By BRIAN A. HOWEY
About this time five years ago, Mike Braun was a relatively unknown state rep from Jasper, preparing to take on two sitting congressmen in the Republican U.S. Senate primary. Braun registered about 1% in his initial internal poll. And he won that primary by spending about $5 million of his own money, finishing with a 41% victory.
Former Indiana Commerce Sec. Brad Chambers has taken note. He resigned his $1-a-year post after 24 months in August. He loaned his campaign $5 million, hired the state party’s political pros and made a $1 million TV ad buy in his Republican campaign for governor.
The biographical TV ad traces his family’s roots to Thorntown, his forging a lawn care business at age 15, how he met his wife at Indiana University and then began a multistate rental business before Gov. Eric Holcomb named him commerce secretary a little more than two years ago. “We had our faith in Hoosier values,” Chambers says in the ad. “I met my wife at IU. We raised our son in Indiana. We’re Hoosiers. Indiana’s great, but it can be even better. Hoosiers need a governor ready to build an economy of the future.
“I feel the challenges that too many Hoosiers face. I’ve lived them,” Chambers says. “And that’s why I’m running for governor.”
Chambers joins a GOP field that includes Sen. Braun, Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, Fort Wayne businessman Eric Doden, former attorney general Curtis Hill, and businesswoman Jamie Reitenour.
I caught up with Chambers at Creighton’s Crazy Egg & Coffee Bar last week for a meet and greet with about 50 local GOP and business leaders from across Kosciusko County. There were no endorsements. They came to hear a candidate for governor few of them knew. His message was a simple one: “I know how to grow the economy.”
Afterwards, I asked Chambers how he could win the nomination when so few people know him, or even of him.
“You work hard and you be yourself,” he responded. “It took me a bit to get to yes on this. I’m not a career politician, I’ve never run for office. You hear me say that a lot. But I believe in the product through my career as a business person, I’ve been a consumer of the state’s economy and then my two years as secretary of commerce. I saw up close and personal the potential of this state. It gets me excited.”
Can he win from a starting point that mirrored Braun’s?
“I wouldn’t do it if it was impossible,” Chambers said. “My story is my story. Be authentic, and we’ll see what happens and whether the voters respond to that.”
Braun’s pitch to GOP voters is that he has a record in the Senate. “My record has got high favorables and low unfavorables,” Braun told me. “I’ll let my record speak for itself,” urging Republican voters to look it up.
For Lt. Gov. Crouch, she presents herself as a community facilitator and collaborator and has proposed her “axe the tax” plan on ending the state’s income tax. “The next chapter in Indiana’s history is going to be quality of life,” she told me in Evansville. “Why? Because quality of life is how we grow our population and our economy. It used to be that people followed businesses. Today, businesses are following people.”
For Doden, it’s his tenure similar to Chambers’ at the Indiana Economic Development Corporation and his opposition to the Indiana Chamber’s recommendation to consolidate sparsely populated school districts.
For Chambers, it’s the $33 billion he says he secured for Indiana investments (including a record $22.2 billion in his final year at IEDC) and the thousands of high-paying jobs that will be created if all that money materializes.
“When I walked into IEDC, they were playing defense,” Chambers told these Republicans in Warsaw. “I want to play offense.” He added that of the $22 billion in investment this past year, 53% came in rural counties.
“My pitch is that I’ve never done this before, but I’ve run a business for 40 years that was founded in Indiana from nothing,” he told me. “I’m an Indiana entrepreneur. I’ve been running a business, hiring people, inspiring people, leading, planning, measuring performance for a very long time. That’s what a governor is. The No. 1 job of a governor is to grow the economy.”
Former Indiana Republican Chairman Jim Kittle Jr., who was instrumental in Mitch Daniels’ 2004 run for governor, is backing Chambers. “Of all the candidates, he has the ability to be the most transformational and move Indiana ahead like Mitch Daniels,” Kittle explained. “We need another jolt.”
On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Defense notified Indiana that it would receive $32.9 million in the CHIPS+Science legislation signed by President Biden for the state’s Silicon Crossroads program. “As Indiana’s Secretary of Commerce, my team and I implemented a bold, strategic vision to position Indiana as a top competitor for these very investments,” Chambers said. “With $33 billion of statewide capital investment, 30% higher average wages, and new high-wage industries calling Indiana home, I’ve proven that with the right leadership, Indiana’s future is, and will continue to be, bright.”
Most GOP nomination races come to one or two candidates. Hoosier Republicans will have an unprecedented choice next May.
-Brian Howey is senior writer and columnist for Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.