These days, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb must feel like he’s channeling the late vaudeville comedian Joey Adams.
Adams was the first to say, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”
Holcomb is having a rough, rough 2021 legislative session.
Indiana lawmakers swatted down his veto of a landlord-tenant bill as if it were a gnat. His legislative priorities—pregnancy accommodations, wetlands, etc.—that aren’t dead already are on life support. He can’t seem to slow, much less stop, a bill that would allow Hoosiers to carry firearms without permits and makes sense to no one other than the National Rifle Association’s lobbyists and gun merchants.
And, of course, the General Assembly seems poised to strip away many of Holcomb’s emergency powers as governor.
The folks who are doing this aren’t the governor’s political opponents—at least they aren’t supposed to be.
They are Republicans, the members of Holcomb’s own political party.
At most other times in our state’s history, this would be an odd development.
Holcomb, after all, just won reelection in resounding fashion. He captured 57 percent of the vote. His political position going into the 2020 campaign was so strong that every Indiana Democrat with any serious name recognition opted not to challenge him.
In the general election, Holcomb defeated the Democrats’ sacrificial lamb, Woody Myers, by nearly 25 points. The Libertarian candidate, Donald Rainwater, trailed Holcomb by more than 45 points.
The source of Holcomb’s strength was his reasonableness. Hoosiers saw him as a steady figure, conservative in both temperament and outlook but willing to consider all points of view and options.
Particularly in an emergency.
When the coronavirus hit, Holcomb didn’t move with the alacrity that some other governors did, but he also wasn’t an obstructionist. He didn’t pretend COVID-19 wasn’t a problem. He didn’t ignore the fact that people were dying.
The most conservative members of his own party took a different course. They thought Holcomb’s reluctant decisions to temporarily close businesses and schools to keep Indiana’s healthcare infrastructure—an infrastructure Hoosier lawmakers often have been reluctant to fully fund—from being overwhelmed were the acts of a would-be tyrant.
Those same reality-denying legislators found a voice in Rainwater, who argued that having people drop dead was a small price to pay for keeping the bars open and allowing Indiana high school students to attend proms.
In one of the curiosities of this strange, strange age, the views of the guy who won 11 percent of the vote seem to have prevailed over those of the guy who won nearly 57 percent.
An aside: It’s shocking, isn’t it, that some people have lost faith in representative government?
The problem here—the warping factor that is the source of the disconnect—is gerrymandering.
Governors and other statewide candidates have to run to the center if they wish to capture more than 50 percent of the vote. In a conservative state such as Indiana, that means that they end up landing somewhere right of center, but they still must try to appear to be reasonable people.
The statewide candidates that don’t—former Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill comes to mind—find their tenures in office shortened.
The maps of the state’s legislative districts, though, have been drawn with such surgical precision that lawmakers who come from them never have to fear encountering contrary views. They tend to believe their opinions are not only the only opinions that should and do matter.
They’re not interested in being reasonable or in resolving differences.
They’re interested in getting their way.
They can operate in this fashion because their safe districts mean they don’t owe the governor a darned thing. They’ll be just fine, whether Holcomb succeeds or fails.
That’s why Eric Holcomb is having such a hard time this session.
The members of the supermajorities in the Indiana General Assembly may belong to his party, but the gerrymandered maps that nurture them make certain they aren’t his friends.
Chances are they aren’t your friends, either.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.