Amid a firestorm of criticism from gay-rights activists enraged by his signing of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a slew of major media outlets rushed to question Governor Mike Pence’s future political prospects. Politico even went so far as to call it “The Week Mike Pence’s 2016 Dreams Crumbled.”
Pence’s professional associates believe he was blindsided by the backlash, an unusual situation for the normally savvy political operator. “I think he realized that there was an organized opposition,” says one. “But I think what he didn’t fully understand or appreciate was just how well-organized, how big and well-funded that opposition is.”
Even so, while many prominent Republicans hesitate to declare the firestorm over, they see it as a tempest in a teapot — a minor flare-up that’s unlikely to damage Pence’s long-shot presidential prospects on the off-chance that he decides to run, and one that certainly won’t damage his chances of winning reelection as governor in deep-red Indiana.
“The great myth of this is that it’s a bunch of social conservatives or Christian conservatives [defending the governor],” Weekly Standard editor William Kristol says, noting that “a lot of libertarians also want to defend the principle” of religious liberty. “I think he actually has an opportunity to make both a socially conservative and libertarian case here,” Kristol continues. “Both for the religious freedom act and for freedom generally.”
“I think this is definitely an issue he can recover from,” says one longtime Pence associate. “I think there are a lot of people [in Indiana] who feel bad for him, who are with him and realize he’s in a tough spot.”
Two weeks ago, no one would’ve thought to question Pence’s political staying power. Since taking office in 2012, the former Republican congressman had proven himself a popular and effective governor — balancing budgets, driving down unemployment, and passing the largest tax cut in modern Indiana history during his first year in office. He was even seen by some as a potential dark-horse candidate in 2016 — someone who could unite the disparate wings of the GOP after sectional candidates fell by the wayside.
Then, on Thursday, March 26, he signed Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and all hell broke loose.
Gay activist groups, fearful that the law would allow businesses to discriminate against homosexuals, lashed out at Pence. Social-media celebrities erupted in righteous indignation, directing their followers to target Pence and his supporters in a campaign Kristol calls “semi-totalitarian.” CEOs of major corporations publicly admonished the governor — Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote a column calling RFRA laws “dangerous’” and comparing Indiana to Saudi Arabia, while Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle reneged on an agreement to expand the company’s headquarters in Indianapolis. Dozens of other businesses threatened to pull their dollars from Indiana, and thousands of consumers threatened to boycott the state.
The governor’s defensive initial response seemed to exacerbate the controversy. “I would’ve done things a little differently than he did, perhaps, on TV Sunday,” says Kristol, referring to a contentious interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “But it’s very easy to second-guess sitting here in Washington.”
On Tuesday, March 31, Pence convened a press conference vowing to “correct” Indiana’s RFRA. By Thursday, he had signed a measure “clarifying” that the law does not authorize businesses to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
The move failed to appease activists on either side of the controversy. Staunch social conservatives grumbled at the limited legal protections the “clarified” law now provided to homosexuals. Gay activists and their business allies, meanwhile, continued to agitate for a complete repeal of the RFRA and the full recognition of gays and lesbians as a protected class.
But despite some dark talk in Indianapolis, conservatives believe Pence will be largely unscathed when he seeks reelection in 2016. “As much as religious conservatives are disappointed that he signed this [clarifying measure], they’re not going to go vote for anybody else,” his longtime associate says.
Thursday’s fix is a “palliative for the business class,” that should “have [businesses] respect [Pence] all the more,” the associate says. “They feel like he’s a guy they can work with and trust.”
“He’s been among the two or three most principled and effective leaders on economic freedom issues in the country,” says one top fiscal conservative. “The policies he’s put into place as governor are among the best in the country.”
“I don’t think any businesses are going to want to avoid doing business in a state that’s among the 20 biggest in the country,” he says. “They really need to think that through.”
In other words, conservatives believe that Pence’s strong record in Indiana would still translate well in a national race. If he chooses to run (a possibility most people close to him are quick to caution was unlikely even before the RFRA brouhaha), the governor’s path to the White House looks largely the same as it did two weeks ago: Stay afloat long enough for the rest of the field to stumble, and hope that the party’s money-men pick him to fill the vacuum.
“There’s always a scenario for a candidate like him to get in,” Pence’s associate says.
“[If the front-runners flame out], there could all of a sudden become this thing among a significant number of donors this summer to say, ‘We’ve got to scramble here and get somebody else.’”
– Brendan Bordelon is a media reporter for National Review.