INDIANAPOLIS – The swirl of 2016 national ticket talk surrounding Gov. Mike Pence has intensified over the past few weeks. We know it’s a scenario the first-term Republican hasn’t spent so much as a minute pondering, though he is now acknowleding to Howey Politics Indiana that national figures are “reaching out” to him.
So when Howey Politics Indiana sat down with Gov. Pence on Tuesday morning, just as the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol was anointing Pence and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as presidential timber on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” and 24 hours before Chief of Staff Bill Smith turned in his resignation, two questions were asked. First, does Pence believe he’s ready for national office?         And what would be the scenario he sees where it might happen?
The most obvious path, though it involves lightning-strike statistical odds, is that a Chris Christie, Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz wins the nomination and needs a social conservative with gubernatorial and Midwestern resume postings to balance a ticket. This has played out quadrennially in Indiana since 1972 with Dick Lugar, Birch and Evan Bayh, Lee Hamilton, Dan Quayle, and Steve Goldsmith posited on various veepstakes speculation lists.
The second potential scenario is the kind of void that created Bill Clinton in 1992 and John McCain in 2008. That’s when the biggest names – the Cuomos, Rockefellers, Bushes, Bradleys or Kennedys – either take a pass or through scandal or personal circumstance, beg off. The names in the second or third tiers then move up. In the 2016 scenario, all eyes are on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who told the Washington Post earlier this week that he would make his decision by the end of the year. “In my case, that means can one do it joyfully without being tied to all the convention of the here and now,” Bush explained in what was called a rambling stream of consciousness.
In that time line, the 2016 Republican presidential race doesn’t really begin to sort out until November or December. Without Jeb Bush, there is no clear frontrunner.
The question to Gov. Pence was asked by HPI like this: “I know you haven’t spent a minute thinking about a national ticket run. But do you believe you’re ready for a national ticket? And under what scenario might that come about?”
“Well, what I can tell you is I really haven’t spent any time thinking about any other job than serving the people of Indiana as governor,” Pence said in his Statehouse office, foiling the writer’s attempt to move him beyond the wellworn talking point.
Then Pence made it interesting.
“But we’ve had people talking about that with us,” the governor said. “With regard to the other aspects to your question, I would just say, our decision on making any kind of decision on reelection will come sometime in the next calendar year.”
Late last year, senior Pence administration officials suggested the classic “follow the money” on Indiana campaign and Federal Election Commission reports. In the Feb. 6 edition of HPI, we reported Pence’s Indiana campaign finance filing was $1,354,038.63 in contributions and $491,610.51 in expenses. He had a year-end cash-on-hand balance of $1.357 million. As for Pence’s FEC accounts, the Mike Pence Committee had a balance of only $4,736, and his Win Back American PAC showed a balance of $5,210.
There haven’t been trips scheduled to Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina events recently. The easy conclusion to reach was that Pence was firmly preparing for a reelection. Now we learn that both he and Jeb Bush are on a similar 2016 timeline.
Out-going Chief of Staff Bill Smith told HPI, “He’s not in any way proactively doing anything nationally. He’s listening to people. He hears people out. In the mean time, he’s moving forward with being governor of Indiana. No other plans are in the works.”
But Pence and his staff are now in the process of rekindling the possibility.
We noted that national figures like Gary Bauer, the Koch brothers, those associated with Forbes Magazine, Club For Growth’s Chris Chocola, and now Kristol were all talking about Pence for 2016. Bauer called Pence a potentially “formidable” candidate. Politico quoted Pence pollster Kellyanne Conway as saying, “One thing that surprises me is who is urging Gov. Pence to consider the presidency. It goes beyond his inner circle to folks I’d have thought were already committed to other candidates. They know the governor is 110 percent focused on his day job, but they want a full-spectrum conservative who has experience and trust in all of the main policy spheres.”
Those spheres include social and evangelical conservatives, Tea Party, House Republicans, and those who believe a governor could articulate the outside-the-beltway message needed to take on Hillary Clinton.
“I understand the interest in who we’re talking to and I’ll leave you to your own devices on that,” Pence said. “We’ve had people reach out. We’re very fortunate to have friends around the country who appreciate the leadership we’re providing here.
“But I will say, in all honesty, any interest in me is as much a reflection in the progress Indiana has made as it is with me or my leadership,” the governor continued. “I really believe that. When you look at the fact our state has seen unemployment decline, lowest in Midwest. When you see the education choice opportunities, when you see what we’re doing in the area of workforce, career and education, Indiana is leading the nation in that. When you look at what we’re able to do with education funding and infrastructure funding, Indiana really stands out.
“When I was at the Forbes conference, a lot of people were saying how impressed they were with the progress that Indiana has been making,” Pence continued.
The governor then laid out the skeletal steel framework of a potential national candidacy, based on what might be called from his viewpoint the “Indiana miracle.”
Pence explained, “I said look, it’s about common sense, it’s about living within your means, it’s about letting people keep more of what they earn, it’s about promoting economic freedom, it’s about promoting educational opportunity on the basis of equality, it’s about having roads and bridges and infrastructure to support growth, and it’s about having a workforce that is attuned to the strengths of  your economy. None of that is rocket science. I don’t think it’s especially headline grabbing, but it’s working. It’s obvious in the Midwest and, increasingly, around the country.”
“I really do think that some of the attention and reflections we’ve been getting is as much of a reflection of the choices people of Indiana have been making and supported over the last 10 years,” Pence said.
So there is the political rationale. Influential national Republicans are in contact – “reaching out” – and Pence weaves the attractive business climate and Major Moves forged by the last Hoosier Republican to titillate a national base, Mitch Daniels.
Does Pence believe he is ready for national office?
This is where Pence begins to blend his legislative and now executive portfolios into a national storyline.
“The last year and a half has been an extraordinary learning experience for me,” said Pence, who had been urged by supporters to build up his executive resume after a brief presidential flirtation in 2010-11. “I have enjoyed and benefitted. I do enjoy it, I really do. The opportunity to serve in leadership in the executive branch of government is a fundamentally different thing than the legislative branch. I have great respect for people serving in the legislative branch. Some think I am a little too differential. I think we’ve got the best legislature in America, immensely talented men and women. I relish the legislative procedures.”
He pointed to his first General Assembly session as a collaborative effort between himself and the legislature. “I was asked after last year’s session about our tax cut proposal, ‘You asked for 10 percent, got 5, and got a combination of all the other tax cuts.’ That was in reference to his proposed 10% income tax cut that was reduced to 5% in a multi-year phase-in, and then paired with an array of business tax cuts.
“I honestly believe the tax cut package we produced was better than what I proposed,” Pence said. “It laid the framework for the growth and prosperity –income tax relief that was significant, full death tax repeal, a continuation of corporate tax reductions and financial services reductions that I think lay the framework for the growth and prosperity we’re seeing today.”
He points to the 8.6% jobless rate he inherited in January 2015, and how it has fallen to 6.1%. It defies an April 2013 IHS Global Insight analysis that projected full employment this year in the 7.5% jobless range.
It is framed as the state-based education of a fledgling governor, as he describes, “Serving in the executive branch, being able to lay out an agenda, derived from traveling the state relentlessly, listening to the people, hearing the priorities. It’s been a real joy and privilege. I’ve learned a lot.”
The Pence political apparatus is doing what Mitch Daniels did five or six years ago. It is seeding the Indiana story to national pundits and figures who pay scant attention to the growing pains those in the Statehouse gripe about. The details of the journey are less interesting than the post sine die headlines.
Four hours after Pence’s HPI interview, the National Tax Foundation was in his office, honoring his efforts with the “Outstanding Achievement in State Tax Reform Award.” It’s an important resume booster for a leader who believes he’s still in the mid-stages of a national journey.