyons, who organized the protest outside of the governor’s residence is also now backing Rainwater. “People recognize Holcomb is just completely making it up as he goes along, and has zero respect for the rule of law, the boundaries of his powers, or the Constitution,” Rob Kendall, a local conservative talk radio host in Indianapolis who attended the Rainwater fundraiser, told me. “They are also aware Myers is even worse. They only have one person to turn to. That person is Donald Rainwater.”
Hupfer, the state party chairman and Holcomb’s campaign manager, downplays the impact anti-mask sentiment has had on the gubernatorial race. “I think there’s certainly a subgroup of folks out there who are very narrowly focused on that single issue,” he told me. According to an October poll of 600 likely voters paid for by the campaign, 60 percent of Hoosiers say Indiana is on the right track, compared to 31 percent who believe the state is on the wrong track, while 72 percent approve of Holcomb’s job performance compared to 20 percent who disapprove. Among self-identified liberals, 50 percent approve of Holcomb; among moderates, his approval rating rises to 80 percent and among conservatives, it’s one percentage point more, 81 percent. “Since Covid has been the biggest issue of the last 6-plus months, it isn’t a huge leap to look at his overall job approval and determine that Hoosiers approve of his Covid handling,” said Jake Oakman, an Indiana Republican Party spokesman, said.
But some conservatives say while they plan to vote for Trump, they will not vote straight ticket in the governor’s race. “The mask mandate is reviled by anyone paying attention,” Rob Kendall, the talk radio host, told me. “Not because of whether someone should or should not wear a mask, but the way Holcomb went about it. He does not have the ability to arbitrarily make law.”
Andy Downs, a political scientist at Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne said the re-alignment among Indiana GOP voters will probably be temporary. But Lyons, who has distributed more than 350 signs across seven counties for Rainwater, says Holcomb’s mask mandate, which he calls “garbage,” has forced him into voting Libertarian in the future. “The side of the Republican Party that is very adamant about small, limited government, about liberty and freedom, about personal choice for businesses and individuals have decided that Holcomb is not conservative nor is he liberty-minded.”
In the waning days of September, Holcomb moved Indiana into Stage 5 of its Back on Track coronavirus recovery plan. In Stage 5 of Holcomb’s plan, face masks are still required and social distancing is recommended, but restrictions on bar, restaurant and gym capacities, for example, have been lifted. “The numbers continue to track in the right direction,” Holcomb said when he announced Indiana’s move to Stage 5. “We have been very steady, very methodical about this, very data-driven, and that’s how we will continue to be.” But new cases of the virus have been increasing since then, and in the last five consecutive days, there have been more than 1,500 cases each day. Hospitalizations are at their highest since May.
Meanwhile, Hoosier Democrats are privately and publicly lamenting that Myers is not in a better position to benefit from the circumstances. On paper, they have a candidate who appears designed to meet the moment: Myers is the first major-party Black nominee in Indiana history, and the only Black gubernatorial candidate nationwide amid a second civil rights movement. The former chief health officer for Ford Motor Company, Myers is also a doctor and former Indiana health commissioner. But Myers has so far failed to turn that bio into dollars. Even an August Zoom fundraiser headlined by fellow Hoosier and Democratic fundraising rainmaker Pete Buttigieg, whose Win the Era PAC endorsed Myers in July, didn’t seem to move the needle (the campaign declined to say how much was raised; an attendee said the event didn’t seem to draw in new donors).
“It’s been real disappointing because it can affect some down-ballot races,” Gregg, who thinks Myers is a poor communicator and fundraiser, told me. “He’s the most disappointing candidate that the Democrats have put forward in my lifetime. He is a physician in a pandemic, and an African American during our reckoning with racism and prejudice, and he’s still not gaining traction.” In response, a Myers’ campaign spokesman says that Myers “continues to be focused on direct voter contact while keeping the utmost caution during a pandemic,” and that Myers is benefiting from a number of early voters in Democratic strongholds.
Myers might be speaking to few supporters, but he has a bleak prognosis for Indiana: “Sadly, because of the decisions of our state leaders, more Hoosiers will likely die,” Myers said a Covid briefing last week. “All the scientific facts mean that we’re going to have a great deal more of this virus in our state to deal with in the coming weeks and months in addition to seasonal influenza.”
Indiana Democrats say it’s unlikely Myers will benefit much if voters perceive that Holcomb reopened too soon. Myers’ campaign said “production is in motion” for his first television ad, but did not have details on the buy nailed down yet. Rainwater’s ads still are winning conservatives over as precious time passes.
Meanwhile, Holcomb is tacking to his right as Election Day draws near. He briefly stopped taking questions from reporters at his coronavirus press conferences in early October, but resumed the practice this week after criticism. “It’s the basketball analogy,” Tew, the former Indiana Democratic Party chairman, said of Holcomb’s move to not engage with reporters during his coronavirus briefings. “Four corners. He’s holding the ball and there’s no shot clock.”
In his first briefing since pivoting back to taking questions from reporters, Holcomb all but disavowed his own early reaction to the pandemic. “The pain that will come from assuming that if we just restrict down or shut down, and it’ll have no adverse impacts — it’s our behavior, it is our actions that need to be addressed,” Holcomb told reporters. He added: “The shutting down approach is missing the point. I would point you to some other states who have capacity limits of 10 who are dealing with this as well.”
Holcomb also shared Wednesday that his own top public health commissioner, Dr. Kristina Box, had tested positive for the virus, and that he would self-quarantine as a result. He announced a negative test Thursday. Both of his opponents sharply criticized his response, with Myers arguing that Holcomb should roll the state back to Stage 4. “How many more Hoosiers have to die because Indiana does not have the courage to take the actions that are required,” Myers said, who added Thursday that Holcomb was “frozen in an intensifying spotlight.”
Rainwater, meanwhile, went right for the masks, pointing out that during his first briefing back, Holcomb’s mask fell below his nose. “While I clearly believe that Covid-19 is a serious health issue, especially for those in high risk demographics, I find it insulting for a governor who can’t even wear a mask appropriately while on television, to tell Hoosiers that people who don’t wear masks in small gatherings are causing others to get sick.”
Read more: politico.com