After stunning loss at Indiana GOP convention, what's next for Holli Sullivan?

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EVANSVILLE, Ind. — It was a shocking outcome for Vanderburgh County Republican activists, who watched June 18 as one of their own lost her grip on the third-highest office in Indiana state government.

Holli Sullivan, still secretary of state until January, lost her bid for the nomination for the office in November's election at the Republican State Convention in Indianapolis. Sullivan, a local resident and former state legislator, was appointed by Gov. Eric Holcomb in March 2021 after then-Secretary of State Connie Lawson announced her retirement.

But while Sullivan's loss to fellow Republican Diego Morales has given her future some clarity, it has also created new possibilities for her, said local Republicans and one of the state's leading political analysts.

"She could be appointed very quickly by Gov. Holcomb as the new head of the (Indiana) Department of Workforce Development," said Ed Feigenbaum, editor of Indianapolis-based Indiana Legislative Insight. "She might be a very good, very viable pick. That would give her a nice high-profile job for two years, and you can see where things might go from there."

Indiana Secretary of State Holli Sullivan listens to a speech during the Vanderburgh County Lincoln Day Dinner at the Evansville Country Club in Evansville, Ind., Thursday night, Feb. 24, 2022.
Indiana Secretary of State Holli Sullivan listens to a speech during the Vanderburgh County Lincoln Day Dinner at the Evansville Country Club in Evansville, Ind., Thursday night, Feb. 24, 2022.

Related: GOP delegates buck establishment, nominate Morales over Sullivan for secretary of state

State officials announced Wednesday that Department of Workforce Development Commissioner Fred Payne is leaving. Payne accepted an offer to become the United Way of Central Indiana's president and chief executive officer. He starts July 18.

Feigenbaum noted that Sullivan served on the House Ways and Means Committee  in the Legislature. She has also worked in the private sector as a manager, consultant and small business owner, including management positions at General Motors and Toyota.

"She’s got a good workforce background. She understands what it takes to move people into the workforce and what big employers like Toyota in the state need," he said.

Indiana's secretary of state is in charge of running the state's elections, among other duties.

There may be opportunities in politics

Sullivan, who did not return a message seeking an interview for this story, remains a registered voter in Vanderburgh County.

Several local GOP activists said the 49-year-old former lawmaker and statewide officeholder would be warmly welcomed back into the local party scene and would be a credible candidate for any elected office.

"Absolutely. She's very qualified," said former GOP chair Connie Carrier.

Wayne Parke, party chairman from 2010 to 2021, was Sullivan's first opponent in any race. In 2010 Sullivan, then a stay-at-home mom and part-time industrial engineer, opposed Parke in a GOP caucus to pick the Vanderburgh County Republican Party's next chair.

Parke won — and he has cheered Sullivan's successes ever since.

"I think that she has a future. I don't know what it would be, but I think she’s a smart, intelligent lady," Parke said. "Her political career – if she doesn’t want it to be – it’s not going to be over."

Related: Holli Sullivan of Evansville named new Indiana Secretary of State

Sullivan is a resident of House District 78, which she represented for seven years. That reliably Republican district is represented by 29-year-old Republican Tim O'Brien, who was chosen by GOP precinct committee members to replace Sullivan last year. O'Brien decisively defeated a Republican primary election challenger just last month. He said through a spokesman that he loves the job.

Sullivan also resides in Senate District 50, which has been represented for the past 17 years by Republican Vaneta Becker. The 72-year-old legislator comes up for re-election in 2024, but she doesn't sound like she's ready to leave office yet.

"I think, if and when I retire — which is a big if — that there will be lots of people interested in my seat," Becker said Friday.

Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke's position comes up for election in 2023, and the three-term Republican hasn't indicated whether he will run again. But Sullivan, a resident of Center Township, wouldn't be eligible to run for mayor unless she moved into the city.

Sullivan would be eligible to run for Congress. Vanderburgh is the largest of 19 counties in the 8th District, now represented by Republican U.S. Rep. Larry Bucshon.

Bucshon, who lives in Evansville when he's in the district, is seeking a seventh two-year term this year. But the 60-year-old congressman has made no promises about 2024. A heart surgeon before he was elected to succeed Democrat Brad Ellsworth in 2010, Bucshon originally said he doesn't see himself serving in Congress for more than 10 or 12 years.

A 'stern rebuke' — of Holcomb

Parke said he was "stunned" by Sullivan's loss at the convention. After all, Sullivan had the strong political and financial support of Holcomb, who had appointed her.

But Sullivan's association with Holcomb was precisely the problem, according to Feigenbaum and local Republicans who were there. Feigenbaum called Sullivan's loss to Morales a "stern rebuke" — of Holcomb.

GOP conservatives have routinely criticized Holcomb's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, arguing he overstepped his authority both when he required certain businesses to close early in the pandemic and when he ordered elections officials to push back the 2020 primary election.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb

Holcomb's decision to veto a controversial bill that would prohibit transgender girls from playing girls' sports was met with disapproval from many within his party, including Sullivan.

The governor's appearance at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Switzerland just a month before the GOP convention also alienated staunch conservatives, who accused him of cozying up to corporate and globalist elites. Holcomb said he was there to discuss Indiana’s investment in advanced manufacturing.

Conservatives at the state GOP convention wanted to express their unhappiness with Holcomb, Feigenbaum said — but Holcomb wasn't on the ballot.

"They had to take out their frustration with Eric Holcomb, and they did so on Holli Sullivan," he said.

Morales finished with 847 votes to Sullivan's 561. Knox County Clerk David Shelton received 215 votes.

The pro-Morales contingent included a handful of Vanderburgh County's convention delegates — "seven or eight," according to Mike Duckworth, local GOP chairman.

Duckworth gets that Sullivan was paying the price for the anger with Holcomb — but that doesn't mean it was justified, he said.

"I would think that they would have the ability to sort that out, but it sounds like they were looking for someone to blame for something," he said.

Was the vote bad news for Crouch?

Feigenbaum took a hard look at the Republican convention delegates, who were chosen by voters in party primary elections on May 3. He said he canvassed candidates, their aides and volunteers, heads of county GOP organizations and savvy political observers.

What he found, he said, should worry Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, a Vanderburgh County resident who many expect to run for governor in 2024. Holcomb won't be eligible to seek re-election.

Republicans will choose their gubernatorial nominee in a primary, not a convention, but Feigenbaum said Crouch's close association with Holcomb could still spell trouble for her with the sort of conservative Republican activists who upended Sullivan.

"I don’t think (Crouch) wants to run away from it, but this indicates that it’s going to be difficult to run with it in a (nomination) setting," Feigenbaum said. "The Republican base right now is not the same kind of base as it was even four years ago."

Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch
Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch

It's largely the same people who powered the GOP then, Feigenbaum said, or the same types of people — party activists and not newcomers to politics. But their expectations have changed in the era of Republican former President Donald Trump.

"They have just turned a whole lot more ‘Trumpian’ than people had thought," Feigenbaum said.

Crouch, 70, told the Courier & Press she is "not a candidate (for governor) yet, or maybe won't be." 2024 is two years off — a lifetime in politics, the lieutenant governor said.

"I doubt that the June 2022 issues will lead the news in September 2022, much less in '23 or '24," Crouch said. "Whether you agree with everything the (Holcomb) administration has done or don't agree with it, you have a governor who's respected by Hoosiers across the state, and I think that's a sign of character and progress."

Crouch, a former Vanderburgh County commissioner, said she's prepared by virtue of her local and statewide experience to run for governor — but "the timing has to be right."

Timing. The timing of Sullivan's campaign for a full term as secretary of state was what undid her, said local GOP chairman Duckworth, who is still stinging over the loss. Sullivan has been a good public servant, Duckworth declared.

"I wish people would have looked more at that rather than their differences with the governor — but that's not the world we live in right now," he said.

Thomas B. Langhorne can be reached by email at tom.langhorne@courierpress.com.

This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: What office will Indiana Secretary of State Holli Sullivan seek next?