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Mike Pence: A Meteoric Rise but a Controversial Political Past

Critics say GOP VP nominee's track record as Indiana governor is troubling

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump reels from widespread backlash concerning lewd comments he made in 2005 about women, several Republican members of Congress are suggesting his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, should replace him.

Calls for Pence to take over the top of the ticket came swiftly after The Washington Post posted video of Trump making sexually explicit remarks caught by a hot microphone during a taping of “Access Hollywood” more than a decade ago.

Since Friday afternoon, the likes of Republican Sens. Dan Sullivan of Alaska, and Deb Fischer of Nebraska and GOP Reps. Ann Wagner of Missouri and Rodney Davis of Illinois have all urged Trump to step down.

The support Pence has received since the most recent Trump revelation represents the latest chapter of his meteoric rise to political relevance, as well as a continued lack of focus on his controversial tenure as Indiana’s governor.

Just four months ago, he was facing significant criticism from within his own party and a tough re-election battle that some insiders and pundits contend he would have lost. Pence struggled to achieve positive name recognition at a national level, as most non-Hoosiers either weren’t familiar with his gubernatorial record, or only heard his name when he made headlines for signing what many believed to be anti-LGBT legislation.

Now, he’s the first choice of many prominent Republicans to become the next president of the United States, and will likely be a top contender for the party’s nomination in the next election cycle — should Democrats maintain control of the White House on Nov. 8.

But because Trump has continued to dominate the spotlight, many of the controversies Pence encountered, during his first term as governor, have gone largely undiscussed.

Not only did surveys conducted earlier this year show that Pence’s job approval ratings had fallen significantly from the early days of his governorship, but support from Hoosier Republicans had dwindled, as well.

In any scenario where Trump is not the nominee, Pence’s track record in the statehouse could have opened him up to more media scrutiny and attacks from Democrats, or even ended his shot at the vice presidency before it began, experts told Roll Call during recent interviews.

“Some of the things that might have made Gov. Pence controversial in Indiana might have been disqualifying in a different context,” said Joel K. Goldstein, a law professor at Saint Louis University and a renowned vice presidential scholar.

“I think in this instance what has happened is that Trump has made so many controversial statements that [Pence’s] record in Indiana hasn’t been deemed particularly interesting or relevant at this point,” Goldstein said.

Marc Lotter, Pence’s press secretary, dismissed the claims that the governor’s recent success nationally could be attributed to Trump’s contentious remarks and ability to dominate news cycles.

“I would fundamentally disagree with [that] hypothetical ‘analysis’ — and I use that term loosely,” he said. “Gov. Pence is successful because he and Mr. Trump have a message about making America great again, rebuilding our military, protecting our country, and bringing jobs back to Indiana.”

Discriminatory act?

Pence made national headlines in early 2015 when he signed into law the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which limited the legal actions that could be taken against an individual or business for asserting their religious beliefs.

The law sparked widespread outrage. Opponents contended that it would give license to religious conservatives to refuse service to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. In response, several major events and corporations — including, the NCAA, and the gaming convention Gen-Con — threatened to limit business ventures in the state or boycott it altogether.

Pence adamantly defended the RFRA legislation and refused to say whether it allowed for discrimination, which led to extensive questioning of his underlying motives.

What followed was a hemorrhaging of support from moderate Republicans in the state, and intense backlash on social media and in the press. So much so that he quietly signed a subsequent piece of legislation — dubbed the “RFRA Fix” — that clarified that the law did not allow businesses to discriminate based on a customer’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

This “fix” did little to temper the public outcry and angered conservatives in the party, who felt the original intent of the RFRA had been watered down. The aftermath of the revised law continues to play out in the Hoosier State, as several conservative groups are currently engaged in a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.

Pence’s support of the RFRA was only one of a number of positions that put him in hot water, including an effort to set up a state-run news service, and an attempt to keep Syrian refugees out of Indiana.

When the governor was first announced as Trump’s pick for vice president, Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton posted a video to her campaign’s Facebook page knocking Pence for his ties to the RFRA, and for his efforts to defund Planned Parenthood as a congressman. Excluding this video, and a few attacks that circulated after the vice presidential debate, hits against Pence from the Democratic ticket have been few and far between.

An overlooked past?

Pence’s past has been overlooked due to one simple reason, according to Robert Schmuhl, a professor of American studies and journalism at the University of Notre Dame: “Donald Trump sucks the oxygen out of any environment in which he is breathing.”

“All one has to do is look at the coverage of the campaign and, quite frankly, [Trump] is always in the top position [and] gets an inordinate amount of attention,” Schmuhl said. “By running for vice president, Pence has been able to hurdle the problems he would have faced here in Indiana [and] present himself to the country as the calm, well-spoken running mate to the often outrageous standard-bearer.”

Pence raised eyebrows once more in 2015 after The Indianapolis Star discovered his intentions to create a news bureau — called “JustIN” — overseen by his administration, and to hire a “managing editor” to assist in the production of “news stories.”

Despite quickly abandoning the plan, Pence’s project set the media world ablaze, and drew comparisons to government-backed news outlets in communist countries.

In the second half of his term, he caught flack for his efforts to stop the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana (which were eventually rebuffed by two separate federal judges), for his support for legislation that limited abortions, and for attempting to curb the power of his state’s publicly elected superintendent of public instruction, Democrat Glenda Ritz.

Pence angered some conservative Republicans by expanding or replacing certain federal programs, including the efforts he made to expand the state’s version of Medicaid, known as the Healthy Indiana Plan (or HIP 2.0). The program uses Medicaid money made available through the 2010 health care law on a health plan that requires participants to contribute on a monthly basis.

He also helped the state repeal national education standards called Common Core, which excited his party, but was eventually seen as a letdown when he replaced them with nearly identical standards.

The governor does maintain some ardent support in the state, however, particularly in the more rural, conservative areas. And according to some, Pence is more popular among Hoosiers than ever.

“They love him in Indiana,” said Rex Early, the Trump campaign’s Indiana chairman. “They think Mike is the greatest thing since buttered popcorn.”

Lotter, Pence’s press secretary, said his boss’s record in Indiana — which he said includes a low state unemployment rate, oversight of one of the country’s largest school-choice programs, and a history of tax cuts — is one of the big reasons Trump chose him as a running mate.

Lotter also said Pence’s lead in his re-election race for governor was “growing considerably” throughout the summer prior to his joining the Trump campaign.

The conventional candidate

Pence’s role as a conventional candidate and unifying force on the Trump ticket stands in sharp contrast with his three-and-a-half years as governor to date. During that time, Pence managed to anger both Democrats and Republicans alike, and faced an uncertain future in Indiana politics.

“There was always a sense that there might have been a surer hand at the helm,” Schmuhl said. 

In fact, the Indianapolis Business Journal reported in late April that roughly half of the top donors to Pence’s 2012 gubernatorial campaign had withheld monetary support for his re-election bid — with some even donating to his Democratic opponent John Gregg. This equated to a $900,000 loss in donations from the top 25 donors in 2012 compared to the same point in the previous election cycle.

“Our state has had a tough 18 months,” Ben Evans, CEO of health clinic operator OurHealth, told the newspaper in the spring, when Pence was still in the governor’s race. “Strong leadership is critical to moving our state forward. I think it’s making everyone give serious thought about how and if they participate in this election cycle.”

Evans is one of the high-profile Republican donors who pulled financial support from Pence and gave to the Gregg campaign instead. Four years ago, Pence was elected with 49.6 percent of the popular vote to Gregg’s 46.4 percent.

But Pence’s opportunity to forego re-election and join a Republican ticket known for creating controversy has breathed new life into his political career, and changed the way in which he is perceived nationally.

“Ultimately, there’s a lot of stuff in his background that hasn’t gotten much play,” said one Hoosier GOP insider who asked not to be identified. “He’s had some pretty extreme positions in the latter part of his administration and it was costing him dearly. He would have lost that [re-election] race.

“But I’m just not sure it’s going to make it to the level of anybody caring,” he said.

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