Mike Pence has spent more than a decade courting the deep-pocketed small-government cadre that has come to dominate Republican politics: The Koch brothers, the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation.
He turned their heads by opposing President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education bill in 2001; captured their imagination by leading a revolt against the expansion of Medicare into prescription drug coverage in 2003; and won their loyalty with a 2004 speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference that took the GOP to task for “veering off course” into “big-government Republicanism.”
Now, Pence is in his second year as governor of Indiana, and some of the very same Republicans who once thought of the former radio talk-show host as their voice on the U.S. House floor want him in the 2016 Republican presidential contest.
“I have no doubt that he would make a great president,” said Steven Chancellor, the chief executive officer of Evansville, Indiana-based American Patriot Group, the parent of a company that makes ready-to-eat rations for the Pentagon. “He certainly distinguished himself in the House” and is “off to a great start as governor.”
White knight or dark horse, Republicans are searching for a candidate who can unite the party’s pro-business establishment with its small-government activists, particularly now that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s bridge scandal has left a void in the presidential field. Pence’s allies say the temperate-toned executive has a record that pleases the staunchest defense hawks, anti-tax groups and abortion-rights opponents.
Pence is “extremely well thought of on the conservative side and has a lot of support from the mainstream, as well,” said Chancellor, who has encouraged Pence to run “in subtle ways,” even though he also likes former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and South Dakota Senator John Thune as prospective candidates.
Part of the challenge for Pence, 54, is that he would have to distinguish himself from a bumper crop of Republican governors with longer records who are also potential candidates. They include Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Texas Governor Rick Perry, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Bush. Grover Norquist, president of the Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform, said Pence has to answer this question after just slightly more than a year running Indiana: “How do I compete with people who have done a whole bunch?”
And even though he’s a favorite of some of the wealthiest Republican donors, many of those contributors have also given to other potential Republican hopefuls.
Pence said last week that he’s listening to those who want him to run for president, and his campaign reports show he can raise enough money to compete.
When he ran for governor, billionaire industrialist David H. Koch poured $200,000 into the campaign, according to Indiana campaign finance records. Angie’s List co-founder Bill Oesterle of Indianapolis kicked in $100,000, and Waltham, Massachusetts-based buyout specialist J.W. Childs added $50,000 to Pence’s coffers.
“We’ve had people talking about that with us,” Pence told the newsletter Howey Politics Indiana of a possible presidential bid. “Our decision on making any kind of decision on re-election will come sometime in the next calendar year.”
Until recently, Pence had been unwilling to entertain the possibility of a 2016 run, content instead to wait for the 2020 election cycle.
After lowering his national profile during his gubernatorial campaign and his first year in office, Pence is emerging anew.
He spoke at the Washington-based Club for Growth’s annual conference in Florida in February and, during a trade visit to Europe this week, he is expected to criticize President Barack Obama for failing to counter the annexation of Crimea by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Five years ago, Pence scolded Obama for revising President George W. Bush’s missile defense plan in Eastern Europe because Russia opposed it.
“The first nine months of the Obama administration have emboldened rogue dictators across the globe, and now an increasingly antagonistic Russia has been rewarded for bullying and threatening its neighbors,” Pence said at the time.
Pence has won praise from small-government conservatives for taking action in Indiana to back away from Common Core education standards supported by another potential Republican candidate, Florida’s Bush. The Washington-based Heritage Foundation, in a Facebook posting, applauded him for rejecting Common Core.
His allies say Pence has developed bonds with the major constituencies within the Republican Party -- the small-government crowd, anti-abortion rights groups, and defense hawks -- without alienating business-oriented voters. His lifetime rating from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest corporate trade group, was 89 percent in 2012, according to Montana-based Project Vote Smart.
In Washington, he served first as chairman of the Republican Study Committee in the House, now home to many tea-party aligned lawmakers, and later won the post of Republican Conference Chairman, the third-ranking leadership position when the party was in the minority.
It’s the names on Pence’s donor list that show he has the potential to mount a serious bid for the Republican nomination. The roster includes Koch-aligned political contributors such as Childs, Fred Klipsch, the chairman of Klipsch Lanham Investments in Indianapolis, Philadelphia-based philanthropist John Templeton Jr., and Ridgefield, Connecticut-based Northern Tier Energy Chairman Paul Foster.
Americans for Prosperity, an anti-tax group underwritten by Koch and his brother Charles -- the fifth and sixth wealthiest people in the world, according to data compiled by Bloomberg -- opened up an Indiana chapter.
The group ran ads supporting Pence’s election and then his policies once he became governor, getting results.
In one ad aired in early last year, AFP criticized the Republican-controlled Indiana state House for releasing a budget that ignored Pence’s proposal to cut the state’s 3.4 percent state income tax by 10 percent -- to 3.06 percent.
The ads helped pressure state GOP lawmakers, who ultimately met Pence in the middle and phased in a 5 percent cut to the tax. With a few state-level policy victories under his belt, Pence’s return to the national political debate will test his ability to stand out in a full field of Republicans.
“The question is what is he ready to show when that spotlight shines on him,” Norquist said.