Indiana Libertarian candidate for governor targets voters upset by COVID-19 mandates
Navy veteran Donald Rainwater began to turn away from the Republican Party four years ago when state lawmakers considered raising taxes on cigarettes.
Rainwater thought the GOP supermajorities should stand for limited government. The idea to charge $1 per pack ultimately failed, but Rainwater had had enough of a GOP he thought was increasingly expanding government. He turned to the Libertarian Party and began the first of four runs for office.
"I decided it was time for me to stop being aggravated and to get up and do something," Rainwater said. "I felt like the Libertarian Party most closely mirrored the majority of my principles."
He rose to prominence within the party during his last race, gaining nearly 40% of the vote for Westfield mayor by criticizing city spending on several projects. Now, his gubernatorial run is capturing the imagination of right-wing voters who are upset with Gov. Eric Holcomb's decision to mandate masks and shut down businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic.
For some of Rainwater's supporters from the right, Holcomb's handling of COVID-19 was the breaking point from a Republican governor they have grown to distrust. Their grievances began when Holcomb tried to remove traditional marriage from the party platform after same-sex marriage was legalized. It continued when the governor sided against tea party favorite Curtis Hill after he was accused of sexual assault, allegations Hill denies.
Donations to Rainwater surged after a September poll by Indy Politics and Change Research showed Holcomb at 36%, Democratic candidate Dr. Woody Myers at 30% and Rainwater at 24%.
Pundits think the result was an outlier, largely because the past two Libertarians to run for governor have received 3% and 4% of the vote in the election. Indy Politics in October published Republican internal polling that put Rainwater at 7%.
Since that first poll was published, though, out-of-state Libertarian donors have given $175,000 to Rainwater's campaign. The party's presidential candidate also headed to Rainwater's home town of Westfield to hold a rally with him that drew a few hundred supporters.
Rainwater has used that cash to build a more traditional campaign. He's on TV and the radio. In recent days he has met voters at a Noblesville gun range, an Anderson distillery and a Putnam County park. He has held a training session for volunteers in Carmel, a sign that he is trying to build the grass-roots network necessary to win.
Rainwater's criticism of Holcomb's coronavirus response remains his largest talking point.
"I don’t think it's the government's responsibility to tell people how to take care of themselves," Rainwater said. "I think this all goes back to the idea that I get to choose what I do to keep myself safe. I am against mandating vaccines, too."
He aligns with right-wing voters on several issues. He wants to reduce government regulations and eliminate personal income and residential property taxes in his platform to shrink government. He would expand school choice to every student, allowing them to decide whether to go to neighborhood schools, charter schools or private schools.
And he would sign a ban on abortion, which is an unusual position for a Libertarian, except in the case of rape or life of the mother.
Micah Clark, a socially conservative activist at the Indiana Statehouse, says Rainwater is benefiting because Holcomb doesn't have much of a base of support from social conservatives.
Clark is unsure how Rainwater's candidacy will play out, noting the Libertarian's stance to legalize marijuana and another to endorse euthanasia are problematic for those voters too. Still, he said Holcomb opened the door and Rainwater is trying to walk through it.
"The feeling I get from a lot of people is the governor has ignored the conservative base," Clark said. "He has taken them for granted and hasn't paid much attention to some of their concerns as he should have maybe in the way Mike Pence or Mitch Daniels did."
Pundits say Rainwater is running a smart campaign but would be a long shot to win. Time has proven that once in the voting booth, most voters reject third-party candidates.
"We know a lot of folks who seem open to voting for a third-party candidate or an independent quite often change their mind when they get to the machine," said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics in Fort Wayne. "It's a winner take all system, and Republicans angry at the moment will probably fall back to vote for their party."
Rainwater, a 57-year-old Westfield resident, is a 1981 graduate of Warren Central High School. After graduating, he spent a semester at Bob Jones University, a Christian liberal arts college in Greenville, S.C.
He said he dropped out for financial reasons and enlisted in the Navy. He served two tours from 1982-1990, rising to the rank of yeoman second class.
Notably, he was serving on a ship off the coast of Beirut in October 1983 when terrorists used a truck carrying 2,000 pounds of explosives to kill 241 service personnel at a Marine base in Beirut, Lebanon. Rainwater called it a sobering experience, saying he spent the next week on high alert. The United States withdrew several months later.
After spending four years largely at sea, Rainwater spent another four years at the Navy recruiting district in Indianapolis.
In some ways, his eight years in the Navy shaped his political views.
"I think one of the things that has probably stuck with me more than anything else," he said, "when you have the opportunity to visit so many other countries and see other societies you get a tremendous appreciation for the freedoms and the rights that we are able to exercise here as Americans."
When he left the service, he went to work as a computer and business instructor and in software development.
He also raised a family. He and his wife, Leslie, have six children.
His political career started in 2016 after he got upset about that cigarette tax. He had nearly 5% of the vote in a race against Luke Kenley, a longtime Noblesville state senator and the Senate's chief budget writer.
Two years later he had about 3% against Zionsville state Rep. Donna Schaibley.
Rainwater's race against Westfield Mayor Andy Cook in 2019 was more notable. He criticized government spending on massive projects to build a sports park and revitalize the city's downtown. Cook championed the initiatives as economic development drivers.
Rainwater opposed that type of thinking at the city level and would oppose it at the state level as governor.
"Government isn't supposed to be the driver economically," Rainwater said. "Development should happen on it's own, organically. If you create a regulatory and tax environment that makes people want to come here, then they will come here."
Rainwater champions small government
While the official Libertarian platform calls for defunding much of government and letting the private market take over, Rainwater says he is more pragmatic.
He thinks he can make massive cuts to spending without sacrificing services Hoosiers would note. He said he would ask for a volunteer team of financial experts to peruse state finances before billions of spending cuts, but at this point he said he doesn't have specific ideas.
He said government contracts he has seen in the information technology business were bloated.
The taxes Rainwater proposes to eliminate fund much of state and local governments. More than a third of the state budget — projected at $6.4 billion in 2021 — is funded by individual income taxes. Cities and towns throughout Indiana, meanwhile, rely on billions of dollars in property taxes collected annually to fund much of what they do, including police and fire protection, road paving and park maintenance.
Jake Oakman, spokesman for Holcomb's campaign, says the fact that Rainwater thinks a third of the state budget is waste shows how unprepared he is to serve as governor.
“The Libertarian candidate for governor must think pandemic relief, infrastructure, education, child services and the state police are all examples of 'government waste,'" Oakman said. "Under Gov. Holcomb and his two Republican predecessors, Indiana has earned a reputation for exemplary fiscal management."
Rainwater thinks eliminating those taxes would stimulate the economy. He also would eliminate annual vehicle registrations and would look to continue to find ways to reduce or eliminate taxes.
"The vast majority of businesses pay their taxes through individual income taxes," he said, "so that will give them the opportunity to create more jobs and hire people."
On education, Rainwater proposes to increase teacher pay, though again, he would do that by reexamining how much is currently spent.
He would expand school choice programs that have been championed by Republicans at the Statehouse. He thinks all Hoosier students should be able to choose what schools they attend.
"Parents should have the ability to decide whether they want to send their children to a public or a private school, a charter school or home school," Rainwater said. "They should be able to choose whether they do school online."
Rainwater wants to deregulate health care to create more competition among providers and insurance companies, but he said he wouldn't eliminate state-funded programs for the poor such as Medicaid.
"I wouldn't take anything away from anybody they are dependent on without being able to give them a true alternative," he said.
He said he also would end many environmental regulations but does think businesses should have to pay retribution or clean up if they pollute others' air, land or water.
"Honestly, the environmental regulations today aren't stopping the bad actors," he said. "They work with the government to limit their financial exposure, so we need to be able to make sure they are held accountable."
While the Libertarian platform says government should stay out of abortion, Rainwater thinks the rights of the unborn child are more important. Libertarians call it the nonaggression principle — essentially do what you want so long as you don't hurt others or damage their property. So he said he would sign an abortion ban.
He also generally is against gun control measures and thinks the government should stay out of marriage completely. He would legalize marijuana and exonerate nonviolent offenders. He considers anyone who has committed property damage, in addition to those who hurt others, to be a violent offender.
He doesn't propose any police reforms in the wake of the protests for Black equality rocking Indianapolis and the rest of the nation.
"I think we need to do a better job of holding individuals accountable for bad acts," he said. "We also should ensure that people who peacefully protest have the protections they need to do that safely."
He said he would end any business shutdowns and Holcomb's mask mandate. Asked whether the mask mandate, in particular, is a small price to pay to stop the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the vulnerable, he said it's just not the government's job to make that call.
"There are lots of things we could argue are small things people could do to save lives that the government has no right to mandate," he said.
Voters rally around Rainwater
Rainwater is gaining support from many voters who say they have reliably voted Republican.
Andy Lyons, a high school teacher in the city of Marion who organized several protest rallies in Indianapolis in the wake of Holcomb's stay-at-home order and decision to shut down businesses, has been handing out Rainwater yard signs.
"There is a palpable sense of anger toward Holcomb and government in general that is manifesting itself in the state of Indiana," Lyons said.
Lyons generally votes Republican and considers himself an evangelical Christian. He thinks Rainwater's position on the shutdown, abortion and support of religious liberty is resonating with evangelicals.
"To a lot of evangelicals," Lyons said, "they see him (Holcomb) as not really a conservative Republican."
Tea party activist Monica Boyer agrees. She was dismayed when Holcomb backed removing traditional marriage from the Republican Party platform in 2018. She doesn't like his handling of the coronavirus, saying her church closed during the early days of the pandemic while medical providers who perform abortions stayed open.
And she thinks Holcomb helped railroad Hill, the attorney general, out of office after this term. She is among many who support Hill's often socially conservative stances on legal issues.
Boyer said her vote for Rainwater will be the first she has ever cast in a general election against a Republican. But she likened it to her vote against former Sen. Richard Lugar in the 2012 Republican primary. She was among tea party activists who thought Lugar was too moderate.
"I bleed red," Boyer said. "I was born a Republican, but they are turning away from us and walking away from us."
Not all voters who cast ballots for Rainwater are upset by the governor's handling of the coronavirus or social issues
Lisa Wilken, a veterans advocate who lives in Westfield, is a reliable Republican voter upset with President Donald Trump. She wishes Holcomb would condemn much of Trump's rhetoric, though she does appreciate that the governor takes a different tone.
She is planning to vote for Democrats for most offices this year, but said she hasn't heard enough from Myers, the Democratic candidate for governor.
Perhaps most importantly to her, she thinks Holcomb, who is a Navy veteran himself, and many of his Republican colleagues haven't been strong enough on veterans issues. She thinks Rainwater would be a stronger advocate for veterans.
"I'm frustrated with the supermajority we have at our Indiana Statehouse," she said. "Decisions are made in private in caucus, and there are no public conversations anymore. I don't think that's good government."
Call IndyStar reporter Chris Sikich at 317-444-6036. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisSikich.
How to vote
Early voting has started in Indiana. Contact your local county clerk for information about locations.
In Marion County, the City-County Building is open for early voting from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays through Oct. 23, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 26-30 and from 8 a.m. to noon Nov. 2. Weekend hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Krannert Park Community Center, the MSD Lawrence Admin Building, the Perry Township Government Center, St Luke’s UMC and the Warren Township Government Center also will serve as early voting locations from Oct. 24 to Nov. 1.
Polls are open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 3.