Executive Decision: Will Mike Pence Run for President in 2016?
Against a patriotic backdrop in the White River Ballroom at the JW Marriott last fall, Governor Mike Pence once again encountered the question that has followed him more closely than his security detail lately. Pence had just arrived onstage for a conversation with Steve Forbes—the two-time Republican candidate for president, Pence ally, and chairman and editor-in-chief of his eponymous media company. Forbes was in town to emcee The Innovation Summit, a confab of venture capitalists, business leaders, and local entrepreneurs such as ExactTarget’s former CEO, Scott Dorsey.
Forbes’s interview with Pence was designed as a friendly political set piece. He introduced the Indiana governor by praising his common touch. Throughout his time onstage, Pence batted softballs about the midterm election results, Indiana’s investments in infrastructure, healthcare reform, and the state’s increasingly attractive tax structure for businesses. But first, Forbes had to ask Pence The Question.
“Will you be telling us today whether you are running for president of the U.S.?” Forbes probed. “And if not, when will your share your decision with us and the world?”
That’s the question on the minds of a lot of Hoosier Republicans right now—and some national ones, too. In November, the inside-the-Beltway news organization Politico ranked Pence No. 13 on a list of 20 GOPers most likely to seek their party’s nomination. (No. 1 was Kentucky Senator Rand Paul; No. 20 was Mitt Romney.) It’s also the question that, by all accounts, is still two frustrating months away from an answer. Pence has said repeatedly that he will make his decision in April, after the current session of the Indiana General Assembly adjourns—the same timetable that former Governor Mitch Daniels laid out in 2011, a year before he ultimately decided against a 2012 presidential bid.
Ahead of that announcement, though, Pence’s closest advisers and allies insist that they are genuinely in the dark about whether Pence will run, and—whatever his decision in April—have received marching orders to move forward with a gubernatorial reelection bid.
When Pence’s longtime congressional chief of staff Bill Smith decamped from the Statehouse last May to run Sextons Creek, his own public-affairs and strategic-communications firm, it seemed liked the kind of move that presaged a presidential bid. A trusted adviser—his closest, according to one former Pence aide—freed of his daily responsibilities to focus on his principal’s political future. But when reached by phone, Smith was busy taking classes to become a certified life coach.
“With this new business, Pence is one of my clients, and so I do advise him on political matters,” he says. “But I’m actually trying to expand into more of a ministry-based area, working with people in need. That’s sort of where my heart has been leading me lately.”
Sure, Smith is still helping an old friend when he needs it. But he isn’t actively courting national reporters ahead of a possible presidential campaign, the way Daniels’s aides were doing at this point in the 2012 cycle.
Pence’s lack of presidential planning at this stage puts him behind where Daniels was.
“Mostly because there’s not much to talk about, to be honest with you,” Smith says. “What Pence has said is pretty much what the truth is. I have a friend at The Indianapolis Star who said, ‘Hey, can we get together and talk about a possible presidential bid?’ And I said, ‘If you’re looking for anything new, you’re not going to get it. It might be a bit disappointing.’”
Pence truly is focused on the current legislative session, Smith claims. He downplays a flurry of Pence media appearances and out-of-state travel last fall. “He had to do a lot of traveling around the country just before the election because of his leadership role at the Republican Governors Association,” Smith says, referencing Pence’s assignment to the body’s executive committee. “A lot of people read into that simply because he hasn’t slammed the door shut.”
But Pence’s lack of presidential planning at this stage puts him behind where his predecessor, Daniels, was in 2010. An insider account of Daniels’s jockeying for his party’s nomination in 2012 is documented in the recently released book Run Mitch, Run, by family friend Don Cogman. In the first-person account, Cogman, who marshaled a kitchen cabinet of eight Daniels acolytes steering him toward a possible 2012 campaign, portrays a politician much closer to seeking the presidency than the version chronicled in news reports.
The group’s first official meeting took place on October 21, 2009, over a round of golf at Augusta National Golf Club. Weeks before they met, Cogman sent a memo to Daniels asking pointed questions that needed answers—and soon. “Do you have a pollster, ad firm, Federal Election Commission lawyer?” These, Cogman suggested, were nuts-and-bolts positions Daniels needed to have filled far in advance of a run.
Before Thanksgiving of 2010, Daniels had drafted an early version of his hypothetical campaign book—the business card of a politician trying to grab more national exposure and set forth his thinking. He was emailing and plotting with a group of close advisers. He had met with hundreds of potential donors at the Indiana governor’s residence. He had lined up an FEC lawyer and selected a potential campaign manager and finance chairman. He had scheduled monthly strategy meetings.
But as of Christmas, Pence’s former FEC attorney had not even talked to him, and both she and his pollster said they were not familiar with his 2016 plans. And his ad-maker, Rex Elsass, an old friend whose Columbus, Ohio–area firm The Strategy Group cut ads for Pence’s congressional and gubernatorial campaigns, threw his support behind Senator Rand Paul, for whom he will work as a media consultant ahead of 2016.
Cleta Mitchell, the preeminent Republican FEC lawyer who has worked with Forbes, Daniels, and even Pence in the past, says she has been approached by a couple of 2016ers, but that the Indiana governor was not among them. For Pence, an April decision probably would not be too late. But if he’s serious, he would likely seek the advice of an FEC attorney before then, and the fact that Mitchell hasn’t heard anything is telling.
The strongest argument for running is that no GOP frontrunner has established himself.
Pence’s pollster Kellyanne Conway, who has also served candidates such as Dan Quayle, Fred Thompson, and Newt Gingrich, says she fields the presidential question several times a week from Republican donors and strategists who want to know whether they should keep their powder dry. Those who ask fall into two groups: those who fear Pence will run and do better than their guy, and those who fear Pence won’t run at all. To the former group, her praise for him is glowing. To the latter group, she tells them to take him at his word. “He has said he is praying and thinking on it,” she says, “and will decide after the legislative session in the spring.”
It’s certainly possible that Pence is taking calculated steps for the presidency behind closed doors. If he does decide to run, though, the political tell will likely be increased trips to Iowa, where his social- conservative credentials could play well in the January 2016 caucuses. But he had better get there soon, according to Doug Gross, a Republican activist in Iowa who served as co-chair of George W. Bush’s state finance operation and chaired Romney’s 2008 campaign in Iowa. “He’s not really top of mind with most Iowa Republicans right now,” Gross says. “He would need to spend a fair amount of time up here so people get to know him. He’s perceived as a competent, capable conservative, but I don’t think a lot of people know who he is.”
Among the most concerning indicators for supporters that Pence will pass on the presidency came after November’s election. The Indiana politician, along with South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, was trotted out as a possible chair of the Republican Governors Association. Days later, in a conversation with current chair Chris Christie, Pence begged off. “While I was honored to be approached about taking a leadership position in the Republican Governors Association, my focus is on serving the people of Indiana and working with legislators in our state to ensure a successful 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly,” he told The Washington Post.
News of Pence backing away from the position caught politicos like Gross off guard. “Mitt Romney and Chris Christie both used [the RGA] as launching pads for their presidential ambitions,” he says. “If Pence desired to pursue the presidency, that would be a natural move. It would have given him access to a nationwide fundraising network.”
These hints don’t guarantee that Pence won’t run, of course. His greatest strength, spectators say, is that he could be a potential unity candidate for a divided Republican party. Especially as a late, dark-horse entrant in a bloody nomination battle. “The thing about Pence is, he doesn’t scare anyone,” says Conway of the politician’s palatable reputation with voters.
And the Indiana governor has proven to be a capable fundraiser when he needs to be. In 2012, he received $200,000 in contributions from billionaire David Koch and another $5,000 from Koch Industries, headed by David and his brother Charles. Marc Short, who worked closely with Pence in the House Republican Conference, now works for the Koch brothers. “Pence is one of the better-liked conservatives in their network,” says Matt Mackowiak, a national GOP media consultant who has worked for Short.
Perhaps the strongest argument for running, though, is that no clear GOP frontrunner has established himself. Even though Pence appears to be behind where his predecessor was at this point in the election cycle, he could still enter as late as August, as former Texas governor Rick Perry did in 2011.
“You can go later and later before making an announcement these days,” says Michael Wolf, an associate professor of political science at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne. “I guess I would be surprised if he didn’t run. The candidates who have announced don’t all have the same portfolio he has with the different wings of the party.”
Back in the White River Ballroom that day in November, Pence handled Forbes’s big question with his usual sunny, aw-shucks optimism. “To be honest with you, I’m a small-town guy from Southern Indiana with a cornfield in my backyard,” the governor said. “To be mentioned for the highest office in the land is deeply humbling to me. I’ll try to stay focused on the futures of the people of this state, and my future will take care of itself.”
Without missing a beat, Forbes shot back. “I think Ronald Reagan said the same thing.”