“Donald Trump beat me like a drum,” Governor Mike Pence told reporters on Sunday, before attending an outdoor Independence Day concert in Fishers, Indiana. Pence was talking about how he fared in a round with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee at Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey the previous day.
Off the course, however, Trump isn’t beating Pence, but boosting him. “Spent time with Indiana Governor Mike Pence and family yesterday,” Trump tweeted Sunday. “Very impressed, great people!”
Last May, in the wake of the RFRA blowback, journalists were writing Pence’s national political obituary. At times, the press clips were so negative, the governor joked that he opened the morning’s newspaper with a 10-foot stick.
A little more than a year later, Pence is poised to ride the chemtrails of Trump Force One back to national relevance, becoming the latest in a long line of Hoosier pols to be considered—or selected—for vice president. (Only New York has produced more VPs than Indiana.)
In what could be a political shotgun wedding for the ages, Pence has emerged as a finalist in Trump’s veepstakes, with two other short-listers—senators Joni Ernst of Iowa and Bob Corker of Tennessee—appearing to drop out this week. Ernst threw her support behind Pence. “I will admit that I am a Mike Pence fan,” she told Politico. “He is so well-rounded, served as a governor, and I think he’s a great conservative. So I don’t think he could go wrong.”
In her comments, Ernst captured the fast-emerging conventional wisdom that Pence checks all the boxes Trump needs to address with his choice of a running mate.
“He may well be the perfect complement to Donald Trump,” says Tom John, an Indianapolis Republican and one of the State Republican Central Committee members who would select Pence’s replacement should he become Trump’s running mate. “The more I look at it, the more I see why Trump would want Pence.”
A rock-ribbed social conservative, Pence has positioned himself as a Diet Ted Cruz. (“I’m a conservative,” Pence often says, “but I’m not angry about it.”) He may represent Trump’s last best shot at anything resembling a unity ticket. In Pence, Trump would not only gain an ambassador to the GOP’s Tea Partiers, but also a backchannel to the more establishment wing of the party and to Capitol Hill. Beyond Pence’s social- and fiscal-conservative bona fides, Pence offers Trump a sunny-but-disciplined messenger. In some ways, he provides the perfect vanilla backdrop for Trump—a candidate whose steady demeanor might accentuate Trump’s mercurial ways. In contrast to bombasts such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich—both said to be on Trump’s veep list, as well—Pence is far more low-key.
Where Pence may not help Trump? With women voters, 70 percent of whom already hold an unfavorable view of The Donald. If Trump names Pence as his running mate, look for Hillary Clinton to attack Pence over Indiana’s new abortion law and seize on the uproar spearheaded by protest groups such as Periods for Pence.
In Indiana, the opportunity to replace Pence on the ticket could allow the state’s Republicans to reframe what’s shaping up to be a gubernatorial dogfight with Democrat John Gregg. A candidate like former Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, for example, who spoke out against RFRA, could undermine Gregg’s central argument around repealing the controversial law.
Trump has reportedly set a July 15 deadline to announce his pick. He will return to Indiana—a state he dubbed “Importantville” during the primary—for a July 12 fundraiser at the Columbia Club in Indianapolis. Pence will attend the fundraiser as well, says Marc Lotter, his deputy campaign manager. In the reality-TV parlance Trump is familiar with, one might say the Columbia Club rendezvous is Pence’s hometown date.
If Pence gets picked, next Wednesday through Friday could become three of the most interesting days in the history of Indiana politics, setting off a Game of Thrones–like power scramble within the state GOP. “Incredible chaos will break out in Indiana Republican politics if this happens,” Republican State Representative Dave Ober tweeted on Wednesday. Wannabe GOP gubernatorial candidates would essentially have until the end of the workweek to make their cases to the state GOP Central Committee to replace Pence on the ballot.
Possible Pence substitutes could include Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, State Senator Jim Merritt, Lieutenant Governor Eric Holcomb, Congressman Todd Rokita, and Congresswoman Susan Brooks, according to one high-ranking Indiana Republican contacted by IM, who adds that, for the time being, party members are being “respectful” of Pence and making few—if any—phone calls about possible gubernatorial candidacies. But that might change next week: A Pence-to-veep move would potentially be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to run for the state’s highest office without having to schlep through an expensive primary campaign. Keep in mind, too, that Pence could have an outsized role in picking his successor, as he sits on a $7 million war chest, some of which he could transfer to a candidate of his choice.
“I have made no calls,” Merritt told IM in a brief phone conversation. “I haven’t lifted a finger. I have not done anything to promote a candidacy for myself.”
Ballard is reportedly not ruling out a gubernatorial run, either. “It’s entirely premature,” according to one source who is close to Ballard and has spoken to him recently. “But are people reaching out to him based on his record as mayor? Yes.”
Meanwhile, Indiana Democrats have attacked Pence for schmoozing with Trump. Party Chairman John Zody, for example, has said Pence “wants to hit the ejection button so he can avoid campaigning on his failed tenure as governor.” (“Laughable,” Lotter says.)
Of course, the Pence-for-VP chatter could be a political head-fake by Trump, who late Wednesday told Fox News that his short list had 10 people, including “some names that haven’t surfaced yet who have actually called me.”
“We’ll just have to see what happens,” Merritt says.