Just when it looked like Indiana’s fierce education debates could simmer down, state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s run for governor could turn up the flame.
On June 1, a retooled Indiana State Board of Education met for the first time, with pledges all around to focus on the needs of students and move past political sniping.
But two days later, Ritz’s announcement included political broadsides to Gov. Mike Pence, criticizing his education policies as detrimental to the state’s economy.
As Ritz now steps beyond a focus just on schools, here are five ways her run for governor will change the game for Indiana’s ongoing conversation about education.
Education is likely to be a central issue in the 2016 election.
Schools were only a small part of the debate in the 2012 race for governor between Pence and his Democratic opponent, John Gregg. In fact, education really was not a big deal at all that year until Ritz’s shocking defeat of Tony Bennett on Election Day. Ritz and the race for state superintendent were largely ignored by the media, and even Bennett dismissed her call for a series of debates. Ritz and Bennett instead held one joint appearance.
As long as Ritz remains in the 2016 governor’s race, education will be a central theme this time. She will certainly force a conversation about education in the primary election, as she is one of the state’s few high-profile Democrats. Ritz so far has trained her fire on Pence, rather than on her Democratic opponents, Gregg and state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, with Pence’s management of education policy as her primary target.
There could be hotly contested primary elections next May
As it stands now, Indiana is looking at a three-way race for the Democratic nomination to challenge Pence for the next 11 months. All three candidates have different strengths and claims for why they should be nominated. Ritz is the state’s best-known Democrat currently in office and has had some success in political wars with Pence. Gregg lost a surprisingly close race with Pence last time and could do better this time given Pence’s recent decline in popularity and political problems. Some Democrats believe Tallian, who is less well-known, might be the strongest match for the political views of core Democratic voters.
On the Republican side, Pence could also face a primary race. Fort Wayne car dealer Bob Thomas has toyed with running, Former Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle also has suggested he might help find a challenger for Pence in frustration with the governor’s support of a religious freedom bill that prompted a backlash against the state. This is unusual. Primary challenges to sitting governors are exceedingly rare in Indiana.
So it appears there could be one, or possibly even two, big primary election votes to select the party standard-bearers for the 2016 governor’s race.
The race for state superintendent could also get interesting
If she is not picked by voters to be the Democratic nominee for governor in May of 2016, Ritz has said she likely would seek renomination at the party convention to run again for state superintendent. Ritz said she was looking for a back-up candidate who could run for her current job if Democratic voters choose her to take on Pence.
But that could get tricky.
It might be difficult, first of all, to get a strong candidate willing essentially to be on standby. A run for statewide office is a difficult challenge that requires a strong commitment. Also, Democrats will likely not want to lose the only statewide office they control.
Meanwhile, Ritz’s run for governor provides an opening for a Republican challenger, and it might create an incentive for any Republican considering a run to get into the race early. With Ritz focused on the governor’s race, there will be an opportunity for a Republican opponent to push a different vision for the office and emphasize that her attention is divided between the job she was elected for and the one she hopes to have next.
Pence also could be helped if an ally were to declare early a run for state superintendent. Together they could coordinate critiques of her work as superintendent.
Politics could heat up again at the Indiana State Board of Education
Changes in state law this year prompted the 10 other board members besides Ritz to be reappointed, and about half the appointees are new faces. There has been much optimism that an overhauled board could move past infighting, which some have characterized as at least partly driven by politics.
But eight of the 11 board members are still Pence’s appointees. Ritz’s run for governor will ensure that she will be publicly critical of Pence and speak regularly about her policy differences with him. The new board is still more aligned with Pence on policy questions, so that could raise new tensions.
Hoosiers will finally get to decide who they like better: Ritz or Pence
Since her election in 2012, Ritz supporters have frequently cited the fact that the 1.3 million votes she received were more than Pence earned in the governor’s race that year, implying that she is, in fact, more popular than he is.
But there’s been much dispute over the meaning of Ritz’s 2012 win. Was it more an affirmation of voter affection for Ritz, then a political unknown, or a rejection of sometimes blunt-speaking Bennett, whose rhetoric angered many educators. Some of the tension between Pence and Ritz comes from the fact that both of their camps interpreted the 2012 results differently.
In 2016, Ritz will test the theory that she has more support and public trust than Pence. If she does, and she can convince voters they can also trust her on issues beyond education, she could be the next governor. If Pence beats her in the general election, he’ll have a strong argument that most Hoosiers prefer him and his approach. If Ritz fails to secure the Democratic nomination, Pence will be able to make the case that even Democrats aren’t ready to put their full faith in Ritz.