Rep. Mike Pence will make public his future plans this week as he contemplates a bid for higher office. But with a wealth of opportunities at his fingertips, it remains unclear which office the Indiana Republican will pursue.
Pence is considering a bid to replace outgoing Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is term-limited, or a more ambitious, longer shot bid to claim the Republican presidential nomination and mount a campaign against President Obama. Pence allies and prominent Republicans are nudging him in both directions.
The conservative former radio host has made little secret of which office he would like to seek. Pence has spent several years quietly burnishing his reputation among conservative activists, and he was the surprise winner of a presidential straw poll at the Values Voter Summit in Washington last fall.
But the House is an unlikely platform from which to launch a national campaign. History is littered with House members who have tried, but who have fallen short; in recent years: Reps. Dennis Kucinich, Ron Paul, Dick Gephardt, Phil Crane, and Mo Udall. James Garfield is the only president to have been elected directly from the House, in 1880.
Today, it's all about money, and Pence has yet to establish himself as a major fundraising player. During his six runs for office, he has raised a cumulative $9.2 million, and another $1.1 million for his political action committee. That's less than the $13.4 million Rep. Michele Bachmann raised for her 2010 re-election campaign alone. Pence's PAC gave less to Republican candidates in 2010 than did PACs controlled by Reps. Dave Camp, Darrell Issa and Spencer Bachus, all of whom were seeking committee chairmanships.
"It's very difficult for House members generally. The fundraising is a daunting task and [Pence] does not have a developed national fundraising base like some of the other candidates do," said Jim Bopp, a leading conservative activist in Indiana who has shared his advice with Pence. "He's relatively young and relatively new to the national scene, and at this point he doesn't have nearly the name recognition and established contacts of some of the other candidates."
The futile efforts of so many colleagues represent a powerful argument against Pence making a presidential bid today, an argument of which he is aware. Pence asked a colleague, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, for advice on his future plans several years ago, and McCarthy pointed out the difficulty a House member would face building a national profile. Several weeks ago, the two men spoke again; Pence did not indicate which office he would seek, but he made clear he remembered McCarthy's advice.
Arguments in favor of a gubernatorial bid are as compelling as arguments against a presidential bid. Though President Obama won Indiana in 2008, it remains a red state, and Daniels easily won both his bids for office. Put simply, if Pence's goal is to run the race that affords him the best chance of winning, he should stay close to home.
Pence "would be the prohibitive favorite in the primary and the general election, so his prospects of being elected are extremely good," Bopp said.
He seems to be leaning that way. Last week, Pence addressed the Indiana state legislature, offering a loud defense of states' rights. His appearance before the legislature is not especially noteworthy; several other Hoosier congressmen gave the same annual update address. But sources in Indiana said that most others give much more informal updates, and that Pence's address was unconventional for its intensity; the speech essentially outlined the philosophical underpinnings that would guide a Pence gubernatorial administration.
The governorship could provide a better path to the presidency than the one Pence currently is on. The 2012 Republican field proves how valuable being governor is to a prospective presidential resume. Daniels, who has had two successful terms as governor, is now considering a presidential bid of his own. The bulk of the 2012 field, including Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin, have been elected state executives.
Were Pence to seek the governorship, he would join a group of rising stars first elected in 2010, many of whom might eventually contemplate their own presidential bids. "In time, the 2010 election will be remembered as much for the class of Republican governors elected across the country as [for] Republicans taking the House," said Trevor Francis, a GOP strategist and former Republican National Committee spokesman. "If Pence has national aspirations, the most conventional route would be to run for governor in 2012, demonstrate his ability to lead as an executive and make his record as a conservative problem-solver in Indiana the centerpiece of a presidential run down the road."