The mocking began shortly after a memo leaked from Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s office revealing plans for a state-run news agency to distribute prepackaged articles for local papers.
“Pravda on the Plains,” some called it, likening the idea to a Soviet-style propaganda machine. The state House speaker, a fellow Republican, brought a Russian dictionary to a news conference to poke fun at the plan. When Pence appeared on a popular conservative radio show to tamp down the controversy, the host begged him for assurances that nothing that “smells, sounds, tastes or looks anything like this is going to pop up again.”
Pence soon withdrew the proposal — one of several politically damaging moments that pointed to a bigger problem of his tenure as governor. A series of reversals, such as championing and then pushing to change an “religious freedom” law and changing his mind on whether to reject federal education money, chipped away at his standing with voters. And although Pence had run for office in 2012 as a restrained wonk focused on jobs and business despite his earlier reputation as an ideologue, he instead picked fights over conservative causes that strained relations with lawmakers.
While Donald Trump introduced his new running mate Saturday as “a highly talented executive leading the state of Indiana to jobs, growth and opportunity,” the picture of Pence that emerges from his gubernatorial tenure shows a man who struggled under the spotlight to find his identity as a Republican within today’s fractured versions of conservatism.
Pence’s standing in his home state was so shaky that polls showed him in a neck-and-neck race for re-election in his heavily Republican state, with voters’ memories of the religious freedom controversy that has come to symbolize Pence’s tentative leadership.
“There was no real vision or follow-through on that issue,” said Joshua Claybourn, an Evansville and Republican activist.
“If Mike Pence wanted to take a particular issue and carry it forward, it wasn’t done successfully,” added Claybourn, who recently resigned as a GOP convention delegate out of opposition to Trump. “There was a lack of controlling the agenda.”
Brian Howey, an Indiana political analyst who runs a popular website, said Pence’s ascent to the national stage is probably a relief for many of the state’s Republicans, who feared that the governor’s race was going to be a referendum on Pence’s first term.
“The national Republicans seem to be completely overlooking the fact that he had a very controversial and polarizing first term in Indiana,” he said.
Before he became governor, Pence, 57, spent 12 years in the U.S. House carving out an image as a conservative true-believer. He doubted climate change, and supported the Iraq War. He aligned himself closely with the tea party movement that helped propel the GOP to the House majority in 2010.
In Congress — one member out of 435 — it was easier to avoid situations that forced him to choose between different strands of conservatism.
When he ran to replace the popular and pragmatic Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), Pence played down his past as a culture warrior and emphasized his business credentials, unveiling a “Roadmap for Indiana” that promised lower taxes, less red tape and more affordable higher education.
“If we make job creation Job 1, Indiana will be the state that works,” Pence said in a campaign commercial set in a factory.
He won, by three points.
Pence’s staff in Indiana did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Trump on Saturday credited Pence for the state’s falling unemployment rate, and other backers say Pence notched accomplishments in expanding Medicaid and prekindergarten while improving worker training and building a budget surplus.
“He’s a quick study,” said David Long (R), president of the Indiana state Senate, referring to Pence’s transition in 2013 from a career in Congress to the governor’s office. “By the end of his first year, I remember turning to people and saying, ‘He’s the governor.’ You know? He’s doing a great job, he’s in charge, and he’s grown in the position.”
Pence, in accepting Trump’s invitation Saturday, touted his state’s healthy budget and job gains on his watch as evidence that “Republican principles work every time you put them into practice.”
“In Indiana, we prove every day you can build a growing economy on balanced budgets, low taxes, even while making record investments in education, roads and health care,” he said.
But as governor, Pence has found it harder than before to be steadily conservative, as parts of the old conservative coalition were moving steadily further apart.
The most famous example of that was the 2015 controversy over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Pence signed it, after objections rights groups and threats by companies to pull business from the state.
After the signing, the objections increased.
Pence wound up in the national spotlight.
A few days later, they changed it.
Pence signed a revised law. Pence continued, however, to say that the original law had been misunderstood.
Business groups were left feeling that Pence had been reactive, whiplashed by the legislature. Groups that had supported the law were left feeling that they’d been abandoned.
Pence has since signed other measures supported by religious conservatives. But the distrust from the 2015 religious freedom fight lingers.
“He’s not just a coward, but a quisling,” said Steve Deace, an Iowa radio host, referring to a Norwegian traitor who collaborated with the Nazis in World War II.
Pence has also struggled to reconcile his belief in limited government – “I was tea party before it was cool,” he once said – with his own ambitions as governor.
In several cases, he was forced to reverse course.
One such embarrassing moment came after the Indianapolis Star broke the news of the Pence administration’s plan for a state-run news agency.
Even the Republican state House speaker joined in the ribbing. “I do have a new Russian version that will be coming out shortly,” speaker Brian Bosma told the Daily Beast. The Star reported that he used the Russian dictionary as a prop to crack that the program prompted him to direct his staff to work on their language skills.
Pence seemed caught off guard and not firmly in control of his own office as he sought to distance himself from a memo laying out plans for an extensive operation of editors and writers.
“How does an idea that’s that antithetical to what you were setting out to do go that far?” radio talk show host Greg Garrison asked Pence when the governor appeared on air.
Pence called the idea a well-intentioned effort to promote transparency in government but said it was a staff effort that he learned about only in the media. “I had only passing knowledge of this project, as you might suspect,” Pence said.
In the end, he killed it.
– – –
In another case, Pence first rejected federal funding to expand an early education program in Indiana – then reversed himself, more than a year later, as polls showed the program was popular. He asked for the money.
On a different issue, Pence started out in the other direction. When he proposed a 10 percent cut in the income tax rate, other Republicans thought that was too much and that they’d be left to fix the hole in the state’s budget.
“We’d like to be heroes and cut taxes,” said state Sen. Luke Kenley (R), a chief budget writer, at the time, according to local news accounts. “You also need to be prepared to take care of your priorities, and you need to have enough money to do that.”
Pence said he’d barnstorm the state for his idea.
It didn’t work.
The legislature eventually adopted a smaller cut than Pence had advocated, which he described as a “great victory.”
Corporate support for Pence returned since the religious freedom debate. Many executives in the state credit Pence with continuing an era of economic advancement for Indiana.
“Gov. Pence has a strong record of supporting a pro-jobs, pro-economy agenda, including reducing our corporate income tax rate and maintaining a strong fiscal balance sheet for the state,” said Kevin Brinegar, president and chief executive of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. “On core business issues, he has been very strong.”
Still, Brinegar and other corporate leaders said that Pence’s approach to the religious freedom bill and other social issues was a concern. “That was a disappointment to business,” Brinegar said.
Michael Maurer, chairman of the board of the National Bank of Indianapolis and a former commerce secretary under Daniels, said Pence lost his support because of his “toxic positions” on social issues and his initial opposition to taking the federal education dollars.
“Every one of the CEOs that I have had an opportunity to discuss this with in Indiana says – to a man – that they have concern about Pence’s approach on these social issues,” Maurer said.
One case in which Pence angered conservatives – but did not reverse himself – had to do with Medicaid, the federal health-benefit program for the poor.
Pence accepted an Obama administration offer of federal money to expand Medicaid in Indiana. That meant taking advantage of the Affordable Care Act, the health-care overhaul that is hated by many conservatives – and that Pence has said he wants to repeal.
Pence added tweaks to Indiana’s version, designed to make the law more conservative-friendly. Indiana, for instance, requires that poor residents pay some premiums for health coverage instead of getting it for free.
Pence’s decision pleased Democrats.
Now, it may please them even more. With Pence on the ticket with Trump, Democrats would like to use this decision against him – to remind other Republicans about Pence’s struggles to stay on the right side of conservative orthodoxy.
Asked on Friday about Pence’s selection as the GOP vice-presidential nominee, White House press secretary Josh Earnest described him as the “Medicaid-expanding Mike Pence.”