By BRIAN A. HOWEY
INDIANAPOLIS – In politics, first and last impressions are impactful.
Through that prism we view the four-year term of Gov. Mike Pence, who
arrived on the Hoosier political scene 29 years ago as an aggressive and
ambitious partisan. He left in a similar mode, achieving a lifelong
dream to serve in the White House. But his departure essentially
occurred in July. While he accepted a paycheck from Indiana taxpayers
through December, his national ambitions left a festering stew in his
wake back home.
Unlike undefeated Govs. Doc Bowen, Robert Orr, Frank O’Bannon and Mitch
Daniels, his political career began with two congressional losses. He
transformed himself from an economic conservative to a social warrior,
augmented by his statewide radio and TV shows of the 1990s, positioning
himself for a 12-year congressional career that commenced in 2000 in a
district tailored for a Republican.
His governorship stands out as the only one to attain office with less
than 50% of the vote in more than half a century, for its
three-and-a-half-year duration, though the record books will put it at a
full four years, and the fact that he withdrew from a second nomination
after Donald Trump nominated him for the vice presidency.
The Pence legacy will be bookended by two key cornerstones: The economy
thrived during his tenure, with the state reaching record employment
while the jobless rate declined by more than 4%. But his own reelection
prospects were compromised by social issues he didn’t seek; unlike
strong governors of the past, he failed to stop some of the most
divisive issues before reaching his threshold. On others, such as a
constitutional marriage amendment, he floated above the fray, trying to
straddle a progressive Hoosier corporate community while not alienating
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act would never have seen the light of
day in the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Daniels. It would
have been stopped short of a committee hearing in the General Assembly,
particularly as he weighed a presidential race or a potentially tough
reelection rematch. Gov. Pence and his team didn’t establish the command
and control structure of strong governors like Daniels, Orr and Doc
Bowen. Nor did he and his team earn the fear of legislators or the
respect of state bureaucracy.
And the final impressions of Gov. Pence will enter the playbook for
future governors. Following the 2016 General Assembly session, Pence
essentially checked out as a full-time governor. There were no media
avails following sine die. A heroin epidemic raged across the state with
hundreds of overdoses and Pence was silent. More than 1,000 East
Chicago Hoosiers were uprooted from their homes due to a lead
contamination crisis, and the Pence administration mustered $100,000,
but no visit or empathy. He did, however, visit Republican Greentown,
where lead was found in the town’s pipes. The I-69 Section 5 road
project stalled, and Pence was silent.
He made a significant miscalculation when he underestimated Donald
Trump’s powerful rhetoric that held a major swath of the Republican
Party in a persistent trance. He endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz, only to watch
Trump maul him in the Republican primary. His endorsement of Cruz was so
mealy mouthed that Trump poked fun at him. But when dozens of other
Republicans passed on the veepstakes, Pence anted up. He was locked in a
dead heat with Democrat John Gregg, his favorables in the WTHR/Howey
Politics Indiana poll were upside down, and the four polls we conducted
in 2016 revealed Pence as one of the most polarizing political figures
in modern Indiana history.
In October, his fav/unfavs stood at a tepid 47/45%, but his stature
increased to 50/44% in November as he spent the last few weeks standing
up for Trump’s character. In the April WTHR/Howey Politics Poll – the
last one conducted with Pence poised for the gubernatorial nomination –
Pence was upside down with Hoosier voters. His approval standing at 44%
with 41% disapproving, terrible numbers for an incumbent governor. With
female voters, Pence trailed Gregg 52-41%, and independent women voters
54-40, following a trend from September 2012 when he led Gregg among
women by 13% in a Howey DePauw Poll, before losing the gender in the
general election by 5%. This comes after Pence dropped Lt. Gov. Sue
Ellspermann from the ticket, replacing her with Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb.
A stepping stone dogged by controversy
The worst-kept secret was that the Pence governorship was designed to
burnish his national resume, giving him four years of “executive
But the RFRA issue of March 2015 seemed to derail his national
ambitions. Signing the legislation in what is now known as the “last
supper photo,” leaked out from a private signing ceremony, Gov. Pence
found himself in a national and state social media firestorm. Pence
failed to effectively defend the law. “Some of the media coverage has
been shameless and reckless,” Pence said. “This new law in Indiana, the
same one that 30 other states have, does not discriminate against
Pence insisted that the RFRA was only a necessary legal response to the
Supreme Court Hobby Lobby case from the year before. After the firestorm
built, the law was not created to be “a license to discriminate or
right to deny services to gays, lesbians or anyone else in this state,”
he said. “And it certainly wasn’t my intent. But I can appreciate that
that’s become the perception.”
While Gov. Pence had aimed his economic development establishment at
luring high tech industries, many of them recruit gay employees. It
exposed the fissures in the Indiana Republican Party, between the
economic strand and Pence’s social conservatives. Under intense pressure
from the NCAA, corporate Indiana and Republican legislative leaders,
Pence acquiesed to a “fix,” rolling back some of the RFRA provisions.
“We will fix this and we will move forward. That’s what Hoosiers do,” he
While the corporate community, Democrats and the LGBT community called
for an expansion of civil rights to cover sexual orientation, Pence
refused to join the discussion and did not push for legislation. “I
think that’s a separate issue,” Pence said. “It’s not my position; I’m
not advocating for it.”
When Howey Politics Indiana polled his standing in late April 2015,
Pence’s favorable/unfavorables stood at 35/38%, his job approval fell to
45% approve and 46% disapprove (down from 60% earlier in the year), and
he found himself in close head-to-heads with three potential Democratic
gubernatorial challengers, polling well below 50%.
As 2015 closed, Pence was presiding over an economy with a 4.4% jobless
rate while asphalt was pouring into roadbeds at a furious pace. But
Pence found himself confronted by Catholic Charities as he attempted to
stop the resettlement of a Syrian refugee family that had been carefully
vetted over the previous 18 months. It was Pence’s reaction to the
Paris ISIS terror attack, where one of the perpetrators held a fake
Syrian passport. He joined some 25 Republican governors in the immediate
hours after the attack, calling for a Syrian refugee ban. It put Pence
on a collision with Bishop Joseph Tobin.
“I listened to the governor’s concerns regarding security and
prayerfully considered his request that we defer from welcoming them
until Congress had approved new legislation regarding immigrants and
refugees,” Tobin said in a statement. “I informed the governor prior to
the family’s arrival that I had asked the staff of Catholic Charities to
receive this husband, wife and their two small children as planned.”
This was followed by a perplexing press conference where Pence defended
his “ban” that in reality never had any teeth, no statutory origin or
judicial precedent. The facts about this Syrian family and the one that
detoured to Connecticut just after he announced his “ban” had left Syria
well before ISIS formed and metastisized, and had gone through a
two-year vetting process. It came as the New York Times reported that of
the 780,000 refugees legally entering the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001,
none of them had been caught or even linked to a domestic terror attack.
When reporters pressed him, Pence said his administration wouldn’t deny
state benefits to resettled refugees. So the ban amounted to political
When it was struck down by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge
Richard Posner issued a scathing rebuke. “The governor of Indiana
believes, though without evidence, that some of these persons were sent
to Syria by ISIS to engage in terrorism and now wish to infiltrate the
United States in order to commit terrorist acts here,” Posner wrote. “No
evidence of this belief has been presented, however; it is nightmare
When Trump proposed a complete ban on Muslims entering the country,
Pence called it “offensive and unconstitutional.” It would become
another issue where once on the national stage, Pence would morph.
Medicaid and HIP 2.0
As a presidential campaign loomed, Pence had his greatest policy
achievement in the winter of 2015 when he convinced the Centers for
Medicaid/Medicare Services to grant his version of Medicaid expansion.
It was something he had spent more than a year lobbying President Obama
and HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell for, including once on the tarmac of
the Evansville airport with the president.
“We’ve got to be about solutions that are state-based,” Pence said. HIP
2.0 was to be his Exhibit A. “I’m urging Congressional leaders and
Republican governors to look to our reforms,” Pence continued. “It will
be an open question. I believe what Congress should do is give the
states an alternative to the state exchanges. Take the tax credits and
create more choices in the market place. It’s a flexibility thing.”
Since CMS approved the Pence waiver in 2015, enrollment has gone from
193,573 in 2015 to 359,612 in 2016 and a projected 457,739 in fiscal
year 2020. It lowered emergency room use by 7%, prompted 60% of its
recipients to receive preventive care, while 96% are satisfied with
their coverage and 93% make the $8 to $25 monthly contributions on time,
and 98% would enroll again. According to the U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services, 1,489,805 people in Indiana are covered by Medicaid
or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, including 782,960 children
and 133,444 seniors and people with disabilities covered by both
Medicaid and Medicare. An estimated 224,000 Hoosiers have health
insurance today because Indiana expanded Medicaid under the Affordable
Asked in 2015 if HIP 2.0 was his top policy achievement to date, Pence
(who has not responded to most interview requests from Howey Politics
Indiana and most Indiana media outlets in 2016 and 2017) puts it in the
context of his administration’s 2012 campaign “Roadmap” which promised
two planks on jobs and investment, two on education, one on workforce
development and the final, “improving the health and well-being of
“When I look at what we’ve done, I would say it’s a significant
advancement for the health and wellbeing of Hoosiers,” Pence explained.
Pence and the economy
Since the 1980s when Gov. Robert Orr made a concerted effort to open up
the Pacific Rim to investment, one of the most critical measuring sticks
for an Indiana governor is job creation, morphing from an early 20th
Century model of education, roads and public safety. On this front,
Pence can claim legitimate success. In four years, the Indiana Economic
Development Corporation counted $15.49 billion worth of investments in
the state. In July 2015, Indiana claimed its employment highwater mark
with 2.61 million Hoosiers in the workforce. Between 2012 and 2014,
according to the IEDC, more than 125 foreign companies announced plans
to grow or locate in Indiana, pledging to invest $4.6 billion in Indiana
and create 13,300 new jobs.
Commerce Secretary Victor Smith observed, “Gov. Pence started on day one
by freezing new burdensome regulations, which increase the cost of
doing business and stifle job creation. During his first legislative
session, he led the charge for the largest tax cut in Indiana history
and followed that up in 2014 with a new tax cut giving Indiana one of
the lowest corporate tax rates in the country.
“In 2015, Gov. Pence directed Indiana’s early payout of our federal
unemployment insurance loan, saving Hoosier businesses an additional
$327 million in taxes. Plus, throughout his time in office, Gov. Pence
worked to invest more than $800 million in new money for Indiana roads
and bridges, securing Indiana’s status as the Crossroads of America.”
Smith added, “More Hoosiers are working now than ever before in
Indiana’s 200-year history and our economy is the envy of the nation.
Our unemployment rate has dropped from 8.4% to 4.2% and stands at its
lowest point in 15 years. Our state has added 168,000 more Hoosier jobs
since Gov. Pence took office.”
According to the IEDC, the state wage average increased from $17.05 an
hour in 2005 to $20.10 in 2013, and $21.55 in 2016. John Thompson,
chairman and CEO of Thompson Distribution Company and member of the IEDC
Board of Directors, observed that the average wage of IEDC projects was
$25.43/hour, which is 20% higher than the state’s average wage of
$21.21/hour. “We are seeing growth in new industries like aviation and
aerospace, life sciences and technology that traditionally offer
high-skilled, high-wage jobs, while jobs committed to the IEDC continue
to boast wages above the state average,” Thompson said.
Other economic telltales include the Regional Cities Initiative that
spread $120 million worth of projects funded by a tax amnesty program to
three regions of the state. “Through the Regional Cities Initiative,
Gov. Pence powered Indiana communities a financial incentive to
collaborate as regions to invest in quality-of-place projects using
public-private partnerships, transforming communities into places where
people are excited to live, work and play,” Smith said. “In turn, this
will attract and retain the talent companies need to continue to grow.
Today, the Regional Cities Initiative is wildly popular and a major
Even with the success of that program, Pence found himself sideways with
legislative GOP leaders when he expanded it from two to three $40
million regions. As we’ve often witnessed during the Pence governorship,
decisions were made through a strictly political prism. That would be
$40 million of potential 2016 ribbon cuttings during a tough reelection
On the cusp of his vice presidential nomination in June 2016, Pence
unveiled a $1 billion investment proposal for the next decade to advance
innovation and entrepreneurship in Indiana. “As a state, we have worked
diligently to establish a pro-growth business climate in Indiana and
our efforts are being recognized across the nation,” Pence said at the
2016 Innovation Showcase in Indianapolis at Dallaria in Speedway. “We
cut costs, lowered taxes and reduced regulations to allow job creators
to invest in what matters most, in their businesses and in their
employees. Indiana is ranked first in the Midwest for business and first
in the nation for small business regulations.”
“With years of forward-thinking leadership in entrepreneurship and
startup creation, Indiana is already recognized as a startup-friendly
state,” said Dan Hasler, president and chief entrepreneurial officer for
the Purdue Research Foundation.
“These welcomed new initiatives will propel Indiana to the next level of
economic development and job creation. Indiana has the potential for so
much more,” Hasler said.
Pence and education
Another hallmark of Pence’s term was his stance on education. He would
claim record investment for education in his two biennial budgets. But
he sparred constantly with Democrat Supt. Glenda Ritz, formed and then
scrapped a year later a parallel agency (Center for Education and Career
Innovation) to the Indiana Department of Education. The result, as
described in the press was a process “so convoluted it seems impossible
to know who’s responsible for what and whom to hold accountable for
After the demise of CECI, he pushed for the State Board of Education to
appoint a chair, instead of the elected superintendent. “It’s time to
take politics out of education in Indiana, or at least out of the State
Board of Education and allow that body to get back to the business of
focusing on implementing the policies that the people of Indiana have
embraced and enacted, and seeing them faithfully through to their
completion,” he said in a statement that many saw as overtly political.
The fighting became so intense that Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate
President David Long threatened to intervene. While his successor, Gov.
Eric Holcomb, has moved to make the superintendent an appointed
position, Pence refused to take that step.
In 2014, Pence became the first governor in the nation to rescind Common
Core, replacing it with what his education opponents and Chamber
President Kevin Brinegar would call “Common Core Lite.” Pence explained,
“I believe when we reach the end of this process there are going to be
many other states around the country that will take a hard look at the
way Indiana has taken a step back, designed our own standards, and done
it in a way where we drew on educators, we drew on citizens and parents,
and developed standards that meet the needs of our people.” The state
had spent more than $120 million on the Common Core standards, and no
one could put a price tag on the amount of money the state has spent on
student assessment programs since 2011, though some believe it could be
as high as $250 million.
The Common Core rescinding became one of his key talking points as he prepared for a 2016 presidential run.
Pence’s other key policy legacy was the expansion of vouchers and
charter schools. By the time he left office, more than 30,000 students
where using state vouchers. Pence also pushed the legislature to remove a
$4,800-per-year cap on tuition benefits for children in elementary and
Beyond his sparring with Supt. Ritz, the other big controversy was
Pence’s rejection of $80 million in federal pre-K funds in 2015, a move
that confounded everyone from Ritz to legislative Republican leaders.
Pence’s rationale was that the state didn’t want to be rushed into a
program and the federal funds would have too many “strings attached.”
But Gov. Pence in 2014 pushed a $15 million program that gave
scholarships of up to $6,800 for children in low-income families in five
urban counties to attend preschool programs. It initially included
about 2,500 pupils. “It’s safe to say that had it not been for his
strong leadership, we wouldn’t have had the pilot preschool program we
have now,” David Harris, the founder of the Mind Trust, told the New
Pence also signed legislation that scrapped the ISTEP testing program,
but left office with no credible replacement, leaving the Indiana
General Assembly to grapple fitfully with what comes next.
Pence and abortion
Throughout his political career, Pence has been a tireless advocate for
right-to-life issues. After signing a half dozen or so anti-abortion
bills, Pence can take credit for helping to lower the state’s abortion
rate. It was already in sharp decline during the Daniels administration,
where abortions declined from 10,686 in 2005 to 8,808 in 2012. During
the Pence era, abortions declined further, from 8,179 in 2013, to 8,118
in 2014 and 7,957 in 2015.
Pence stoked controversy in 2016 when he signed House Enrolled Act 1337,
which precludes abortions for the reason of fetal abnormalities.
“Throughout my public career, I have stood for the sanctity of life.
HEA1337 is a comprehensive pro-life measure that affirms the value of
all human life, which is why I signed it into law today,” Pence said. “I
believe that a society can be judged by how it deals with its most
vulnerable – the aged, the infirm, the disabled and the unborn. HEA1337
will ensure the dignified final treatment of the unborn and prohibits
abortions that are based only on the unborn child’s sex, race, color,
national origin, ancestry, or disability, including Down syndrome.”
Betty Cockrum, who heads Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky,
condemned the bill. “It is clear the governor is more comfortable
practicing medicine without a license than behaving as a responsible
lawyer, as he picks and chooses which constitutional rights are
From Pence’s career perspective, his governorship was a political
success. He’s vice president of the United States. Both he and President
Trump heralded his Indiana record numerous times over the past nine
months. With the Trump presidency commencing in chaotic fashion, there
is widespread speculation that Pence might have a good chance of
becoming the 46th president within the next four years.
During his governorship, it seemed that most major initiatives were
developed and executed through the prism of a future presidential bid.
In 2013, it was an income tax cut that Bosma and Long pared back,
fearing they would be left holding the bag. In 2014, it was rescinding
Common Core, which became a staple in his national speeches. In 2015,
RFRA was to be his calling card for social conservatives looking for
someone to back in the 2016 presidential primaries. That one blew up in
From a Hoosier perspective, the economy grew under Pence, but so did
widespread frustration that vast segments of the population and the
Republican constituency were being left behind inthe American dream.
Donald Trump exploited that issue, even if it collided with the legacy
Pence sought to portray.
Pence’s missteps on social issues and poor staff work placed him in a more tenuous political position than he should have been.
Pence always seemed tormented about his social advocacy and the
political realities. He evaded interview requests from Howey Politics
Indiana during his 2012 gubernatorial campaign, then during a visit to
our office three days before his inauguration in January 2013, pled for a
“do over.” By 2016, he was in the same mode, refusing to reconcile his
rhetoric and legacy with topical questioning.
Yet, travel with Gov. Pence several times over the past four years found
him easily mixing and bantering with his constituents. I remember
asking Indiana Republican Chairman Jeff Cardwell after an October 2014
swing through Southern Indiana why the governor’s media operation didn’t
allow more such coverage. “Let Pence be Pence,” I said.
There was no good answer to that, other
than an inherent paranoia within the tight Pence inner circle that the
media was out to get him, with it all wrapped in a veneer where he
claimed to revere press freedoms (including a bill he vetoed in the
Indiana General Assembly last spring that was overridden this week).
Pence was reluctant to allow himself to be held accountable for his
This is a political figure that tightly grasped a small set of talking
points and was reluctant to expose himself to any effort to pierce that
facade. When an interview was granted, the answers were long, windy and
repetitive. There would be fewer questions.
Thus, Gov. Pence stands in a unique corner of Hoosier political history.
He survived his governorship, when it could have been a profound source
of momentum. He abandoned a reelection bid by taking one of the
greatest political risks in modern American history.
And here he is, a heartbeat away.