When Indiana Governor Mike Pence endorsed Texas Senator Ted Cruz in a last-ditch attempt to prevent authoritarian billionaire Donald Trump from securing the Republican nomination earlier this year, Pence went out of his way to avoid offending Trump.
Just before the critical May 3 Indiana primary, which proved to be the last stand at the ballot box for Cruz and the so-called #NeverTrump movement, Pence announced: “I’m not against anybody, but I will be voting for Ted Cruz in the upcoming Republican primary.”
That was about as tepid as an endorsement could get.
But Pence wasn’t done. He watered things down a little more by praising the guy he wasn’t endorsing.
“I particularly want to commend Donald Trump, who I think has given voice to the frustration of millions of working Americans with a lack of progress in Washington, DC,” he explained in a radio interview. “And I’m also particularly grateful that Donald Trump has taken a strong stance for Hoosier jobs.”
That was typical Mike Pence. He may identify as a Republican and a conservative, but he is first and foremost a political opportunist of the old school who is constantly on the make—looking for the next opening to advance a career that is long on ambition but short of vision. As Indiana political analyst Andrew Downs says: “Mike Pence clearly would like to be in the White House. Everybody knows he would like to be in the White House, and one way to get there is by being the VP.”
That’s fine by Trump. He just needs a sidekick who is sufficiently connected to corporate and conservative insiders and sufficiently deferential to the presumptive nominee.
Trump took note of Pence’s carefully crafted ambiguity last spring. The Republican presidential contender called Pence’s declaration for Cruz “the weakest endorsement anyone has seen in a long time.”
The political strongman was not offended by Pence’s weakness. Rather, he recognized this obscure governor as someone who was sufficiently ambitious and calculating to meet his standards.
Trump confirmed Friday that he has chosen the “weakest-endorsement” governor to be his running mate on a ticket that prominent Republicans with common sense and/or a conscience had indicated they were unwilling to join.
Trump, who has gone out of his way to position himself as an outsider challenging the political establishment, has found in Pence a consummate insider who is wedded to the conservative political establishment—and its generous network of wealthy donors. That works for Trump because he is still struggling to unite a Republican Party that is made up of social, economic, and foreign-policy wings that do not always get along. Trump has offended most of them. But Pence has spent a lifetime appealing to each of them—even at the expense of his broader appeal to more mainstream general-election voters.
A political careerist who was raised in an Irish Catholic family that revered Democratic President John Kennedy, Pence as a young man chose a new hero, conservative Republican Ronald Reagan, and a new politics, that of the religious right. Adopting the language of the movement activists who have become such a dominant force in the GOP, Pence says he is “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.”
Pence is a movement man, with a personal agenda.
Two years after finishing law school at Indiana University, he was campaigning for Congress.
After those 1988 and 1990 defeats for a House seat that combined rural and urban counties and was then represented by Democratic Congressman Phil Sharp, Pence attached himself to the “state-based free-market think-tank movement” that corporations and the Koch brothers have used to advance their agenda. As president of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, Pence was associated with the State Policy Network that has sought to develop what Ronald Reagan allegedly referred to as “something like a Heritage Foundation in each of the states.”
That gig gave the ambitious but unsuccessful congressional candidate the connections he needed to become a right-wing talk-radio host—The Mike Pence Show was syndicated across Indiana at a time when Rush Limbaugh and other stars of conservative media were making talk radio the dominant means of communications for a new and more rigid right. To this day, Pence is a Limbaugh loyalist; after the talk-radio giant announced in 2009 that he hoped President Obama would fail, Pence declared, “I don’t believe Rush Limbaugh has a racist bone in his body. If you’re suggesting that his statement had a racist element in it, I commend you to a greater understanding of the positions he’s taken. He’s a man about opportunity of all Americans, regardless of race, creed, or color. That’s why he’s so admired and appreciated across America.”
Always on the make, Pence parlayed his “think-tank” and talk-radio connections into a Republican nomination for Congress in 2000, won the seat, and quickly began angling for positions of authority in the House. He was a steady vote for the foreign and domestic policies of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. But his ambition often got the better of him. Pence bid for the post of House minority leader in a 2006 race with eventual Speaker John Boehner, but earned only 27 votes from social-conservative stalwarts and other hardliners.
In 2009, Pence was elected to the third-ranking post in the House, Republican Conference chairman. But he quickly began making noise about running for an Indiana US Senate seat. Then he repositioned himself for a 2012 gubernatorial bid, which he won. A single controversy-plagued term has seen Pence promoting religious-right agenda items (including a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” designed to permit discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community that provoked widespread outrage and had to be rewritten); picking on refugees, immigrants, labor unions, and local schools; and trying, without success, to set up a taxpayer-funded state-run news service that critics described as “the Pence News Service” and one Indiana editor dismissed as “antithetical to the idea of an independent press.”
His many stumbles and conflicts have made Pence unpopular at home. A recent Bellwether Research poll had him in a tight race for reelection this year, leading Democrat John Gregg by a narrow 40-36 margin. As The Indianapolis Star reported in May, “The poll found that Pence has been unable to make up much of the ground he lost after last year’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act controversy. Only 36 percent said he should be re-elected…”
This was not shaping up as an easy year for Pence in Indiana. So as soon as the word came that he was at the top of Trump’s list, The Indianapolis Star reported that Pence was “dropping his re-election bid in Indiana.”
Why is Trump so attracted to a potential running mate who is not particularly popular in his home state?
It has a lot to do with the fact that Pence wants the job, and that he has tended to say nice things about Trump when other Republicans have been condemning the billionaire. But it also has to do with where Pence comes from—not Indiana but the professional infrastructure that was established in the 1980s and ’90s by conservative political and economic elites. Toiling in the think tanks and radio studios of the right made Pence exactly what Trump is not: consistent and connected. He’s a strikingly steady social and economic and foreign-policy conservative, whom corporate CEOs and religious-right organizers alike know they can count on to answer their call.
Pence may have problems at home, Andrew Downs told Politico last week. But the governor’s “stance on things like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana, as well as his stance on civil rights legislation in Indiana, those are things people are criticizing but they actually are things that help solidify social conservatives within the Republican Party.”
That’s what Trump wants at this point—even if he has to settle for a weak endorser.