News and Tribune

April 14, 2014

HOWEY: Mike Pence for president? Stay tuned

By BRIAN HOWEY
Indiana columnist

INDIANAPOLIS — Mike Pence for president?

The swirl of 2016 national ticket talk surrounding Gov. Pence intensified over the past few weeks. I sat down with the governor in his office on Tuesday to find out what he’s really thinking. A few hours prior, the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol had anointed Pence and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as presidential timber. Twenty-four hours later, his Chief of Staff Bill Smith resigned to set up his own political consulting group with Pence as his first client. And four hours after our chat, Gov. Pence received the “Outstanding Achievement in State Tax Reform Award” from the National Tax Foundation, which always looks good on a Republican presidential resume.

The most obvious path, though it involves lightning-strike statistical odds, is that a Chris Christie, Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz wins the nomination and needs a social conservative with gubernatorial and Midwestern credentials to balance a ticket.

The second potential scenario is the kind of void that created Bill Clinton in 1992 and John McCain in 2008. That’s when the biggest names — the Cuomos, Rockefellers, Bushes, Bradleys or Kennedys — don’t run. Right now, all eyes are on Jeb Bush.

I posed two questions to Pence:  Do you believe you’re ready for a national ticket? And under what scenario might that come about?”

“Well, what I can tell you is I really haven’t spent any time thinking about any other job than serving the people of Indiana as governor,” Pence said in his Statehouse office, foiling this writer’s attempt to move him beyond the well-worn talking point.

Then Pence made it interesting.

“But we’ve had people talking about that with us,” the governor said. “With regard to the other aspects to your question, I would just say, our decision on making any kind of decision on reelection will come sometime in the next calendar year.”

Late last year, senior Pence administration officials suggested the classic “follow the money” on Indiana campaign and Federal Election Commission reports. Pence’s Indiana campaign finance filing was $1,354,038.63 in contributions and $491,610.51 in expenses. He had a year-end cash-on-hand balance of $1.357 million. As for Pence’s FEC accounts, the Mike Pence Committee had a balance of only $4,736, and his Win Back American PAC showed a balance of $5,210.

The easy conclusion to reach was that Pence was firmly preparing for a reelection. Bill Smith explained, “He’s not in any way proactively doing anything nationally. He’s listening to people. He hears people out. In the mean time, he’s moving forward with being governor of Indiana. No other plans are in the works.”

But Pence and his staff are now in the process of rekindling the possibility.

National figures like Gary Bauer, the Koch brothers and Kristol were all talking about Pence for 2016. Bauer called Pence a potentially “formidable” candidate. Politico quoted Pence pollster Kellyanne Conway as saying, “One thing that surprises me is who is urging Gov. Pence to consider the presidency. It goes beyond his inner circle to folks I’d have thought were already committed to other candidates.”

The ticket talk cuts two ways. Being viewed as a potential nominee can enhance a politician’s stature at home. But it can also prompt people to view everything he does within the context of an ambitious motive.

“I understand the interest in who we’re talking to and I’ll leave you to your own devices on that,” Pence said. “We’ve had people reach out. We’re very fortunate to have friends around the country who appreciate the leadership we’re providing here.”

“But I will say, in all honesty, any interest in me is as much a reflection in the progress Indiana has made as it is with me or my leadership,” the governor continued. “I really believe that. When you look at the fact our state has seen unemployment decline, lowest in Midwest. When you see the education choice opportunities, when you see what we’re doing in the area of workforce, career and education, Indiana is leading the nation in that. When you look at what we’re able to do with education funding and infrastructure funding, Indiana really stands out.

The governor then laid out the skeletal steel framework of a potential national candidacy, based on what might be called from his viewpoint the “Indiana miracle.”

Pence explained, “I said look, it’s about common sense, it’s about living within your means, it’s about letting people keep more of what they earn, it’s about promoting economic freedom, it’s about promoting educational opportunity on the basis of equality, it’s about having roads and bridges and infrastructure to support growth, and it’s about having a workforce that is attuned to the strengths of your economy.”

He points to the 8.6 percent jobless rate he inherited in January 2015, and how it has fallen to 6.1 percent in February. That’s what is attracting attention.

Does Pence believe he is ready for national office? He’s already been the third ranking Republican in the U.S. House.

“The last year and a half has been an extraordinary learning experience for me,” said Pence, who had been urged by supporters to build up his executive resume after a brief presidential flirtation in 2010-11. “I have enjoyed and benefited.”

Mike Pence for president?

Stay tuned.

— Brian Howey publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.