He’s more charismatic than Scott Walker, more conservative than Chris Christie and, unlike so many of the top-tier 2016 Republicans, he has actually run a state.
So why isn’t Indiana Gov. Mike Pence generating the kind of buzz worthy of a top-tier candidate?
Probably because while his opponents have been show horses, he’s been a work horse. And that makes him a dark horse.
Here are five reasons why we should take Pence’s chances very seriously:
1. The résumé’ – “[A]s a former congressman and now a governor, [Pence] has garnered that hard-won ‘two-fer’ status, thus giving him a very credible résumé,” says Cheri Jacobus, a GOP strategist.
Being a governor is important for a variety of reasons, both substantive and symbolic. Before becoming a governor, “Mike Pence’s policy bandwidth consisted of tax cuts,” said one strategist. “But…when you’re a governor, you’re actually in charge of running things.”
Of course, merely being a governor isn’t enough. You have to have governed effectively, and that’s just what he’s done. “Pence comes from a state that is a success story. It’s actually gaining industrial jobs. It’s a right-to-work state now,” added the strategist.
Aside from work experience, it also helps to have had life experience — and a compelling story to tell. Again, Pence has that. “He is an evangelical Midwestern conservative who has the compelling family story to tell of his grandfather being an Irish immigrant who drove a bus in Chicago,” says John Dunagan, a public affairs executive who worked on the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign.
2. He looks and sounds the part – Résumé’s are good, but let’s be honest, modern-day presidents have to be attractive and charismatic. Check and check. Take a look at this picture and tell me he isn’t out of central casting.
Pence is also skilled on television, which makes sense when you consider his background. According to his biography on Politico, “In 1992, Pence started a career in radio broadcasting and, two years later, Network Indiana syndicated his show statewide. The Mike Pence Show aired weekdays on 18 radio stations. Pence also hosted a Sunday morning political television show in Indianapolis from 1995 to 1999.”
3. He’s is widely respected as a full-spectrum conservative – Nobody mentions it, but as recently as 2011, conservatives tried to draft Mike Pence to run for president. That September, Pence won the 2012 presidential straw poll at the Value Voters Summit that was hosted by the The Family Research Council, a social conservative group.
“If he were to run it would not be a Pawlenty-like candidacy but much more in the dark horse mold of the upstart Mike Huckabee from 2008,” says Gary Marx, executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. “Also, like Huckabee he has many years of experience in talk radio that makes him a communicator of the highest caliber on the stump. He would connect with the grassroots conservative base.”
Pence has all the social conservative bona fides of a Mike Huckabee, but unlike Huckabee, he’s also beloved by fiscal conservatives. When all the buzz was about Sarah Palin a couple years ago, Chris Chocola, president of the powerful fiscally conservative Club for Growth (and a former Indiana congressman), told me that Pence’s “conservative credentials are really unquestionable” and that he “appeals to every group that Palin appeals to — and probably a little more.”
Regarding his record, former Majority Leader Dick Armey said of Pence, “He’s been a rock-solid fiscal conservative, showing up not only for the high-profile TARP and Obamacare battles, but also championing issues that are maybe less glamorous politically but are critically important for our country, such as fundamental tax reform, specifically the flat tax.”
The bottom line is that the various wings of the conservative movement all seem to like him. David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) has even predicted that Pence will be the first “Teavangelical” president.
But Pence has an additional selling point: The mainstream media also respects his brand of conservatism. I’m not suggesting they like him or that he buddies up to them — and I’m not naive enough to suggest that he can win them over. But they respect him as a professional — as a serious leader — and as an honest broker. A lot of this comes down to Pence’s Reaganesque likeability — a quality that Mike Huckabee also taps into.
“Well, I’m a conservative, but I’m not in a bad mood about it,” Pence likes to say.
4. He’s not in the Senate – “I think the Senate is going to go back to being the road to nowhere that it’s always been for Republicans,” said one top Republican strategist. Running against Washington is a tried and true strategy. This is good news for Pence, whose top competition would likely come from the upper chamber.
“The Washington news media… is drawn to the Senate,” explains GOP strategist Carlyle Gregory. “But the real action is in the states.”
I’ve already mentioned Pence’s impressive résumé, which includes time in Washington and in the governor’s mansion. But just as important as his executive experience is the fact that he’s no longer in D.C.
“The best thing that ever happened to Mike Pence was earning a ticket out of Congress,” says Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist and the co-founder of Purple Strategies, who also describes the Indiana governor as “a political outsider” with “populist appeal.”
“That’s why only 14 percent of our presidents have come from the Senate, and only three in history came directly from serving there (Kennedy, Harding, & Obama) and all of them were disasters to varying degrees,” Gregory added. “And everyone except the most ardent of Obama lovers knows that he was woefully unprepared to be president.”
5. He’s under the radar – Being in Indiana also means Pence is away from the spotlight. This means he doesn’t have to take positions on issues like Syria or whether or not to defund Obamacare. Sure, this means that he is out of the limelight — but that’s probably a good thing.
“He’s a totally undervalued commodity right now,” says Kevin Madden, who served as a senior adviser for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. “But that can be a good thing in a media environment where overexposure is a real risk.”
“Look, someone who nobody is talking about right now will surprise everyone and catch fire in late 2015 and be in a strong position right before the caucuses arrive,” Madden added.