INDIANAPOLIS -- Before his sudden ascension to lieutenant governor in March, few Hoosiers outside of the political establishment may have heard of Eric Holcomb.
On Tuesday, the Indiana Republican Central Committee selected Holcomb to replace Gov. Mike Pence on the ballot in November. Holcomb had been viewed by many as running in second place for consideration behind Congresswoman Susan Brooks -- until he received a cascade of endorsements on Friday from prominent Republicans, including Pence himself.
"Gov. Pence has made it crystal clear that he will assist me in maintaining control of the governor's office," Holcomb said in an email to committee members before the decision was made.
After a meeting Tuesday morning in which all four candidates – Holcomb, Brooks, Rep. Todd Rokita and State Sen. Jim Tomes – pleaded their case, the committee announced Holcomb as their choice at the top of the ballot.
"Today we stand united and give our full support to Eric as we race toward victory in November," Indiana GOP Chairman Jeff Cardwell said.
The chosen successor
Prior to Pence's endorsement, Holcomb may not have been the obvious choice to lead the Republican ticket in November. Unlike Brooks, a former U.S. district attorney now serving her first term in Congress (where she was a member of the much-watched House Select Committee on Benghazi), and Rokita, who served two terms as Indiana's secretary of state, Holcomb, a former Naval intelligence officer, has spent almost all of his career behind the scenes. Until being appointed lieutenant governor by Pence earlier this year, Holcomb had never held a public office – and he's never been elected to one.
Holcomb, a graduate of Pike High School in Indianapolis, graduated from Hanover College with a degree in U.S. history. He specialized in the American Civil War and Reconstruction.
After spending six years in the U.S. Navy, Holcomb worked first for former Congressman John Hostettler and then as an advisor for former Gov. Mitch Daniels from 2003-2010, when he became chairman of the Indiana Republican Party. Holcomb then moved to U.S. Sen. Dan Coats' office in Washington, where he served as chief of staff.
In 2000, Holcomb launched a failed bid for Congress against Democrat John Frenz – who he accused in a campaign ad of supporting obscenity and bestiality for voting on a budget that included funding for Indiana University, where the Kinsey Institute is located.
Holcomb announced last year that he would run for the Senate seat being vacated by his boss, Sen. Coats, who announced he was retiring. But he dropped out of the race in February after coming in a distant third in fundraising to fellow Republicans Rep. Marlin Stutzman and Rep. Todd Young. Young eventually won the GOP primary, and will face former governor and senator Evan Bayh in November.
Holcomb's first chance at public office came in March, when Pence appointed him to replace Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann.
Despite his less-than-public persona, Holcomb received endorsements for Indiana's top job from party leaders like Pence and Coats. And he was quickly able to put together a statewide leadership team – even before he was selected as the GOP's candidate.
Phillip Stoller, a former member of the Indiana State Committee, praised Holcomb in a statement for his "servant leadership."
"He always listened to the ideas brought to him, and showed a real interest in understanding peoples' perspectives," Stoller said. "It is this kind of leadership that is best suited to serve the
A mixed legacy
While Holcomb boasted he had a commitment of financial and campaign support from Pence that no other Republican could claim, his close ties to the governor could prove to be a liability in November.
While Pence remains popular among social conservatives, his decision to spend political capital – and, at times, taxpayer dollars – fighting for agenda items like a same-sex marriage ban and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act had him facing a tough re-election battle against Democrat John Gregg. Now that Pence is joining Donald Trump in a bid for the White House, his lieutenant governor, Holcomb, could be left holding the bag.
Democratic Indianapolis This Week Insider Kip Tew also says Holcomb, who he called a "carbon copy of Mike Pence," will have to convince voters that he should be governor without any previous experience as an elected official.
"He's been a behind-the-scenes political operative his whole career," Tew said. "Never held a private sector job. It's always been a political job. He's been an inside political operator his entire career."
— John Gregg (@GreggForGov) July 26, 2016
Republican Pete Seat, a senior project manager at Hathaway Strategies working with the Holcomb campaign, painted a picture of Holcomb as a unifier who has brought new voters to the Republican Party.
"While he’s never been elected himself, he currently holds the second highest statewide office in Indiana and he led the team that re-elected Governor Mitch Daniels and brought the Republican Party historic gains in the 2011 and 2012 election cycles," Seat said. "Plus, he worked alongside Governor Daniels for two terms – eight full years – as well as with Senator Dan Coats and now Governor Mike Pence. Elected office isn’t the only way to gain experience in balancing budgets, cutting taxes and investing in the future."
In an interview with RTV6 Statehouse Reporter Katie Heinz, Holcomb said he wanted the job to keep Indiana "on course and moving forward."
"I'm excited about the potential we have before us," Holcomb said. "We are moving forward, and other states are trying to catch up with us."