Conservative insiders were not surprised by Indiana Republican Mike Pence’s decision not to run for president in 2012, but all agree his bowing out leaves the GOP nomination — in the phrase used again and again — “wide open.”
One source familiar with the effort to recruit Pence tells National Review Online that while Pence “could have united the conservative movement,” his departure leaves a Republican field that “is never going to be as wide-open again.”
“In six years or ten years it’s going to be an incredibly full field: The 2012 field is the Washington Nationals. Subsequent fields will be the 1927 New York Yankees,” the source says.
“The question is: Does this cause people to rethink? Does this make Jim DeMint rethink? Does anyone who feels disappointed in the current field rethink? It’s never been easier or cheaper to communicate with millions of people.”
While ruling himself out, Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) agreed, telling NRO that with the congressman gone as a paragon of “pro-growth, limited-government” conservatism, “there will be a lot of surprises” in terms of who jumps into the race.
According to sources close to Pence with knowledge of Indiana politics, a number of factors influenced the congressman’s decision to forgo a presidential run and instead turn his attention toward a possible gubernatorial run.
One source who met with Pence several times over the last few months tells NRO the conservative Hoosier “was extremely torn while he deliberated.” Another who met with Pence feels his heart was never completely in a bid for president.
Someone close to Pence explains that “the people closest to him, the friends and people he knew best from Indiana, wanted to see him come back to Indiana.” By contrast, “the support for him to run nationally was in large part from leaders of the national conservative movement” — who perhaps didn’t have the same sway as his longtime supporters.
Pence’s young family — he has three school-aged children — were also a factor in his decision, according to this source.
Then there was the difficult timing and the uncertainty of a presidential run. Because of his relatively low name recognition, the window for Pence to begin a blitz on early battleground states was closing rapidly. He would have had to kick into high campaign gear quickly — and without knowing whether Sarah Palin or other conservatives might jump into the race and overshadow him in his quest for the Tea Party vote.
Compared with all that, a run for governor seems simple. With the announcements that neither former senator Evan Bayh (D.) nor current lieutenant governor Becky Skillman (R.) would run to succeed Mitch Daniels, Pence, 51, became easily the most well-known, and well-liked, of potential candidates.
Indeed, the Republican Governors Association has been aggressively recruiting Pence to hold the Indiana executive mansion. RGA head Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and vice chairman Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia both put in calls to Pence urging a run.
Pence is unlikely to officially announce a gubernatorial bid anytime soon, since declared candidates aren’t allowed to raise money until April 30 (whereas Pence can continue to raise money as a member of Congress).
But Indiana senator Dan Coats tells NRO that if and when Pence does announce, he will enter the governor’s race as the frontrunner.
“He is clearly someone who could carry on the remarkable success of Mitch Daniels,” Coats says. “I am going to strongly encourage him to run. I know he’s going to take a little time to assess it, but I hope he’s our next governor.”
Club for Growth communications director Mike Connolly puts it in even more certain terms: “Washington’s loss is Indiana’s gain.” Connolly speaks as if Pence’s gubernatorial run — and victory — were a fait accompli.
“Although Mike Pence would have been a very attractive presidential candidate, it is obvious this is the right decision for him and his family right now. He will be a great successor to Mitch Daniels,” Connolly says.
Curt Smith, president of the Indiana Family Institute, agrees, saying he’s “very encouraged by the news that [Pence] is coming home” and assumes Pence will run for the governorship. The move, Smith says, makes sense “given the season of life he’s in.”
“He’s still a relatively young man,” Smith explains. “Indiana has a lot to show the nation. It’s not a question of ‘Do you want to contribute to national life or be governor of Indiana?’ If he’s governor of Indiana and delivers a message of full-throated conservatism, a faith-inspired message, that is going to resonate.”
One longtime GOP presidential-campaign adviser supportive of Mitt Romney puts it more bluntly: “Hanging around waiting for the Tea Party to find you should Romney stumble is hardly a proven nominating strategy. But being a movement conservative from the American heartland with two successful gubernatorial terms under your belt is more Reaganesque than — Reagan.”
Vin Weber, who is a Tim Pawlenty adviser, is an admirer of Pence. “I’m not surprised,” he says. “I think it’s the right decision for him.”
“There was not a path for him to become a significant player,” Weber continues, “other than to accept the role of the social-conservative candidate, and he’s much broader than that. I think he has reserved a bright national future for himself.”
What does this do to the field? “His decision leaves the field as open as it was before,” Weber says. “If he had gotten in, he could have significantly shaken it up, especially in Iowa. He would have changed the equation in Iowa a lot, maybe have become the frontrunner. Now, everything remains wide open.”
Another Republican strategist comments, “I’m not sure Mitch runs. I’m not sure [South Dakota senator John] Thune runs. The field may not be as big as I originally thought.”
He sees Pence’s absence leaving a hole: “The interest in him does reflect that he was kind of filling a demand in the field. He was very much on the message of the moral critique of what is going on with the Obama agenda, without sounding moralistic. It leaves a little bit of a void.”
“It’s tough for a House member to run for president,” this strategist continues, “and it looks like he will waltz into the governorship of Indiana. He must be thinking, ‘I’ve got time, and it’s a lot easier to run as the governor of Indiana than as a House member from anywhere.’”
The source close to Pence agrees. As governor, he’ll be able “to build a larger following and donor base” and address “the punditry that says you need executive experience.”
And yet, the source acknowledges, this may be a unique moment in presidential-campaign history. “I concede he may not be able to replicate this environment. He may not get this opportunity again.”
— Daniel Foster is NRO’s news editor. Robert Costa and Rich Lowry contributed reporting for this article.