WASHINGTON -- Long before the country turned its attention to Indiana over its "religious freedom" law, Glenda Ritz was taking on Gov. Mike Pence (R) and trying to stop the state from turning completely red. Ritz, the state schools superintendent, is the only statewide Democratic officeholder and has been fighting furiously to hold on to her office's role in shaping state education policy.
And Ritz's role as Pence's nemesis may become even more high-profile next year, considering her recent statement that she is thinking about running against him for the governor's seat.
"After this session there's absolutely nothing off the table," Ritz said last week. "First priority is getting through this school year, because we're in the midst of testing, and getting all that done. But after that, I'm going to sit down with my family and determine what is best for the children and families of Indiana."
Ritz has been a GOP target since she won in an upset in 2012. Her Republican opponent, who was an ally of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), outspent her by more than $1 million. And in bad news for Pence, Ritz actually attracted more votes than the governor did.
Last year, Ritz accused Pence of engineering an "education takeover." During the most recent legislative session, Ritz tried to call attention to Pence's attempts to limit her power.
As superintendent, Ritz chairs the State Board of Education, which oversees education policymaking in Indiana. The other 10 members are appointed by the governor, and there have been public clashes between Ritz and her fellow board members.
In the final hours of its session last month, the GOP-controlled Indiana General Assembly approved a bill allowing Board of Education members to pick their own chair; the superintendent is no longer automatically named to that position. In other words, Pence wouldn't have to deal with Ritz any longer under this setup.
Republicans originally wanted the change to happen this summer but backed off after complaints from Democrats. It will now take effect after the 2016 elections.
Starting this summer, however, the governor will have only eight appointments on the board. The other two will be appointed by the leaders of the Indiana House and Senate.
Pence has insisted that the changes have nothing to do with politics.
“I just think this is a common-sense reform,” he said in February, noting that state boards in dozens of other states elect their own chairs.
But the fight has become part of the political landscape in Indiana. In February, hundreds of people went to the statehouse in Indianapolis and rallied in support of Ritz.
"I stand with you," Ritz yelled to the crowd. "It's about the voters who elected me to do what I put in my platform. It's about less testing and more time to teach."
Ritz has also started to attract attention from national Democrats.
“We are excited that Glenda Ritz is taking a look at the Indiana governor’s race," said Rachel Thomas, press secretary for EMILY's List, which backs Democratic women who support abortion access. "She’s an outstanding educator with a strong track record of fighting for quality education and greater opportunity for all Hoosiers.”
Ritz was not available for an interview for this piece.
Even if Ritz jumps into the race, it's not a sure thing that she'd face Pence. On April 30, former Indiana state House Speaker John Gregg (D) announced he is running in 2016, meaning Ritz would have to first get through a Democratic primary.
Gregg ran against Pence in 2012 and lost by a narrow margin, and many Democrats hope that he'll be able to eke out a victory this time around. But some Democrats express concern about his self-proclaimed "conservative position" on social issues. During the 2012 race, Gregg said he opposes same-sex marriage and abortion in most cases, although he also said he didn't think politicians should be focusing on those matters.
Social issues, especially equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, will likely be a major topic in the 2016 race.
Pence has suffered a dramatic drop in approval since signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act last month. The state faced significant backlash from business leaders and activists around the country who were concerned that the legislation would allow businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples.
Even though Pence eventually signed a legislative "fix" clarifying that discrimination wasn't allowed, the damage was done. The state recently spent $2 million to hire a public relations firm to help repair Indiana's image, and Republicans are wondering just how much harm Pence did to the state party's brand.
The Indiana Republican Party has not yet commented on Ritz, but when Gregg announced, Chairman Jeff Cardwell put out a statement criticizing the Democrat's announcement video that went after Pence.
"True to form, John Gregg's negative attacks started the moment he announced his latest campaign," said Cardwell. "Gov. Mike Pence has been dedicated to creating jobs, investing in education and holding the line on spending. As Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, Gregg helped the Democrats spend the state's surplus down to nothing and pushed for tax increases on working Hoosiers."
A Howey Politics Indiana poll released last month found Ritz with the highest favorability rating amongst potential Democratic gubernatorial candidates. In a potential match-up with Pence, Ritz gets 39 percent to Pence's 42 percent, whereas Gregg would get 37 percent to Pence's 43 percent.
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