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Indiana has its first competitive primary race for governor in 2 decades

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's an interesting political year in my home state of Indiana. Indiana has its first competitive primary for governor in two decades. Six Republicans are seeking their party's nomination. It is an open seat, as current Governor Eric Holcomb is term-limited after eight years. Indiana Public Broadcasting's Brandon Smith reports Holcomb is not endorsing anyone - not even his lieutenant governor.

BRANDON SMITH, BYLINE: Holcomb first started getting questions about an endorsement a year and a half ago, especially once his governing partner, Lieutenant Governor Suzanne Crouch, joined the race. But he resisted, at first acknowledging that Crouch needed to be her own candidate.

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ERIC HOLCOMB: I don't want anyone thinking that just because she and I worked so closely together that she's a clone of me.

SMITH: Despite Holcomb's solid approval rating from Indiana voters, it's a little different in the Republican base. The right wing's anger is focused primarily on Holcomb's policies trying to combat COVID-19. Crouch has been happy to distance herself on that issue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUZANNE CROUCH: We can't go back and change what happened, but I've learned from the mistakes of our top executive.

SMITH: But she doesn't shy away from her resume, which includes decades of elected office. In one of the primary's debates, a moderator asked her why so many of the candidates try to claim they're the outsider in the race.

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UNIDENTIFIED MODERATOR: How can anyone in this primary claim to be an outsider?

CROUCH: I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

CROUCH: But, you know, I'm proud of my public service.

SMITH: So is it awkward that her previous running mate hasn't backed her? Mike O'Brien has worked in Indiana politics for two decades and ran Holcomb's 2016 campaign for governor. He's also informally advising Crouch in this race and says the governor doesn't want to risk hurting her with an endorsement.

MIKE O'BRIEN: Maybe you don't want it to not be helpful, right? If you're the leader of the party, you want to - we've got perfectly legitimate candidates here. Any one of them can serve in the role as governor. Let's just let that play itself out.

SMITH: So if a Holcomb endorsement isn't driving this race, what is? Perhaps another endorsement - former President Donald Trump - who jumped in early to back U.S. Senator Mike Braun.

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MIKE BRAUN: He is the guy that broke the system at the federal level, and now the system is trying to take him out. So if you want to know who the outsider is, that's very clear, and I represent that here.

SMITH: O'Brien says, in a state where Trump's favorability among Republicans is in the 80s, that's a huge factor.

O'BRIEN: Maybe the simple analysis is the right one, and that is Trump endorsed Mike Braun. He started out with the most name ID and a lot of money, and that's all really it's going to take right now in the context of a Republican primary.

SMITH: A lot of money is putting it mildly. The six Republicans will spend around $40 million by election day - a record for campaign spending in an Indiana primary. Braun spent $6 million alone in just the first three months of the year. The bulk of that has blanketed Indiana's airwaves with campaign ads, and University of Indianapolis political scientist Laura Merrifield Wilson says all that spending likely ends up helping Braun.

LAURA MERRIFIELD WILSON: The benefit that Braun has in this particular primary is the fact that there are several other candidates that really seem to split the electorate.

SMITH: In the race's limited public polling, Braun has led his next closest opponent, Crouch, by 20 to 30 points each time. But Wilson notes the number of voters in those polls who say they're undecided is between around 20% to 40%, which she says is why there's still so much money being spent.

MERRIFIELD WILSON: I think there is still that hope, and we recognize, in a gubernatorial primary, you know, probably up until election day, you're going to have at least a portion of undecided voters.

SMITH: Besides, Wilson says, there's no point saving the money for the general election. Indiana hasn't elected a Democrat to any statewide office in 12 years, so the next governor will likely be decided on May 7.

For NPR News, I'm Brandon Smith in Indianapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brandon Smith is excited to be working for public radio in Indiana. He has previously worked in public radio as a reporter and anchor in mid-Missouri for KBIA Radio out of Columbia. Prior to that, he worked for WSPY Radio in Plano, Illinois as a show host, reporter, producer and anchor. His first job in radio was in another state capitol, in Jefferson City, Missouri, as a reporter for three radio stations around Missouri. Brandon graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a Bachelor of Journalism in 2010, with minors in political science and history. He was born and raised in Chicago.