Jittery Hill GOP Sees Pence as Bridge to Trump

Republican lawmakers see an ally as their former colleague is reportedly tapped for vice president.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence joins Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally in Westfield, Ind., Tuesday.
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
Ben Geman, Daniel Newhauser and Jason Plautz
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Ben Geman Daniel Newhauser and Jason Plautz
July 14, 2016, 4:48 p.m.

Capitol Hill Republicans forced into an awkward political marriage with Donald Trump are hopeful that former congressman Mike Pence’s reported selection as Trump’s running mate will bring the two sides closer together.

Trump’s campaign has not confirmed that he will name Pence, now Indiana’s governor, as his selection. On Thursday night Trump postponed plans to name his choice Friday in light of the truck attack in Nice, France that killed dozens of people. But earlier in the day, GOP lawmakers praised the apparent choice following multiple news reports that Trump will choose their former colleague—someone who, unlike Trump, both knows Congress well and has strong ties to social conservatives.

“If that’s in fact the nominee, I think it’s a great choice. Good move by Donald Trump,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters in the Capitol.

GOP Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a good friend of Pence’s, went further. “His voice comes as close to Ronald Reagan’s voice as any person in the Republican Party,” Hensarling, a Texas Republican who worked closely with Pence, told National Journal. (Hensarling endorsed fellow Texan Ted Cruz for president but later backed Trump after Cruz dropped out.)

Pence, a six-term congressman who was elected governor in 2012, would bring his relationships with Capitol Hill Republicans to the ticket. If Trump wins, Pence could also help the businessman find avenues to work with lawmakers on an agenda.

Sen. Jeff Flake, who has withheld support for Trump, called the reported decision “the best choice he has made so far.”

Flake said he’s hopeful that Pence could help change some of Trump’s positions, including Trump’s stances on immigration and his proposed ban on Muslims entering the country, as well as the overall “tone and tenor” of Trump’s campaign.

“I hope that Mike Pence can be a good influence on him,” Flake told reporters in the Capitol. Last year, Pence said on Twitter that “Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional.”

It’s one of several of his policy differences with Trump, such as Pence’s support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that Trump has attacked.

More broadly, Pence’s history in government could ease concerns among Republicans about Trump’s fitness for the office. “Mike Pence is solid. On every issue, he’s a proven, consistent conservative,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, who has expressed deep misgivings about Trump while still supporting the presumptive nominee.

“On national security, on issues of every kind, he checks all those boxes if that’s indeed who it is,” Rubio told reporters Thursday.

Rep. Tom Rooney, who chaired Rubio’s campaign in Florida, said that although he had preferred another candidate, adding Pence to the ticket makes him feel more comfortable.

“He’s genuinely a good person,” he said. “I feel better about the election with him on there for sure.”

A number of lawmakers framed Pence’s apparent selection as a bridge to social conservatives.

Republican Policy Committee Chairman Luke Messer lost a primary to Pence in 2000, but would later go on to take Pence’s congressional seat when the latter ran for governor. He said Pence has since become a friend and mentor, and noted that he would be an outstanding addition to the GOP ticket.

“He makes the ticket better from Day One,” Messer said. “He has a long record as a national security and social conservative. And he will be a natural to reach out to those parts of our coalition to bring the party together in the fall.”

Pence would undoubtedly bring conservative bona fides. He was once the chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee and has been a champion of religious and socially conservative causes both in Congress and as a governor, particularly in restricting access to abortion.

Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus in particular heralded Trump’s choice of Pence. As RSC chairman during the 109th Congress, Pence was essentially a precursor to today’s Freedom Caucus bomb throwers, threatening to defeat GOP budgets, fighting for spending offsets, and trying to influence leadership contests.

Famously, when then-Majority Leader Tom Delay was indicted and stepped down, a Pence-led RSC maneuvered to block then-Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier from taking his place over concerns that Dreier was too moderate on issues such as stem-cell research, same-sex marriage, and illegal immigration.

In that sense, the pick directly addresses the concern in some quarters of the Republican Party that Trump is not a conservative—a concern even recently expressed by Newt Gingrich, who Trump was reportedly also considering as a running mate.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, whose first term coincided with Pence’s last House term, said the pick, “would guarantee that conservatives have a substantial presence in the Trump administration.” Rep. Mark Meadows, meanwhile, called him a “very conservative member” and a “real fighter” for conservative values. Rep. Dave Brat similarly called him a “good solid conservative.”

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, another Freedom Caucus member, said Pence would bring out “values voters” that would help Trump in Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania.

“It helps [Trump] get there and it helps him really work together with Congress,” Huelskamp said.

Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, one of the first congressmen to endorse Trump, said that Pence could help with outreach to members still unsure about the campaign, but noted it was “incumbent on House Republicans to work towards that relationship as well.”

“This business, like every business, is about relationships; this business more than most,” Cramer said. “It’s always helpful to have a relationship. That said, Donald Trump is our nominee and Republicans should be embracing that, helping him become the best candidate.”

Still, it’s not clear that Pence, if selected, could exert sway over Trump, who has often refused to allow advisers to shape his behavior.

Rep. Charlie Dent, who opposes Trump’s campaign, had kind words for Pence, praising his “tone and temperament” and his “very socially conservative” ideology.

“If the objective here is to try to put the base together, I understand the decision,” the Pennsylvania Republican said, but added that Pence would likely not expand the campaign’s appeal beyond the base.

So does it make him more likely to support the campaign? Dent had a succinct answer: “No.”

Flake, meanwhile, was unsure if Pence could help change Trump’s positions. “We’ll see how much impact he can have,” Flake said.

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