Doden has been campaigning for governor the longest. but can he win?

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Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles on each of the six Republican candidates for governor. Read our profiles on Mike BraunBrad Chambers, Curtis Hill and Jamie Reitenour.

Eric Doden has campaigned for three years, talked to voters in all 92 counties, benefited from wealthy family members and has an ambitious plan to rebuild small towns across Indiana, the bedrock of Republican electoral support.

The 54-year-old developer and entrepreneur from Fort Wayne is a devout anti-abortion Christian, a strong supporter of the 2nd amendment and has the conversational modesty generally favored by Hoosiers.

So why has Doden polled largely in the single digits with just a month before the Republic gubernatorial primary?

It’s simple, he said, a lack of name recognition, despite the pavement pounding and aggressive advertising campaign.

 But, Doden insists, it’s changing fast, at just the right time.

Indiana governor candidate Q&A: Fort Wayne entrepreneur Eric Doden

“We are rising, and voters are finally starting to pay attention a month before the election,” Doden said. “We like our trajectory.”

The most recent poll, by IndyPolitics and Crossroads Public Affairs, has Doden essentially tied for second place with Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch slightly under 11%, far behind Sen. Mike Braun’s 33% but a steady climb from 3% a few months ago.

That ascent reflects the sure-footed, long-game approach Doden has taken since launching his campaign, he said. The steady march includes hundreds of conversations with potential voters.

“I said if we are going to do this we will do it the right way and that means a very extended listening tour,” Doden said. “We were able to spend hours with people in communities all over the state, asking them questions, listening, getting their feedback. Every idea has been improved by these conversations, every single one of them.”

And Doden has plenty of ideas, the biggest being a proposal to help revitalize decaying rural downtowns by injecting government funds to rebuild old or historic buildings. He also wants to increase adoptions by drastically reducing their cost; keep teachers in schools by eliminating their income taxes; freeze property taxes for seniors; and give cities and counties more say in how they spend state redevelopment tax dollars.

Doden’s got “white papers” on all of them posted on his website. He wrote a book about improving a small town.

“We knew we wanted a bold vision for the people of Indiana,” Doden said. “We knew we wanted to restore small towns not just play for larger cities. We worked on this for a long time. They are the heart of Indiana.”

But Doden’s uphill climb is steep, and distinguishing himself is difficult in a field that includes two other well-funded candidates with strong business credentials — Braun and Brad Chambers, CEO of Buckingham Companies, who has poured $7 million of his own money into his campaign.

Doden was outraised in 2023 by Chambers, Braun and Crouch, but continued to easily outpace former Attorney General Curtis Hill and Indianapolis mother Jamie Reitenour.

Still, Doden is not short on cash. He raised $5.6 million over the course of his campaign by the end of 2023. That number doesn’t include an additional $4 million worth of contributions and loans from his parents this year. Doden’s mother and father Daryl Doden, founder of Ambassador Steel Corp. and CEO of equity firm Ambassador Enterprises, have given his campaign nearly $5 million total.

“Doden’s done a lot of what you’d want, traveled the state, put together an interesting, Indiana-centric set of issues that he’s stuck with,” said Michael Wolf, interim director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne. “But much of the race has had a national tinge, so as we kind of pivot toward policy, the question is will these Indiana-centric issues break through?”

Despite being the first to enter the race, Doden has another challenge: Many of the usual big-name Republican campaign funders and party insiders have coalesced around other candidates, specifically Chambers, who like Doden, served a stint as the head of the Indiana Economic Development Corp.

So why not Doden?

Chambers, the state’s former commerce secretary, has built a network of business connections over time in Central Indiana thanks to a combination of public and private sector success and backing from even competitors in the real estate world, said Mike Curless, vice-chair of coalitions for the Chamber campaign.

“That didn’t happen overnight,” Curless said, “He has a track record that dwarfs all other candidates combined. And not just here. His company has projects in every corner of the state.”

Doden has not been deterred. In his latest Twitter video ad, he talks about creating a state where all 92 counties, even those “underdog” counties can thrive, but he could very well be talking about his own campaign.

“In Indiana,” he says, “we know the underdog always has a chance.”

Working the crowd

As the campaign entered its final lap last week, Doden whipsawed across the state, appearing at several local GOP functions to gain the backing of party regulars or simply introduce himself.

At the Tigre Point Golf & Event Center in Greencastle — youthfully attired in black denim jeans, stylish black tennis shoes and form-fitting sport coat —  Doden worked the crowd with a patient posture; standing directly in front of the speaker, constant eye contact, all ears, and no shoehorning policy proposals into the discussions.

With Eric Rippy, they talked for 10 minutes about their Christian faith, and then some about mental health, drug addiction and recovery. Rippy runs Recovery Raw of Putnam County, an addiction resource center.

“I like the guy, his approach, it’s like talking to anyone else,” said Rippy, who said he was leaning toward voting for Crouch but was undecided.

With Patrick Thibodeau the discourse was centered on nuts and bolts; the Greencastle building commissioner had a keen interest in Doden’s plan for small towns and cities.

“Small towns are a big deal,” he said. “Lots of candidates are talking about national level politics. But governors should be concentrating on what we do here. I applaud him for writing a plan and publishing it.”

And with Avon Schools Resource Officer Adam Logan, their families were the topic.

“It was nice talking about our kids with a governor candidate,” he said. “He didn’t bring up his plans.”

Jim Atterholt has seen Doden’s push and pull style before. He drives an idea hard but slows down to soak in suggestions along the way.

“Like no one I’ve ever seen, he is driven by ideas that are all his own and driven to implement them,” said Atterholt, former chief of staff for Gov. Mike Pence when Doden was president of the Indiana Economic Development Corp. “But he can drive the bus and listen to the passengers at the same time.”

While Doden comes across as affable on the campaign trail and lets other candidates throw the first punches on the debate stage, he was the first candidate to run ads critical of another candidate, frontrunner Braun. Braun has run attack ads against Doden in return.

Lesson learned

A late start and loss in a campaign for Fort Wayne mayor in 2011 convinced Doden he needed an early start this time. His appointment as president of the Indiana Economic Development Commission in 2013 and a stint as CEO of Greater Fort Wayne, Inc., from 2015-2018 gave him a broader view of the local and regional needs of cities and towns.

At the IEDC Doden helped launch the Regional Cities Initiative, which has now morphed into the Regional Economic Accelerator Development Initiative. It provides state grants to cities and counties that present development plans with a larger economic impact.

Doden said he will revive the Regional Cities Program and invest $200 million a year in the program that would translate into $88 billion in public/private projects over four years. His goal is to more than double Indiana’s population growth rate.

While heading Greater Fort Wayne, Inc., a quasi-government economic development organization, Doden laid out an ambitious plan to remake the city center.

But his aggressive development tactics sometimes irked elected officials, where he wasn’t always known for listening to the bus passengers. His first priority was to redevelop a General Electric factory that had closed in 2015. He arranged for a private developer to buy it and lobbied the city for $65 million in funding.

The size of the request gave Mayor Tom Henry pause. Likewise during his tenure,18 city councilors, state legislators and county commissioners wrote a letter to the mayor complaining about Doden’s aggressive lobbying effort.

“He’s got a reputation for jumping into these things that he thinks make sense before checking with others who have an interest,” said Paul Helmke, a former mayor of Fort Wayne who is now a political science professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. “He can be a bull in a china shop. He’ll ruffle feathers without patting them down afterward.”

Allen County Commissioner Theresa Brown said Doden appears to have adjusted his approach since then.

“I think he has broadened his understanding of how all the legs of the chair have to work together,” said Brown, who is supporting Crouch. “He had difficulty at first understanding working with the general public. He liked to move with a a force and speed when when he was passionate about something.”

Brown said she remembers Doden saying he wanted to see five cranes in the air at all times in Fort Wayne, but elected officials had to impress upon him they had priorities other than warp speed development.

Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas said when Doden genuinely believes in the benefit of his project, breaking things comes with the territory.

“He is the most persistent person I have ever known,” said Costas, who met Doden 30 years ago when Doden came to work for his campaign for city council while attending law school at Valparaiso University. “When you put together a proactive plan that you believe in and are that persistent in launching it, that can happen.”

Fort Wayne’s $286 million mixed-use project, Electric Works, opened in 2022 with the $65 million in city backing Doden had sought. His company, Domo Development Corp. has spearheaded several other projects in the city since then.

Last year, Domo proposed a $1.5 billion series of projects for the next phase of the city’s north riverfront development that would include an arena, soccer stadium, natatorium and housing covering more than 60 acres.

Focus on rural towns

Doden’s tenure at GFW Inc. is when he began forming his Main Street Initiative, and after he left he started the development consulting firm PAGO USA in 2019 to target small towns.

“Nobody in the development business is focused on small towns,” Doden said. “I just got tired of people wanting to leave.”

Doden said the long-term goal of the initiative is to stabilize or increase the rural enclaves’ populations by offering relatively cheap housing for residents, including those who commute to work in nearby larger cities.

Doden’s proposal would set-aside $100 million a year from the state to be invested into municipalities with less than 30,000 residents. Combined with investments from the private sector, federal government and localities, the state funding — up to $10 million for a project — would breathe economic life in areas that are losing residents and the small businesses that rely on them.

Doden’s already done something similar as a developer in Van Wert, Ohio, population 10,000. Pago USA helped the local community foundation develop and arrange funding to buy 52 dilapidated buildings and begin rebuilding them. He’s now in redevelopment talks in Hillsdale, Mich., where he attended Hillsdale College.

“Obviously, I have a special affection for the town,” said Doden.

Doden earned a bachelor of arts in business finance and Christian studies at Hillsdale and remains proudly pious. But he prefers to tap the Bible rather than thump it. Though he produced a commercial in which he shares lessons learned from his grandfather, a preacher, Doden has steered clear of engaging in the latest culture wars.

“We’ve been clear. I’m ardently pro-life but it is about protecting the vulnerable,” said Doden, who attends the non-denominational Blackhawk Ministries in Fort Wayne.

Doden has also avoided echoing the rhetoric of the Donald Trump wing of the GOP, acknowledging that President Joe Biden was duly elected.

Atterholt compared Doden’s approach to that of former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, a businessman of quiet faith, who famously declared a “truce on social issues,” in favor of a more pragmatic governing style.

“He is not going to beat you over the head with religion,” Atterholt said of Doden. “He is driven to results.”

Doden, however, can be downright evangelical about the intersection of development, government service and faith.

“I really believe that any leader should come with a servant’s heart,’’ he said. “You know you are improving the life of people because you know everyone needs a place to live. People are enjoying their families in these apartments. It becomes the place where they get to relax. That’s rewarding. I enjoy seeing the work product.”

About Eric Doden

Age: 54

Home: Fort Wayne

Education: Bachelor of arts in business finance, Hillsdale College. JD, Valparaiso University School of Law

Family: Eric and his wife Maci have five children, Lawson, Quinn, Welcome, Rylan, and Jones.

Previous experience: Founder, PAGO Development; past president, Greater Fort Wayne, Inc. from 2015-2018; past president, Indiana Economic Development Corp. from 2013-2015.

Support from outside groups: Endorsed by Northeast & Indiana Right to Life PAC’s, National Rifle Association A Rating (Questionnaire)

Call IndyStar reporter John Tuohy at 317-444-6418 or email him at Follow him on Facebook and X/Twitter.

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