Brian Howey: Trump’s Hoosiers passing on a second term

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In late spring of 2016, even as Donald J. Trump won the Indiana presidential primary with 53.6% of the vote, the Republican establishment was slow to come around. Gov. Mike Pence had given his milquetoast endorsement to Sen. Ted Cruz. Only former GOP Chair Rex Early and Sullivan County Chairman Bill Springer were on board with the Manhattan billionaire when the national convention delegates were announced.

Then came the veepstakes, with Pence slowly rising to the top of the pecking order by mid-July. Once the Trump/Pence ticket had formed, the Indiana establishment came around. After the ticket pulled off the greatest upset in American history when Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in November, it paved the way for more than two dozen Hoosier Republicans to join the fledgling administration.

Now we find the Indiana GOP establishment divided over the Trump question once again. Those who worked for President Trump are not embracing a second term.

Pence was the most conspicuous. “After a lot of prayer and reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that I won’t be endorsing Donald Trump this year,” Pence said earlier this month on CBS’s Face the Nation. “I worked day in and day out for four-and-a-half years to build that record of the Trump/Pence administration. I’m incredibly proud of it. But as I look at what Donald Trump is running on now, I simply cannot, in good conscience, endorse his candidacy this year.”

None of these Hoosier Republicans who served in the Trump administration — neither Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma, nor former Pence Chief of Staff Marc Short — has endorsed or vowed to vote for Trump at this point. U.S. Sen. Todd Young has said he won’t vote for Trump (or President Biden). Two Republicans in Congress — U.S. Rep. Greg Pence and Larry Bucshon — won’t seek reelection after backing Mike Pence.

Gov. Eric Holcomb hasn’t made an endorsement since Mike Pence folded his campaign last autumn. “We’ll see what role Indiana plays in the whole process,” Holcomb told reporters in October. “I’ll be looking for the individual who best articulates a substantive agenda or plan and then, more importantly, how to execute it.”

Those Hoosiers lining up behind Trump in 2024 are most likely on the ballot this year, including the six-person Republican gubernatorial field: U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, who is the heavy favorite to win the U.S. Senate nomination; U.S. Rep. Erin Houchin; and a dozen or so congressional candidates. Attorney General Todd Rokita, who plans to seek renomination at June’s Indiana GOP convention, is backing Trump.

NBC News last summer reached out to 44 of the dozens of people who had served in Trump’s cabinet. Four have said publicly they support his run for reelection, including former Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker; Trump’s final chief of staff, Mark Meadows; former budget chief Russell Vought; and former Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell.

The former president’s 2024 campaign is based on retribution. Trump now calls the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrectionists, who chanted for the murder of Vice President Pence, “hostages” and has vowed to pardon their convictions, many for assaulting police officers. He has greenlighted an abandonment of Ukraine (Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said in a March 10 broadcast that Trump will cut off funding). Trump has suggested political violence if indicted (he now faces 88 criminal charges).

Pence waged a six-month campaign for the presidency before bowing out last October. He had been endorsed by Holcomb, Coats and Reps. Pence and Bucshon.

NBC News reached out to Coats last summer. “I think he has all the qualities to be a great president,” Coats said of Pence. “I know it’s a steep climb for him, but I think the steps he has taken now show the integrity of who he is and his qualifications.”

Coats did not respond to Howey Politics Indiana about whether he’ll back Trump in November now that Pence is out of the race.

Adams told Howey Politics on Tuesday: “I believe health care and public health should be nonpartisan, and as such I don’t endorse candidates or reveal who I’m voting for. However, I stand ready to help whoever is president address America’s poor health and inequitable health care system.”

Verma, in a 2023 interview with Managed Healthcare Executive magazine, described working in the Trump White House. “Make no mistake. It (was) not a normal work environment where you disagree with somebody and it is disagreement. Over there, it was like, we’re going to take off your head, we are going to come after you. It (was) a pretty toxic environment. Every day, you are kind of like ‘what is going to happen today?’”

Short told NBC: “If it’s Biden versus Trump, the implicit assumption is efforts to hurt Trump are going to benefit Biden. If you’re putting yourself against the Constitution, I think it’s disqualifying, but I wouldn’t want to be helping Biden.”

Another former Pence staffer, Alyssa Farah Griffin, told ABC News in December 2023: “Fundamentally, a second Trump term could mean the end of American democracy as we know it, and I don’t say that lightly.”

Brian Howey is senior writer and columnist for Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs, where this column was previously published. Find Howey on Facebook and X @hwypol. Send comments to [email protected].