Will Holcomb’s recent veto affect his Republican Party standing?

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Several Indiana Republicans have lined up against GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb after he vetoed a bill that would have barred transgender females from joining girls’ sports teams.

The bill passed the Legislature largely along party lines with wide support from most Republicans, who dominate both the House and Senate. Because of that widespread support, Laura Wilson, political science professor at the University of Indianapolis, said Holcomb’s rejection of the measure could have political repercussions if he decides to seek higher office.

“It could be potentially costly, too, but it’s an interesting moment to see again [into] the mind of Holcomb and in his values and his interpretation of his role as governor,” Wilson said.

Holcomb put himself at odds with an ongoing national conservative movement that has led other red states to pass similar legislation barring transgender athletes. Eleven other Republican-led states have adopted similar laws, which political observers describe as a classic “wedge issue” to motivate conservative supporters.

The bill, touted by its authors as a way to promote fairness in women’s sports, would have prohibited students who were born male but identify as female from participating in a sport or on an athletic team that is designated for women or girls.

In his veto letter, Holcomb did not directly say he was for or against the concept of the legislation. But earlier during the legislative session, he told reporters he agreed that “boys should be playing boys sports and girls should be playing girls sports.”

He wrote in his veto message that he rejected the bill because it “falls short” of maintaining consistency for fairness in school sports, and that other states have run into significant legal opposition when trying to implement similar bills.

He also said he found no evidence that the problem lawmakers are trying to address with a new law actually exits, and he noted the Indiana High School Athletic Association is already working to maintain fairness in sports. The IHSAA has said it has had no transgender girls finalize a request to play on a girls’ team.

Still, GOP lawmakers quickly vowed to vote to override the veto when the Legislature returns on May 24 for a technical corrections day. House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said in a statement following the veto that the fundamental goal was to protect fairness in women’s sports, and that the issue “continues to be in the national spotlight and for good reason, as women have worked hard for equal opportunities on the playing field.”

Other Indiana Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Jim Banks and U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, were quick to express their disappointment with Holcomb’s veto.

Republican Attorney General Todd Rokita, whom Holcomb has often found himself at odds with over other issues, also tweeted that his office stands by the bill and “will vigorously defend it in court if and hopefully when the General Assembly overrides the veto.”

And Secretary of State Holli Sullivan, whom Holcomb appointed last year, released a statement saying the bill was designed to protect the integrity of women’s sports and that she supports a legislative override. Sullivan is heading into a contested Republican primary in May against three other candidates.

But Indiana GOP Chairman Kyle Hupfer indicated support for Holcomb’s decision to veto the legislation in a statement emailed to the Indianapolis Business Journal. He wrote that Holcomb was clear with his earlier statements about boys and girls sports, and that he wanted the language to be crafted correctly. He also said this does not change the governor’s standing in the Republican Party.

“Ultimately in his veto letter, he outlined that the bill in its final form fell short by not creating a unified statewide approach and by failing to meet constitutional muster,” Hupfer said. “Governor Holcomb has worked tirelessly year after year in support of our party and candidates up and down the ballot. It’s thanks to his leadership that we have reached the heights of electoral success that we’ve seen in the past several years; he will remain critical to that success in 2022 and 2024.”

The governor’s office declined to comment further about the veto or address any opposition to it.

Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University-Fort Wayne, said he didn’t really consider Holcomb’s veto bold. He said the governor had a reasonable explanation that generally aligned with Republican values for small government and avoiding spending taxpayer money on lawsuits.

However, for lawmakers facing reelection this year, political considerations are also playing a role.

“That is, I think, a clear indication that legislators are still hearing an awful lot from their constituents,” Downs said.

Holcomb wasn’t alone among GOP governors in his veto decision. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox on Tuesday vetoed a similar ban approved by that state’s Legislature.

Wilson doesn’t see this particular veto as an end-all to Holcomb’s already-existing relationships with others in his party, but it could widen the fractures that are already there, she said.

Lines had already been drawn between Holcomb and Republican lawmakers over various issues in the six years he’s been governor, including an ongoing legal battle between him and legislative leaders over his emergency executive powers, particularly as they relate to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Holcomb has been at odds with Rokita over that same law.

“You can see those cracks filter out a little bit more and widen a little bit more, especially with things like this,” Wilson said.

Downs also said Holcomb hasn’t totally isolated himself from other Republicans, as many will likely just describe the situation as a simple disagreement with the governor.

But as Holcomb considers what he wants to do next after his time as governor, those fractures with Republicans could have some effect on a primary outcome, Downs said, especially if he has to continue to weigh in on social issues over the next two years.

“Two years is a pretty long time, and some of these issues may disappear. But he has probably hurt himself in a Republican primary,” Downs said.

Outside Indiana, other governors with eyes on a 2024 race have faced pressure and pushback to support similar transgender legislation. South Dakota GOP Gov. Kristi Noem, a possible 2024 presidential hopeful, faced pressure after vetoing a ban last year, but she quickly pushed similar legislation through this year.

Holcomb’s conflict with many members of his party might not play well in highly contested primaries, where Holcomb has little experience, Downs said.

“The curse is he’s also kind of untested as a candidate,” Downs said.

Wilson, though, said Holcomb’s recent decisions could attract more moderate voters, if he makes it through a primary.

Democrats have praised Holcomb for vetoing the transgender sports ban legislation. Drew Anderson, spokesperson for the Indiana Democratic Party, said Holcomb “did the right thing” and saved lives with the veto.

“Democrats, LGBTQ activists, Hoosier families, they saw his veto as him putting his foot down and telling his party that they are going too far, and that these culture wars are diminishing the state’s future,” Anderson said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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