Debate Watch: Here's what you need to know about Indiana's governor before the big debate

Posted at 6:00 AM, Oct 04, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-04 11:21:34-04

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump may grab all the headlines, but it’s his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, that will be in the spotlight Tuesday during the Vice Presidential Debate.

Pence will square off against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.

Both candidates bring executive experience to the table: Kaine, 58, is the former governor of Virginia and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee; Pence succeeded former Republican Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels after defeating Democrat John Gregg in 2012.

Pence’s decision to run as the Republican Party’s nominee for vice president removed him from the Indiana governor’s race. Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb has stepped in as the Republican nominee running against Gregg in this year’s Indiana gubernatorial election.

Though Pence will finish up his first and only term as governor at the end of the year, he’s an experienced politician, having served in congressional leadership roles during his six terms as a member of the House of Representatives.

Viewers will immediately notice a contrast in styles between Pence and Trump when the former takes to the podium Tuesday night. Pence has a reputation for sticking to the script during public speaking engagements, and rarely strays from his talking points.

Here’s what voters outside of Indiana may not know about Pence:

A balanced ticket:

Pence has solid, conservative bona fides, and he’s been consistent on the issues, said Andy Downs, Director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

“He helps bring the base back to the ticket,” Downs said.

Adding Pence to the ticket could be a means of extending an olive branch to social conservatives for Trump, who has made past comments that weren’t well received by the voting bloc. Pence also could get the Koch brothers to open up their wallets for Trump, something the presumptive Republican nominee hasn’t been able to do himself.

But then again...

Perhaps Pence could be too socially conservative for some voters.

Pence’s decision to sign the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015 drew the ire of business leaders and the LGBT community alike. Critics of the bill said its wording would allow businesses to discriminate against gay and transgender people.

After national backlash that included calls to boycott the state, Pence signed an additional bill that amended the RFRA to include LGBT protections, which didn’t sit well with Pence’s social conservative base.

“It basically put him in a no-win situation,” Downs said.

Presidential aspirations 

Pence has long been believed to have his heart set on becoming president. As a congressman, Pence pursued leadership positions, both within the Republican Party and on congressional committees. He was the vice-chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia, as well as the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution. In 2009, Pence was unanimously elected chairman of the Republican Conference, making him the third-highest ranking Republican in the House of Representatives.

His decision to run for governor of Indiana was seen by his critics as a move to bolster his presidential resume. His decision to give speeches in other states during the early years of his governorship did nothing to diminish those critiques. 

“A lot of people would say that in his first couple of years in office, he was actually running for president,” Downs said.

He tried to create a state news agency

Virtually all state-level government organizations try to direct the conversation by employing public relations professionals and issuing press releases. But in a move roundly panned by state and national media, Pence tried to take it a step further.

In January 2015, his administration announced “JustIN,” a state-run news website that would feature breaking news and feature stories.

“The problem was, it appeared to be a very blatant attempt to get around the media,” Downs said. Pence, himself a former member of the media, later scrapped the plan.

His poll numbers weren’t great at home 

Pence’s approval rating among his Indiana constituents was at about 40 percent when the Trump campaign announced Pence’s addition to the ticket.

Pence's lead over his then-opponent in the Indiana gubernatorial race, Gregg — the same opponent he defeated four years ago — was about 4 points, within the margin of error. Additionally, Pence’s decision to sign a law that banned abortions motivated by fetal genetic abnormalities — which has since been blocked by a federal court — lost him support among women, including female Republicans in the statehouse.

But that may not hurt Trump, who has a perception issue among women of his own to combat.