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."
Still, every political landscape is unique, and Pence has compelling reasons to cast conventional wisdom aside and launch a national bid. Most notably, he is one of a few candidates whose bona fides among social conservatives are unquestioned, and the two others who most obviously fall into that category -- Huckabee and Palin -- have serious flaws.
Many question whether Huckabee or Palin will run in the first place and surrender their lucrative Fox News contracts and book deals. If they do run, Huckabee will again face down questions from anti-tax activists angry over his record as Arkansas's governor, while Palin will have her own special set of issues to overcome -- including a growing sense among some Republicans and conservative bloggers that she is unelectable. Her recent video response to the tragedy in Tucson seemed tone-deaf. A plurality of Americans viewed her reaction unfavorably, while more than 70 percent approved of Obama's call for national unity.
If Huckabee and Palin choose not to run, social conservatives would find themselves faced with the prospect of settling for an "acceptable alternative," rather than a purist in their own mold. Fiscal conservatives would be denied an unabashed champion as well; sure, Barbour, Daniels, and Pawlenty all make fiscal discipline a centerpiece of their expected campaigns, but their states all accepted stimulus money under their watch. Pence, on the other hand, would be the only candidate in the race to have voted against both the stimulus package and the debt ceiling increase in 2009 -- a vote at odds with John Boehner and Eric Cantor, Pence's fellow Republican leaders.
In 2008, "people often talked about who would fill the void of the CC (credible conservative) in the field, a role that was ultimately filled by Mike Huckabee," John Yob, a Republican strategist who worked for John McCain that year, said in an e-mail. "This time there is little doubt that a candidate will step up and fill the void for a conservative that appeals to the tea party base."
"Tht candidate will ultimately have the ability to fund a campaign that is competitive with frontrunners Haley Barbour, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee," Yob said. "Mike Pence is probably a front-runner for that open slot."
Pence's uncompromising stands have some convinced he's the right candidate for the job, despite his more public overtures toward the governorship. Last week, a group headed by ex-Rep. Jim Ryun and former Reagan administration official Ralph Benko formed to publicly urge Pence to get in the race. Groups advocating a Pence run are cropping up in key primary states, as well.
In a letter to Pence, conservatives Ryun, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and longtime activist Morton Blackwell, among others, pushed the congressman to think nationally. "Seize this moment, Mike," they wrote. No other potential candidate -- including Palin -- has been the target of such an intense recruitment drive.
"Every facet of the conservative movement can, without hesitation, support [Pence]. Whether it's the tea party or social conservatives or economic conservatives or foreign policy conservatives, no one has any reservations about him, and that is unlike any other candidate," said Bopp, a leading social conservative activist and attorney. "There's no criteria for being a candidate that he lacks."
Other Republicans believe Pence's ideological purity is what makes him at once dangerous to his rivals in a primary and dangerous to his own party if he secures the nod in a general election. As Obama works to reclaim the political center, a process that will continue with his State of the Unon address on Tuesday, staking out a solid position on the right becomes a less promising position for the GOP.
"President Obama over the last six weeks or more has been brilliant from a public relations standpoint," said one Republican lobbyist who is not affiliated with any presidential campaign, citing a compromise on the Bush tax cuts, a call to reduce government regulation in a Wall Street Journal op-ed and his handling of the Tucson tragedy. Those moves "are all playing to the middle of the electorate, not the extremes."
"If we all agree the battle's going to be won in the middle, Pence is not your guy," the lobbyist added. "I've literally never heard a bad thing about him. People like him, both personally and professionally. But is this the year we're going to elect an ideologue? I don't think so."
Pence's decision appears to be a battle between head and heart. His head would suggest the easier path of a governor's race, leaving open the prospect of a future presidential run with the added benefit of avoiding an incumbent who will raise close to a billion dollars. But Pence's heart, and some of his friends, may be tugging him toward the national scene, where he could fill a perceived void in the GOP field.
Regardless of which path he chooses, Pence will have an unexpectedly large set of allies. If he decides to put off a presidential bid now in favor of returning home and building an executive resume, Pence will be only temporarily delaying his national ambitions.