No one has gone straight from the House to the White House since James Garfield. Mike Pence might be the one.
He hasn’t held executive office. He isn’t a paid Fox News contributor. He hasn’t written a best-seller or starred in a reality show.
So is there any reason Rep. Mike Pence (R., Ind.) should be considered a viable 2012 presidential contender?
According to supporters, there’s a huge one: authenticity. Pence identifies himself as a fiscal and social conservative and has the voting record to prove it. Elected in 2000, when compassionate conservatism was trendy, he has never been afraid to play the Grinch, voting against big-spending initiatives such as No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and TARP. Pence has displayed the same kind of consistency on social issues, establishing a solidly pro-life record over the last decade.
Pence’s advocacy hasn’t gone unnoticed. He spoke at the Tea Party’s 9/12 rally in Washington, D.C., last year and again this year, and won the straw poll of 2012 presidential candidates at the Family Research Council’s Value Voters Summit this year, beating out notables like Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Sarah Palin. When Pence resigned from his leadership position as chairman of the House Republican Conference following the election, there was immediate buzz that he might be considering a presidential run. Others speculated that he might run for governor of Indiana, where term limits mandate that current governor Mitch Daniels step down in 2012.
“The congressman hasn’t made a decision at this point,” says Pence spokesman Matt Lloyd. “He’s humbled by the encouragement he’s received back in Indiana and around the country, and he’s going to take the coming weeks to seek counsel and prayerfully consider it.”
If Pence decides to run for president, he faces steep obstacles. The last president elected directly from the House of Representatives was James Garfield in 1880. And while President Obama’s rapid ascent may signal that voters don’t demand much political experience from their presidents, even Obama had been a senator for two years before launching his campaign.
On the flip side, Pence may benefit from being a new candidate, which could appeal to GOP voters who don’t want the 2012 presidential field to be 2008 redux. “When I travel around the country,” says Gary Bauer, president of the social-conservative organization American Values, “conservative audiences seem to feel that they would love to see someone new emerge who had the sort of Reaganesque qualities that are so effective in American politics. I can imagine easily a scenario where Mike Pence could get traction and end up emerging as the candidate.”
Pence, however, has also shown signs of interest in running for governor. “He did a lot of Lincoln Day dinners that weren’t exactly in his congressional district, so that tells you he’s maybe at least thinking hard about the governorship,” says Mike McDaniel, former chairman of the Indiana GOP, referring to the dinners held annually by each of Indiana’s 92 counties.
If Pence does opt to run for governor, he will most likely face a competitive primary, with Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman having already said she’s “seriously considering” running. If Pence wins the primary, his opponent may well be Sen. Evan Bayh, who was Indiana’s governor for two terms before serving in the U.S. Senate for twelve years. Bayh is not currently Indiana’s favorite Democrat, thanks to his last-minute decision not to run for re-election, a decision that many Democrats believe ensured that a Republican would win, as Dan Coats in fact did. But if Bayh decides to try to patch up his relations with state Democrats and run, he’ll be likely to mount a formidable campaign, although his more liberal Senate votes may prove to be an Achilles’ heel.
If Pence chooses to run for either governor or president, the intense competition will be a change for him. Running in a district rated R+10 by The Cook Political Report, Pence has trumped opponents by 20 to 35 points every time he has run for re-election. Another potentially tricky matter, if he goes national, will be appealing to non-conservative voters. In Indiana, many Democrats are somewhat conservative. “We’re not to be confused with Chicago, for example,” says Robert Dion, a political-science professor at the University of Evansville. “It’s a different animal.” McDaniel agrees, saying that Indiana Democrats are “Reagan Democrats.”
On the other hand, Pence, a former radio-show host, is noted for his communication skills. “He’s not as brusque or rough around the edges as some really hard-charging conservatives,” says Dion. “He might say the exact same thing, but it goes over better than some.” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, talks about Pence’s ability to appeal to the grassroots and communicate “a vision that is really compelling, that gets people out of their seats and going door to door.”
Among some Pence partisans, there’s a sense that the conventional wisdom is wrong about the requirements for a presidential candidate. “High name ID and deep pockets are not all that they once were,” argues Kellyanne Conway, president of the polling company, inc./WomanTrend and a pollster for Pence. “Meg Whitman [the California gubernatorial candidate] spent $150 million and got about the same percentage of the vote as [Delaware Senate candidate] Christine O’Donnell.” Conway also points out that the new media landscape offers underdog candidates more opportunities to spread their message to the public rapidly and inexpensively.
Another undervalued asset is Pence’s Midwestern background. “In 2008, President Obama carried Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Ohio, gaining a total of 86 electoral votes,” Conway observes. “He is far less popular in all of them now, and Republicans just won statewide in each of them.” Ohio and Indiana are both considered battleground states, while Wisconsin’s recent election of Republican Ron Johnson for Senate could signal a shift to the right. However, Pence is not the only potential candidate who has this Midwestern edge. The speculative list of 2012 contenders also includes Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, and South Dakota senator John Thune.
Ultimately, Pence’s strongest advantage may be his ability to build bridges within the GOP. “The Republican party is going through its own little growth pains here,” remarks Bauer, “and we see all the continued speculation about whether the party establishment can meld successfully with the new Tea Party activists and so forth. I think whoever we nominate in 2012 has to be somebody that can deal with, work with both of those impulses in the coalition, somebody who is respected by both of those groups.” Bauer believes that Pence is one of a “handful of people” who meet those qualifications.
So what will Pence do? He has said he will not make a decision until after January 1. “For now, we [the Pence family] will continue our duties serving the people of Indiana and do what we have always done in such times; we will wait on the Lord and follow where He leads,” he wrote in the letter announcing his resignation from the House leadership.
Bauer offers a less religious take on what Pence should do next. “Selfishly,” he says, “I would hate to surrender him back to Indiana at a time when the Republican party is desperately in need of competitive leadership.”