INDIANAPOLIS – On paper, Republican operative Eric Holcomb’s first political job was working for a U.S. congressman.
But his duties with the NATO Joint Force Command may be most instructive for his chosen career. Stationed as a naval intelligence officer in Lisbon, Holcomb helped coordinate a multi-nation, simulated attack against an imaginary enemy.
“It was the most political job I ever had,” he said. “Can you imagine trying to get 16 nations to arrive at a consensus? And they were allies.”
Holcomb, 47, is about to step into another kind of combat where consensus-building will be critical. Later this week he’ll be sworn in as the state's 51st lieutenant governor, as current Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann steps down.
In taking the role, Holcomb also becomes running mate to Republican Gov. Mike Pence, who faces a tough re-match against Democrat John Gregg – whom he narrowly defeated four years ago – and deep divisions within his own party.
Repairing the rupture between the socially conservative Pence and disaffected, establishment Republicans, who may stay home on Election Day, is among Holcomb's key challenges.
Pence’s ratings took a big hit last year as he championed a contentious religious freedom law that critics saw as a license to discriminate.
He further alienated some business leaders this year by rejecting a call to add gender identity and sexual orientation to the state’s civil rights law.
Holcomb has done major repair work before.
He ran the 2008 re-election campaign of Gov. Mitch Daniels, whose popularity plunged in his first term nearly as deeply as Pence's.
Daniels returned to office with a record victory, crushing Democrat Jill Long Thompson by 18 points, in the same year Barack Obama won the state and the presidency Holcomb got much of the credit for Daniels' win.
For the effort, Holcomb has been called a bridge-builder for his skills bringing together disparate groups -- and an attack dog for his willingness to go after an opponent.
Holcomb said his preferred descriptor is “welcoming Republican" - one who is eager to put party interests first.
Holcomb, a former state party chairman and district director to retiring U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, gave up his bid for a U.S. Senate seat earlier this month to take the second-in-command job that pays just over $88,500 a year.
He did so at Pence’s request, when Ellspermann, a moderate and relative political novice, indicated that she wanted out. She’s announced that she wants to become president of Ivy Tech Community College, a position to be filled later this year.
Holcomb likes the analogy of a big-tent party with plenty of room for multiple, even conflicting, views. Actually a big table sounds better.
“I’m not one to say there’s no room at the inn," he said. “I’m one who says there is plenty of room at the table. So scoot on over, and let’s get another place setting.”
Friends say key to understanding the cowboy boots-wearing Holcomb is appreciating his folksy charm.
Holcomb grew up in the small town of Clermont before going off to Hanover College, a private, liberal arts school.
As a boy, his home wasn’t far from a drag-racing strip now known as Lucas Oil Raceway, where he’d ride his bike to collect empty beer and pop cans.
During a previous stint as Daniels’ deputy chief-of-staff, Holcomb could be found with Democrat friends during fall racing season at the Anderson Speedway for a fan favorite - old schools buses racing around a figure-8 track.
“He’s a man with a lot of friends. That’s a hard thing to do in politics,” said Cam Savage, a Daniels’ campaign communications director whose known Holcomb since the latter first ran for office in 2000.
Not everyone’s a friend.
Late in that 2000 race for state representative, Holcomb ran an ad in local newspapers accusing his opponent, Democratic incumbent John Frenz, of condoning obscenity and bestiality. The basis for the accusation was that Frenz had voted to fund the Kinsey Institute, an internationally known sex research center at Indiana University.
What Frenz had actually voted on was the state budget, which included funding for IU and every state university.
Holcomb lost the race. But Democrats call it one of the dirtiest political ads in Indiana political history and point to it as evidence of what Holcomb is willing to do.
“When I saw Eric was put him on the ticket, I knew, they think he’ll be the hatchet man,” Frenz said.
Still, Frenz said he’s forgiven Holcomb. “I think it was campaign staff who decided to do it, not Eric,” he said.
Holcomb now says the ad was a mistake and a tough lesson in how not to conduct a political campaign. He said so, standing by his wife Janet, at Pence's press conference to announce Holcomb's new role.
“I recognize that, and learned from that, and have not taken that approach since,” he said.
Holcomb's colleagues say he’s got a gift for energizing a campaign.
“He makes you feel like you’re part of a something,” said Brian McGrath, a friend and former finance director for the Daniels campaign. “He’s got vision.”
McGrath and Savage both say Holcomb also has the trust of those devoted to Daniels, a fiscal conservative who called for a truce on social issues when he was in office.
Daniels’ supporters haven’t “felt at home” with the Pence administration, Savage said.
Holcomb’s presence may change that. In doing so, he could pull disaffected Republicans – and their money – back to Pence.
“Let’s hope so,” Savage said. “At the end of the day, it’s in the party’s best interest.”