Hill weighs run for governor in 2016
Former congressman has moved back to Indiana
Friday, December 05, 2014 10:00 AM
INDIANAPOLIS - After losing his bid to return to Congress in 2010, Baron Hill flirted with the idea of running for governor.
“You’ve got to de-hypnotize yourself from your mental limitations and think big things,” he said. “And that’s the kind of candidate I’d be if I get the chance to do this.”
- Former congressman Baron Hill
There's no flirtation this time.
Hill, 61, who spent five terms in Congress representing southern Indiana, has left his lucrative job with a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, moved back to Indiana to live full-time, consulted with fellow Democrats, and calculated the financial commitment to knock off an incumbent governor - a feat never done before in Indiana.
Hill hasn't declared his candidacy for governor in 2016 - yet.
But he says he knows what it takes to run a successful campaign - including raising $12 million to $15 million - and he's unafraid.
A member of Indiana's Basketball Hall of Fame, Hill likens politics to sports.
"You've got to de-hypnotize yourself from your mental limitations and think big things," he said. "And that's the kind of candidate I'd be if I get the chance to do this."
During an interview this week, Hill acknowledged that a campaign will be a "very uphill battle" that likely includes a primary against a fellow Democrat or two.
"But I've been encouraged by people I respect who feel like this is very winnable," he said.
He declined to say who those encouragers are. And while he said he's identified a fund-raiser, he's not ready to identify that person, either, other than to say it's someone with "Indiana roots."
But he is ready to talk about why he thinks Republican Gov. Mike Pence is vulnerable just two years after winning the office with less than 50 percent of the vote.
"Most people I've talked to feel like the governor's head is not here in Indiana, it's out in Washington, D.C.," he said, referring to Pence's possible presidential aspirations and his visits to key primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
Hill said Pence is vulnerable on issues of public education and poverty. Pence supports the state's school-voucher program - the largest in the nation - and he's nagged by the fact that Indiana's poverty rate is growing compared to other states.
"This is the story that needs to be told," Hill said. "And that's why I'm very seriously contemplating a run."
Contemplation may not turn to declaration until early next year. After Hill left the global lobbying firm APCO in October, he became self-employed as a lobbyist for the Cook Group, a medical device manufacturer in Bloomington, and he still has work to do for them.
On Tuesday, as he was chatting at a hotel coffee shop about a possible gubernatorial run, Hill said he was awaiting a call from the White House to talk about ending the medical device tax brought about by the Affordable Care Act.
Hill said his campaign experience makes the decision to run for governor easier, as does the support of his three daughters and wife, a public school math teacher.
Hill represented the 9th Congressional district - which then included Jefferson County - from 1999 to 2005, when he lost to Republican Mike Sodrel, and again from 2007 to 2011, when he lost again. In Congress he was a member of the moderate "Blue Dog Coalition."
Before that he served as a member of the state House of Representatives, from 1982 to 1990, during which time he helped elect a Democratic majority in the House. In 1990, he lost a bid for a U.S. Senate seat, but made a name for himself by walking the length of the state to meet voters.
"It was grueling to do that," he said, "but I'm used to grueling work."
That helps, said Ball State University political scientist Ray Scheele.
Hill has "many positive attributes," Scheele said, but running in a Republican stronghold is daunting. In November, the GOP retained super-majority control of the General Assembly. Republicans hold all but one statewide office.
Scheele also noted that Pence's favorability ratings have "improved substantially" since his narrow victory over Democrat John Gregg in 2012.
Ball State's recent Hoosier Survey showed Pence has a 62 percent approval rating.
"However, politics can change very quickly," said Scheele.
Other political observers concur with his assessment.
Brian Howey, publisher of Howey Politics Indiana, noted that Democrats have lost power in their traditional stronghold in southern Indiana, where Hill won five of the seven congressional races he entered.
"Hill will have a Congressional record to defend, along with his 2008 endorsement of Barack Obama, as well as his vote for Obamacare," said Howey. "And he will have to reactivate his labor base."
Ed Feigenbaum, editor of Indiana Legislative Insight, noted the Democrats don't have a deep bench.
"Baron Hill is one of less than a handful of Democrats who could run in 2016, who has actually waged a statewide campaign and knows what it requires," he said. "That said, his last statewide campaign was in 2000."
Still, Hill has appeal in rural Indiana. He's from the small town of Seymour, where he played on the same high school football team as singer John Mellencamp.
"He hails from a part of the state where Democrats have been viewed as conservative and salt of the Hoosier earth," Feigenbaum said.
Republican strategist Pete Seat questions whether Hill's appeal will translate for younger Hoosiers and recent arrivals, especially given the Democratic Party's waning influence.
If Hill runs, as expected, he'll likely face at least one competitor from his own party - John Gregg, who came within 3 points of beating the better funded and better known Pence in 2012.
On Tuesday, Gregg told Howey Politics that Hill's decision won't affect his plans: "I'm doing all the things a candidate should do ... not worried about Hill."
Hill says he'd like to avoid a primary fight but won't let the prospect sway him.
Nor does he sound worried about running as an underdog against Pence.
He recalled the doubters in the 1980s, when he first told Democrats they could take on Republicans who controlled the Statehouse. His efforts helped flip the House their way.
"I remember people thought I was eating Dreamsicles at the time," he said. "I said, 'You got to change the mindset. You've got to believe that you can do this.'"