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INcoming: Mike Pence
How the governor-elect found his conservative voice and a strategy for winning the race: keep it quiet.
To understand the chasm currently separating Indiana’s political parties, all you need to do is picture their election-night celebrations. On November 6, the Democrats chose a sedate ballroom at the Downtown Marriott. The Republicans, who were marching toward supermajorities in the House and the Senate, chose the end zone at Lucas Oil Stadium.
That night, more than 2,000 merry party loyalists gathered to watch the results—especially those from Richard Mourdock’s race for U.S. Senate. Still, the man calling the plays was clearly Mike Pence. In the final weeks of his run for governor, Indiana’s 6th District congressman had fired up his Big Red Truck Tour, trading his charcoal suit for a bomber jacket and barnstorming small towns across the state. Now, Big Red Truck signs adorned every seat in the end-zone sections. Someone had even thought to slap down some Terracover and drive an actual Big Red Truck onto the field. The growing swarm of media saw it as a dull ripoff of outgoing Massachusetts senator Scott Brown and his pickup truck, but to me, at least, it felt heartening—there might be red states and blue states, but we could be pandered to in exactly the same way.
Once you soaked up the spectacle, however—the huge stage between the hashmarks; the buffets of pizza and pretzel bites, straight from the game-day menu—the bleachers got rather boring. You could watch Fox News, which was broadcasting on both of the stadium’s 97-foot-wide scoreboards. Or you could track campaign staffers wandering through the end zone, peering into their smartphones and occasionally colliding.
Or you could talk to voters. “I’ve been a lazy patriot,” one Mourdock supporter told me, admitting that she hadn’t really followed previous elections. Still, she’d toiled in a Mourdock phone bank this time around. She liked Pence, too: “He seems like a typical Hoosier—good values, genuine, honest.” People praised Pence for those qualities again and again, but the thing they mentioned most was how he would carry on the work of Mitch Daniels. One guy, sitting 50 feet from where he had season tickets, said, “I think Mitch—I mean Mike—can keep the state heading in the right direction.”
At 9:33 p.m., Fox projected Mourdock would lose. The stadium went instantly, eerily quiet, and by the time Pence came out to claim victory, an hour or so later, half the crowd had left. But the new governor didn’t seem to mind. He walked to the stage, pausing to let his wife, Karen, climb the stairs first, and began his speech about “a season of service.” “The time has come to set politics aside and work together,” he said, promising Hoosiers “honestly balanced budgets, lower taxes, and less red tape.”
It was a solid performance, though Pence has always been better one-on-one or on TV. And that’s what he did next, working his way down the sideline through a dense crowd of fans and media. Pence must have been exhausted, his face wind- and sunburned from the final campaigning blitz, but he never showed it, patiently toggling between handshakes and sound bites, camera phones and TV crews. It took every bit of 45 minutes, and he was only two-thirds through when, on the scoreboards, Fox announced the biggest race of all: “BARACK OBAMA REELECTED PRESIDENT.” The stadium went silent for a second time. But Mike Pence, who’d spent 25 years crafting himself into one of the smoothest politicians in America, didn’t even flinch.
It has been awfully easy to ignore Indiana’s next governor. Pence enjoyed a big lead for most of 2012, though he ended up beating Democrat John Gregg by only four percentage points. Besides, we had that Senate race! Out of nowhere appeared Richard Mourdock, a guy who seemed to possess nothing but fiery far-right beliefs—and who refused to bend on any of them. After purging Dick Lugar in the primary, Mourdock gave voters a sound bite to buzz about (before he gave them that other sound bite to buzz about). “Bipartisanship,” he told Fox News, “ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.”
But here’s the thing: One can make a strong case that Mike Pence veers just as far to the right as Richard Mourdock. One of Pence’s many slogans is that he’s “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order”—and there’s no doubt that he loves his family, his state, and his God. “So many politicians live one life in public and one life in private,” says Mike Murphy, a former state representative. “But one thing I can tell you about Mike is that he’s the same in both worlds. There’s no contradiction.”
Where there is a contradiction, however, is between Pence’s past and the campaign he just ran for governor. As a powerful congressman (and in his personal life before that), Pence took vocal conservative stands on just about every issue: foreign policy, fiscal policy, social matters, and more. During the gubernatorial race, however, he stuck to the bland, statistics-driven plan he called his Roadmap for Indiana. Pence sounded more like an accountant than an ideologue, and it contrasted sharply with the bold and inflexible beliefs he’s held throughout his career. Now, as he assumes office this month, Pence can already count his first major accomplishment as governor—convincing voters that he is something he’s not.
Mike Pence has been running for office basically since grade school—the only thing that has changed is his political party. The native Hoosier was born in 1959 to a family of Irish Catholic Democrats (in that order). Growing up in Columbus, he kept a box of Kennedy clippings; by 15, he was youth coordinator for the Bartholomew County Democrats.
After high school, Pence headed an hour southeast to Hanover College, where he majored in history. He was not the most bookish student—it took him two tries to get into the Indiana University School of Law—but his classmates still chose him to give Hanover’s commencement address. “Mike, by nature, was an outgoing person,” remembers G. M. Curtis III, one of his undergraduate professors, “but he was an extraordinarily good listener, as well.”
Hanover was also where Pence went through two important transformations. The first was political. Pence worked with Curtis on his senior thesis—he wanted to write about Lincoln’s religion—and enrolled in the professor’s infamous Constitutional and Legal History class. Curtis was a strict originalist who loaded his syllabus with the Founders’ own writings, and Pence began to warm to the ideas of limited government. It took time (he still voted for Carter in 1980), but Pence’s politics were beginning to change.
The second shift was religious. At Hanover, Pence attended a nondenominational fellowship group and converted to evangelical Christianity. This took time, as well—he met his future wife, Karen, at Indianapolis’s St. Thomas Aquinas—but by 1986, when he settled down to practice law, he had begun to resemble the Mike Pence of today. “Some people have that air that they’re just going to get it done,” says Van Smith, a longtime mentor who, at 85, served as chairman for Pence’s gubernatorial campaign. “We felt that way about Mike and Karen.”
Still, everyone seemed surprised when, in 1988, at just 29 years old, Pence decided to run for U.S. Congress in what was then the 2nd District. He devised a simple, populist campaign. “The biggest difference between Mike Pence and Phil Sharp,” he would yell during rallies, invoking the Democratic incumbent, “is $1 million from special-interest groups.” Pence, whose dark hair was already going gray, rode a single-speed bicycle 261 miles across the district to meet voters. He raised more money than any other challenger in the state.
He also lost, but Pence came closer than anyone had projected. He immediately began plotting a rematch—this time with some unexpected help from a local radio personality named Sharon Disinger. The first time Disinger saw Pence, he and Karen were out campaigning on their bikes. Now Disinger wanted to offer him a more efficient medium: a show on her Rushville radio station. “When we first talked,” Disinger remembers, “I reminded him that Ronald Reagan had also lost a bid for office and done a radio show to keep his name out there.” That sold Pence, and he began driving from Indy to Rushville once a week to broadcast his program, Washington Update. Afterward, he would sit with Disinger and her husband, replaying and critiquing his performance.
Pence’s convictions continued to deepen. When Richard Lugar ran for president in 1996, Pence used his radio show to criticize Lugar for not being “conservative enough.”
In 1990, Pence took on Sharp a second time. Today, the race is remembered as one of the nastiest in state history. One Pence ad featured a man in a tacky robe with a thick Arab accent thanking Sharp for his support of foreign oil. Some still maintain that the ad starred Pence himself, and its lost footage has become a sort of Ark of the Covenant in Indiana politics. But the obsession with this ad obscures a larger point: Pence didn’t just run an ugly campaign; he ran an inept one. It was plagued by near-scandals and bad messaging, with the low point coming at a press conference during which one of Sharp’s staffers brandished Pence’s campaign-finance reports and said, “If you’re giving money to Mike Pence, you’re paying his mortgage.” And not just his mortgage—in an unusual (and now illegal) move, Pence’s campaign had been covering his car payment, his Visa bill, even his golf fees. The news killed his campaign. Years later, Pence ran into that Sharp staffer in Washington. “Well,” Pence said, “here’s the political assassin.”
The experience taught Pence to be a more cautious, guarded campaigner—though at the time, he believed he would never again run for office. In 1991, he became president of the conservative Indiana Policy Review Foundation. It worked well for both parties: Pence tripled the think tank’s fundraising, but he also devoured its research, expanding his understanding of Republican policies. He even wrote an essay for its journal called “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner,” in which he rebuked his strategy from 1990.
But Pence and the Policy Review began to drift apart. Pence’s friends invariably describe the mid-1990s as a time when he “matured.” He and Karen began attending an evangelical church and, after years of trying, conceived the first of their three children. Pence became more interested in social topics like abortion, and in political activism. The Policy Review preferred to stick to economics and policy papers, and in 1994 Pence resigned amicably.
Thanks to Sharon Disinger, he had options. Pence had been hosting a small Saturday-morning talk show, and now he decided to expand it to three hours a day, five days a week. He traveled the state pitching the idea to advertisers and affiliates, and The Mike Pence Show became a huge success, eventually airing on 19 stations. “It was a Hoosier show,” recalls producer Todd Meyer, on which Pence would chat about farming, manufacturing, and Bobby Knight.
Mostly, though, it was about politics. Pence insisted on a polite tone—“Rush Limbaugh on decaf,” was another of his slogans—and he regularly invited Evan Bayh, Frank O’Bannon, and even John Gregg, whom he called “my favorite Democrat,” for interviews. But Pence’s convictions continued to deepen. When Richard Lugar ran for president in 1996, Pence used his show to criticize Lugar for not being “conservative enough.”
A few years later, David McIntosh, a Republican who’d replaced Phil Sharp, invited Van Smith to breakfast. McIntosh told him he was going to run for governor in 2000, and as soon as Smith got home he called Pence and told him it was time to give politics another try. Pence said he needed to talk to Karen, but he called back by the end of the day. “There was not a lot of time wasted,” Smith says. Pence entered the race for McIntosh’s seat and ran a smooth and positive campaign, outflanking his opponents on abortion and calling for a drastically smaller government. He ended up winning easily, and it wasn’t hard to imagine what kind of congressman Pence would be. After all, he’d predicted it in his “Confessions” essay: “One day soon, the new candidates will step forward,” he wrote. “This breed will turn away from running ‘to win’ and toward running ‘to stand.’”
Van Smith was also there for the birth of Pence’s gubernatorial bid. In late 2010, a few weeks after the midterm elections, Pence assembled his family, his closest staffers, and a few advisers for an all-day meeting in Brown County—“more than all-day,” Smith remembers. “It was in the spirit of, ‘Look, I’m making the decision to go for governor. Now what does that mean?’” The group talked through campaign logistics and policy specifics, but its main concern lay in defining Pence’s core issues. According to Smith, the participants volunteered all sorts of ideas, including campaigns built around social topics like abortion and gay marriage. “Mike made the decision,” says Smith, “that the major issues in the campaign for governor in 2012 should be and must be jobs and education.”
And so they were. Pence ran an incredibly disciplined campaign. There were no bicycle tours this time around. There weren’t even any of the mildly zany things Mitch Daniels did during his runs, like singing the national anthem at minor-league baseball games. Instead, at event after event, Pence stood up and said, “I’m running for governor for two reasons.”
The first time I saw this stump speech was at the Conrad in downtown Indianapolis. On a dreary September day, Pence walked in wearing khakis and a blue button-down cinched chastely at the wrists. It was a luncheon for female business owners—the kind of event where jokes about business cards just killed—and Pence adapted to his audience. When he brought up leaving the Policy Review, for instance, he talked about launching his radio business (“Some of the best experiences of our life”). When he mentions this period in his TV ads, it’s to talk about being unemployed (“We got through by tightening our belts”).
Mostly, though, Pence stuck to his two reasons. “Number one is, I love this state,” he said. “I love everything about it.” Then things got trickier: “The other reason I’m running is because this is no ordinary time in the life of our state.” Pence had to be careful here—he had to argue his case without making it sound like the still-popular Daniels could have governed better. So he solved the problem with slogans. “It’s time to take Indiana from reform to results,” Pence said. Later, it was “from good to great,” and throughout the note-free speech he stayed remarkably focused on his Roadmap for Indiana—right up to the point when he said, “I’m scooting off to my next thing,” and hurried out the door.
Pence’s next thing turned out to be a private fundraiser, so I got to his next next thing a bit early. It was another jobs event—this time at a strip mall on the corner of 38th and Arlington that houses Hawa African Braiding, Corey’s Barber Shop, D&C Pizza, and some empty storefronts. In the parking lot sat an Impala with “SEXY BLAQ” spelled across its bumper in gold Gothic lettering. Given that Pence had a rare media escort (in addition to me, there was a reporter from The Indianapolis Star and a photographer), it felt a little convenient that he had decided to swing through Indy’s east side.
When Pence finally arrived, he started with the pizza. The tiny older lady who ran the place took off her apron and brought out some breadsticks. “I consider myself to be a pizza expert with broad and diverse experience,” Pence said as he sampled one. The lady began talking about the struggle of owning her own business; Pence, who was holding eye contact and nodding furiously, put a hand on her shoulder and guided her two inches to the right—a better angle for him, a better photo for The Star. Next came the barbershop, where Pence promised to take questions. But first, a tall black man named Gary Hobbs got up. A few months back, Hobbs said, Pence had spoken to a group of developers about his plan to ramp up Indiana’s vocational education; afterward Hobbs had approached him, explaining how he and a few others were trying the same thing at Arlington High School. And that’s why Pence was there—not for a photo op, but at the invitation of Hobbs. “He took the time to really listen,” Hobbs told the barbershop. “Mike deep down is a person who really cares.”
As staffers passed out copies of the Roadmap, Pence recounted his own time in shop class, a place where he had floundered but other classmates had thrived. “We all still went to lunch, went to the same football game on Friday night,” he said. Now, as he toured the state, employers complained about having good technical jobs and no one qualified to fill them. That’s where Pence got his idea to emphasize vocational education. “I’m absolutely convinced that Indiana can be a leader on this,” he said.
It was time for questions. The first one came from a woman who asked about healthcare for those stranded between Medicaid and a job with decent benefits. The query was long and detailed and, perhaps in part because of the Obama poster hanging on the barbershop’s back wall, a little challenging. But Pence, to his credit, offered an equally detailed reply. Obamacare, he said, “will ultimately result in higher taxes and higher health costs for Hoosiers.” Pence pointed to Daniels’s Healthy Indiana plan as a better, state-driven approach. “I just think this is the right model,” he said, “as opposed to the Washington, D.C., model.”
The woman wasn’t satisfied—there were still lots of people without Healthy Indiana coverage, she told me afterward—but she appreciated the direct answer. That pattern repeated throughout the rest of the session. One of the barbers (Big Vince, according to the sign next to his chair) asked about the push to deregulate their trade; a young mother wondered how she could take a job, a job she wanted to do, when it wouldn’t pay as much as the government benefits she needed for her kids. In each of these cases, Pence could have pandered or evaded, but instead he gave frank, if unpopular, answers. It reminded me of how people described the old Mike Pence Show. It also made me wonder where that Mike Pence had been during most of the election season.
At the Conrad luncheon, I talked to a woman who ran a contracting company in Fishers. She loved Pence’s ideas about vocational education, as her company had also struggled to find qualified workers. “Everyone wants their kid to be a leader,” she said, “but we need worker bees, too.” When I asked about Pence’s congressional career, though, she, like everyone else I talked to, admitted not knowing much about it. Still, she offered a broader thought: “When they do things they don’t run on, that always bothers me.”
Comments like that are exactly why John Gregg tried to paint Pence as a strict social conservative. There’s no doubt that, during his 12 years in Congress, Pence spent a lot of energy on social issues. “Our present crisis,” he argued in a 2010 speech, “is not merely economic and political but moral in nature.” But Pence proved to be far more than a social crusader. In fact, it’s hard to find an issue on which he didn’t take—and passionately advocate for—a far-right position. It all adds up to a more consistent record than that of most Bush-era conservatives. As Pence put it in a 2011 interview: “I was Tea Party before it was cool.”
This started as soon as Pence got to Washington in 2001. In his first term, when John McCain was trying to pass campaign-finance reform, Pence stood up in a meeting and accused the Arizona senator of being “so deep in bed with the Democrats on this issue that his feet are coming out of the bottom of the sheets.” The McCain bill also revealed how Pence would function as a legislator. “I would not call Mike a policy wonk, necessarily,” says Stephen Piepgrass, an ex-staffer, “but he had a real gift for putting his finger on the key issue.” When the McCain bill first came up, Piepgrass says, Pence called it unconstitutional before anyone else had even begun their analysis: He instinctually saw both the biggest flaw and the best angle from which to attack. It’s the same skill that leads to those slogans (Pence generates them himself and never trots them before focus groups), and former aides can list example after example of it in action.
They also talk about his love for Indiana. Pence decorated his congressional office with Hoosier memorabilia (including a Hoosiers poster, signed by Bobby Plump) and pushed his staff to be so responsive that voters from all over the state ended up calling them for help. He also held at least 50 town halls a year, according to former staffer Ryan Reger. On the advice of Dan Quayle, Pence had moved his young family to Washington. (He’d also brought his small red pickup truck, which he drove to the Capitol every day.) When Pence returned to Indiana, Reger would ferry him around. Their days started so early that the congressman—who wasn’t shy about pulling out a Bible back in D.C. to show what passage he was basing a decision on—often finished his devotional in the passenger seat. “And every single night when we were driving back,” Reger recalls, “he’d call Karen and the kids.”
Pence’s sole goal proved to be fighting for his staunchly conservative principles, and the best example came in his refusal to support George W. Bush’s plan to subsidize prescription drugs for seniors. Pence opposed Medicare Part D, which he saw as a new and unfunded entitlement, from the start. “There was never any, ‘Well, maybe if we change this or that,’” says Ryan Fisher, who worked for years as Pence’s legislative director. “It was a principled stand.”
Bush lobbied Pence personally. One day, the president called the most stubborn representatives to the White House. He went around the table, asking each person what their problem was. When he got to Pence, the congressman said his next stop that day was his daughter’s 10th-birthday party—and that he didn’t want to show up knowing he’d saddled her generation with even more debt. Eventually, the White House wrangled enough conservatives into supporting the bill, and it passed. But Pence never caved.
Other high-profile bills played out the same way. During the 2000s, Pence resisted on everything from No Child Left Behind to the bailout. Donors dropped him, and party leadership chewed him out behind closed doors. The Weekly Standard reported that Pence was “loathed by Bush aides.” That wasn’t Pence’s only media attention. From his first day in Washington, he had drilled his staff to court and cooperate with the press. It led to some flattering coverage—“The Perfect Conservative,” proclaimed The New York Times—but it also gave Pence another place to advocate his ideas. He knew his best side (the right) and didn’t need to review the talking points since, most of the time, he wrote them himself.
Eventually, Pence found a way to get along with his fellow Republicans—not by changing, but by watching the party change. Indeed, by the end of his congressional career, the GOP was echoing Pence in many of its policies. He had risen to the third-highest spot in party leadership, but even from there he pushed for purity. “Look, there will be no compromise on stopping runaway spending,” Pence said on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show in 2010. “There will be no compromise on stopping Democrats from growing government and raising taxes. And if I haven’t been clear enough yet, let me say again: No compromise.”
On election night, after he’d navigated down the sideline, Mike Pence found his mom and reminded her that he was taking her to breakfast the following morning. “Why don’t I pick you up at 8?” he said, leaning in. “We’ll go to Shapiro’s.”
The next morning, a couple hours after the Shapiro’s date, Pence and two aides walked into a small room on The Columbia Club’s fourth floor. Pence looked exhausted, with his normally crisp gestures coming a beat or two slower, and he dispatched an aide for coffee and Splenda. Still, as we began our 45-minute interview, he seemed cheerful—the other aide had just shown him a copy of The Star’s Metro section, which featured the celebrating Pence family on its front page—and relaxed.
Pence fielded a few biographical questions, and then considered one on the difference between being a legislator and an executive. “It’s a different kind of leadership,” he said. “I truly believe that a legislator is an advocate, and an executive has to bring a brand of leadership that casts a vision.” Pence’s vision, of course, centers on jobs and schools—on the need, he said, easing into his stump speech, to take Indiana “from good to great.” “When you look at our Roadmap for Indiana,” he said, “we have six specific goals and six measurables.” Pence mentioned that after Shapiro’s, he had met with Mitch Daniels at the Statehouse for a full tour of the governor’s offices. Pence planned to blow up the Roadmap to poster size and to stick it on one of the walls. “I didn’t see exactly what wall we’re going to put it on,” he said, “but every time we meet, we’re going to look at it.”
Right about then, I brought up Richard Mourdock’s opinions on compromise. Pence rapidly declined to comment—and then, just to be sure, he declined again. So I asked for his own take on bipartisanship. “In our Roadmap for Indiana, we articulated a vision, a set of six goals,” he said. “What I want to do is bring people together in both political parties. As we frame the goals, I want to hear their ideas about how we move forward and achieve the outcomes.”
Then something strange happened. Mike Pence, the guy who, the night before, had seemed to shake every single hand in Lucas Oil Stadium, the guy whose aides budget extra time in his schedule because he’s such a talker (“He’s Irish,” one of them explained)—Mike Pence, exactly 20 minutes into a 45-minute interview, said, “We gotta roll in about five, don’t we?”
One of the aides left to get the car, and Pence began stalling and evading even more aggressively. I asked him for some specifics about his faith. “I’m a pretty ordinary Christian,” he replied. I asked him where he went to church. “We’re kind of looking for a church,” he replied. “We just got hired on a new job yesterday.” I asked him if he understood why the local press kept hounding him about the things he wasn’t talking about, like social issues. “I never begrudge members of the fourth estate talking about whatever they want to talk about,” he said. I asked him why, after a congressional career in which he argued that social issues were economic issues, he’d stopped talking about them. “Your assumption is that they haven’t come up on the campaign trail,” he said. I asked him about the meeting in Brown County that Van Smith had told me about. “It was a private meeting,” he replied.
It’s that last non-answer that matters most. During the campaign, Pence’s favorite way to duck the social issues was to implicate voters. In fact, he did it in our interview: “As I traveled around this state in the last year and a half,” he told me, “what I heard Hoosiers talking about was jobs and schools.”
There’s no question that Hoosiers are focused on those topics. But if you believe Van Smith, the jobs-and-schools routine stretches back to before Pence even announced his campaign—to that meeting in Brown County. Pence wasn’t lying when he said he was following the lead of voters, but he wasn’t telling the full truth, either.
Of course, one could argue that these campaign pirouettes don’t really matter—that a strong agenda and an avoidance of compromise is what actually gets things done. “We’ve seen so much on TV about ‘My way or the highway,’” one Statehouse insider told me, alluding to ads that attacked Mourdock, “but that’s what Mitch Daniels has been all about.” Yet Daniels also showed a willingness to be flexible and pragmatic—something all good executives must evoke. The former governor would never crow about the $2 billion in stimulus dollars he took. But it still happened.
So did Pence’s gubernatorial campaign provide a sneak peek at his flexible, pragmatic side? Or will he revert to the rigid and principled nature he demonstrated in Congress? No one I talked to was quite sure. “I’m surprised by his avoidance of social issues,” one former Pence staffer told me. “It seems much more calculating than I thought he was or could be.” Pence’s Roadmap doesn’t provide much help, either. It includes some admirable ideas (Goal 5 is “Improving the quality of the Hoosier workforce”—the stuff about vocational education fits under here). But it doesn’t include four full years’ worth of work. Then there are Pence’s presidential ambitions. It’s no secret that he chose running for governor over running for president, and between his congressional record and his skills as a communicator, Pence has already cropped up on several 2016 short lists.
Yet even that possibility only confuses things further. Will Pence, as governor, reinforce his far-right image, or will he broaden his appeal? There’s no way to know. But like Mike Pence on the campaign trail, we can say two things for sure: First, there’s a solid chance that Pence’s agenda will include much more than what he campaigned on. And second: During his run for governor, Pence marshaled his considerable political talent in a brand-new way—not to champion his beliefs, but to obscure them.
Lead photo by Tony Valainis; family photo courtesy Mike Pence; Pence and Boehner photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images; and Pence on truck AP photo/Michael Conroy.
This article appeared in the January 2013 issue.