Politics & Policy

Behind Mike Pence’s Agonizing Decision to Endorse Ted Cruz

(Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty)

Ted Cruz probably wanted more than a half-hearted endorsement, but that was what he got from Indiana governor Mike Pence on Friday. “I’m not against anybody, but I will be voting for Ted Cruz in the upcoming Republican primary,” Pence told Indianapolis’s WCIB radio. “I urge everyone to make up their own mind.” The governor, who has always favored a gentler and more soft-spoken approach to conservative politics, went out of his way to praise Donald Trump, who can all-but-end Cruz’s campaign if he carries Indiana’s primary on Tuesday, for tapping into “the frustration of millions of working Americans.”

Throughout, he sounded more like a man copping to intense pressure than an advocate offering his unqualified support. And he was.

 The road to Pence’s half-hearted yes was an agonizing one. He loathes Trump, and genuinely believes that Cruz and Trump are fighting for the soul of the Republican party. Echoing Ronald Reagan’s endorsement of Barry Goldwater in 1964, he said Wednesday that the race represents “a time for choosing.” So the choice for him was always between backing Cruz and staying on the sidelines. But sources familiar with his decision say his advisers by and large counseled him against an endorsement, arguing it would hurt his chances in a tough reelection battle this fall, and the 2016 race has certainly raised the question of how much endorsements matter. At the same time, Pence came under intense pressure from conservative donors, politicians, and media figures — many of them close personal friends — to back Cruz. The result was a lukewarm endorsement that left both sides unsatisfied.

Throughout, he sounded more like a man copping to intense pressure than an advocate offering his unqualified support.

Over the last two weeks, as Trump racked up a series of devastating primary victories and Cruz’s poll numbers began to slip in Indiana, Cruz and his allies began pressing Pence to endorse. The drumbeat reached a crescendo on Wednesday evening, at a Pence fundraiser hosted by the Ricketts family at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Joe Ricketts, the Chicago Cubs owner and TD Ameritrade founder, is also funding the anti-Trump group Our Principles PAC. In a ballpark suite, several people gathered to help Pence’s reelection efforts, including Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts, pressed Pence to endorse Cruz, according to a source familiar with the event. Walker proved a crucial ally for Cruz in the run-up to Wisconsin’s April 5 primary, campaigning with the senator and cutting ads on his behalf. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Ricketts himself is also expected to endorse Cruz ahead of Nebraska’s May 10 primary. A spokesman for the Ricketts family, Brian Baker, declined to comment. 

The Chicago event came on the heels of conversations between Pence and Club for Growth president David McIntosh, a fellow Hoosier and longtime friend. Both men once represented Indiana’s second congressional district — in fact, Pence succeeded McIntosh when the latter stepped down to run for governor. McIntosh declined to comment on the nature of their conversations. “Mike and I are good friends,” McIntosh says. “I don’t talk about the conversations we have.”

RELATED: Why Cruz Is Going All-In on Indiana

Nonetheless, he predicted that Pence’s endorsement would have an enormous effect. “To quote Donald Trump, I think it will be huge,” he says. “The reason is that it’s one of these political situations where the voter is hearing everything go back and forth. . . . What Mike provides in that is a voice out of the wilderness that says, in this sea of conflicting messages, ‘Here’s where we should go.’”

One friend who urged Pence to back Cruz says several people told the governor that, in essence, the benefits of showing leadership in the presidential race would outweigh the political costs of making a controversial endorsement.

#share#Pence is in a tough reelection battle against former Indiana house speaker John Gregg, the same man he defeated by just 2.9 points when he was elected to the governorship four years ago. Since then, circumstances have changed. Once a widely popular governor whom conservatives twice encouraged to run for president, first in 2012 and then in 2016, Pence has seen his approval ratings fall sharply — by about 15 percentage points — since he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act a year ago; fumbled his way through public appearances defending that decision; and tightened restrictions on abortion in the state. He has taken a hit with women and business interests.

Pence is already being accused of putting his own career ahead of what many see as the fight for the survival of Republican party. But to those who know him well, there’s another explanation for his reluctance to endorse Cruz and further endanger his own reelection: Federalism, a devotion to the Tenth Amendment, lies at the heart of his political philosophy. Pence has long pushed for a “renewed federalism” — that’s how he put it in a 2004 speech at the Heritage Foundation — that would return power to the states. It was this principle that led him to oppose the Bush administration’s major domestic achievements, Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind, and made him a thorn in the administration’s side. (As a former talk-radio host, Pence could often be found in front of a camera broadcasting his views.)

Pence’s hesitant nod came with Cruz in dire need of an enthusiastic booster with credibility in the state.

His views on federalism are rooted in the belief that fundamental change happens on the state level, which is why, beyond his own ego, he surely believes his reelection is important — perhaps more important than who becomes the Republican nominee. Cruz allies of all sorts argued that having Trump at the top of the ticket would almost certainly sink him, and that was surely a factor. Preliminary polls show that in a general election, Cruz would be a far more competitive candidate against Hillary Clinton than would Trump.

In the end, Pence’s hesitant nod came with Cruz in dire need of an enthusiastic booster with credibility in the state. A month ago, a statewide poll from the Club for Growth had the Texas senator running neck-and-neck with Trump. Since then, Cruz has suffered brutal defeats in a half-dozen northeastern states, and today, super PACs involved in the effort to deprive Trump of the nomination say their polling is all over the place. Some surveys show the race remains close; others show Trump with a double-digit lead. Cruz, recognizing the importance of the moment, will appear on all five Sunday shows this weekend ahead of a final push to Tuesday. The campaign has already cut a radio ad that features Pence’s endorsement, and though the schedule has not been finalized, the governor is expected to campaign with Cruz, according to a campaign aide. 

In a year when endorsements haven’t meant much, the question is whether a tepid endorsement will make a enough of difference on Tuesday for Ted Cruz to survive.

— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.

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