INDIANAPOLIS - When it comes to moderate, centrist redoubts, there is no more cozy place than the Indiana governorship.
“Radical” Indiana governors can be counted on several fingers. There was our Civil War governor, Oliver P. Morton, who dismissed the Indiana General Assembly after the Copperheads took over in 1862, took out big Wall Street loans to finance the Civil War, and earned the admonishment of President Lincoln for his penchant of executing too many enemies of the state. There was Democrat Gov. Thomas R. Marshall, who tried to reform state and legal government only to earn the rebuke of the U.S. Supreme Court for doing so. And, to a lesser degree, there was Gov. Paul McNutt, the Depression-era Democrat who was able to round up the random array of state departments and agencies and bring about some order, thanks to the overwhelming majorities from the landslide FDR 1932 election (getting most of it done on his first day in office).
All of the others – including the Bowens, Orrs, Bayhs, O’Bannons and Gov. Mitch Daniels – governed from the center.
Which brings me to Congressman Mike Pence.
He is, unabashedly, a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order. Watching him speak to Howard County Republicans in Kokomo last month, really emphasized to me how conservative he is. The speech seemed like something you’d expect to hear at the Vanderburgh Right to Life dinner. Taking the pro-life position is a highly principled one. Pence has embraced it as much as Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth did with abolition.
There is no question that Pence commands the pro-life, evangelical Republican base, with the more mainstream party regulars getting swept up in the emotion.
And this would all be a recipe for victory if a candidate could win the Indiana governorship with just Republican voters. But unless there is a GOP tidal wave, governors need independents (about 25 percent of voters), women and a slice from the other party.
Evan Bayh twice won a significant slice of Republican voters while dominating the independents. Gov. Daniels won some Democrats - including an unprecedented 20 percent of the African-American vote - while dominating the independents. He won 56 percent of the female vote in 2008, won 24 percent of the Democratic vote in 2008 and 13 percent in 2004.
There are two elements that should give pause to some Republicans and Pence himself. One is the emerging candidacy of former Democratic House Speaker John Gregg. He is larger than life, affable, a fabulous public speaker and storyteller, pro-life, pro-gun, and calls Southern Indiana his base. A Gregg candidacy might not make too many inroads into the Pence evangelical constituency on the GOP right, but he will not be an anathema to them.
Gregg would likely be able to bring the various Democratic constituencies together, particularly if he forges a ticket with Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson or former Indiana Health Commissioner Woody Myers (who could probably write a $2 million check to jumpstart a campaign).
And this gets us to the past week in Washington.
Pence was in the vanguard of those favoring shutting down the federal government. He was willing to do so over the issue of defunding Planned Parenthood. Pence said on ABC’s “This Week” that Speaker Boehner got a “good deal,” but then said he would vote against the compromise because Planned Parenthood would still get about $300 million in federal funding.
By late last week, Senate Democrats had opened a new front on this initial federal budget skirmish: it became a “war on women.” And Mike Pence was its General Grant.
His willingness to shut down the government turns off a lot of independents, just as the Indiana House Democratic walkout did. In an American Viewpoint Poll for Indiana Republicans, almost 70 percent of the independents opposed the walkout. I suspect a similar number would not find a federal government shutdown palatable.
It’s important to understand Pence’s political trajectory. He lost two challenges to U.S. Rep. Phil Sharp back in 1988 and 1990. He won what is now the 6th CD when U.S. Rep. David McIntosh handed it off to him on his way to the 2000 gubernatorial race. Like Pence is now, McIntosh was wooed by Hoosier Republicans to get into the 2000 governor race, had the pro-life, evangelic base, and then never really got close to Gov. Frank O’Bannon, a pro-life, pro-gun, pro-death penalty Southern Indiana Democrat.
Sound familiar? And O’Bannon won in 1996 by upsetting the heavily favored Stephen Goldsmith.
Pence’s electoral success has come in an overwhelming GOP district, where he has never been seriously challenged. This has allowed him to rise through the ideologically ranks, where his silver tongue of broadcast pedigree positioned him as the darling of the evangelical right.
The danger for Pence is that throughout Hoosier history, Indiana governors have been mostly centrist, moderates. They may color outside the lines on issues like tax, education or government reform, but they mostly govern from inside the mainstream.
Pence may have his eye on the 2016 presidential race, but he’ll have to win a governor’s race first.
The columnist publishes at