Ever since Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump picked Mike Pence to be his running mate, the Indiana press corps has watched its conservative governor get repackaged for a national audience as a moderate statesman.
Certainly compared to Trump, Pence looks like a mainstream Republican, a former congressman who not only knows Washington but also how to talk about the issues in a reasonable, if partisan, way.
But the Indiana governor is hardly mainstream, according to the reporters who covered him. In 2015, Pence signed a controversial bill that, in its original form, would have allowed businesses to discriminate against potential customers based on sexual orientation. It was quickly revised after national backlash, but largely because of his stance on that bill, Pence became so unpopular at home that he stood a good chance of losing his job to a Democrat in a firmly red state this fall.
“There’s almost this perception that Mike Pence is a moderate voice or a less partisan voice because in comparison to Trump almost everything seems like that,” says Brandon Smith, the state news bureau reporter for the Indiana Public Broadcasting System. “But Mike Pence is not moderate. He is very, very conservative, particularly socially speaking, He’s also, in my experience covering him, a pretty partisan guy.”
Mike Pence is not moderate. He is very, very conservative, particularly socially speaking.”
With the Indiana governor on the campaign trail since mid-July, the small but mighty statehouse press corps in Pence’s home state hasn’t seen much of him. Their reporting on Pence, like the vice presidential nominee himself, has been somewhat lost in the midst of the massive media attention given to Trump. But it’s been notable.
The Indianapolis Star had a big scoop three months ago when the paper broke the story that Donald Trump had picked the Indiana governor as his vice presidential running mate. Then on Oct. 9, the night of the second presidential debate, the Gannett-owned paper reported that Pence was sticking with Trump in public but privately was “holding his options open,” a scoop that picked up steam after it started circulating on Twitter.
After the debate, Pence tweeted his congratulations to Trump and said he was sticking with him. The Star stood by its story.
The Star also published a story right after Pence was named to the ticket about his deep religious faith. Brian Slodysko, who covers the Indiana statehouse for the AP, last week had a story about a Pence campaign aide who has remained on the Indiana state payroll, a possible ethics violation.
Regardless of the outcome on Tuesday, Pence will emerge from the campaign as a GOP star. He is already considered a Republican front-runner in 2020. The question is whether the image he’s created during this campaign would stand up if he were atop the ticket and faced the kind of national media scrutiny that comes with it.
Indiana press corps veterans like CNN reporters Tom LoBianco and Eric Bradner already are poised to help lead that coverage. LoBianco, who covers Pence, previously was a reporter at the Indianapolis Star. Bradner, who writes the Nightcap newsletter, covered Pence as statehouse reporter at the Evansville Courier & Press. At Roll Call, Jacob Rund, a former editor at TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students in Indiana, has written some of the most insightful stories this campaign season on the governor, including a story last week about Pence’s job options if he doesn’t become vice president.
Before Trump selected Pence as his running mate, Pence had a reputation for being mostly accessible, the kind of politician who’d welcome reporters to his press conferences–even if he had a scripted answer to their questions, or avoided them altogether.
“He had an incredible knack for never answering your questions,” says Lesley Weidenbener, a longtime Indiana statehouse reporter who is now the managing editor of Indianapolis Business Journal. “Over time, reporters stopped going to his events.”
While he was considered congenial, he wasn’t “setting any records for access to journalists,” says Gerry Lanosga, an assistant professor at the Indiana University Media School and a former political reporter. “He’s had a reputation of being a friend of the press,” Lanosga says. “But it’s a mixed relationship.”
The press-friendly moves: Pence vetoed a bill in 2015 that would have charged a fee on public records searches that took more than two hours. And this year, he vetoed a bill that would have sheltered private college and university police departments in Indiana from the same reporting requirements as other law enforcement agencies. But he signed another bill this year that limits public access to footage from police body cameras.
“Compared to Trump who spent all of his public life in business and TV, there’s much more of a government-related background on Pence for people to judge,” says Ronnie Ramos, the executive editor of the Indianapolis Star. “Up until he joined the Trump ticket he’s been fairly consistent on his viewpoints and policies. He’s not one who’s changed a lot.”
For most of the months he’s spent on the national stage, Pence has not been a big story in Indiana. Statehouse reporters who typically might have been chasing him are instead focused on the governor’s race that Pence left behind.
Smaller media outlets have not been able to afford to join him on the campaign trail, says Niki Kelly, statehouse bureau chief for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. “Frankly, access to Pence is completely gone here in Indiana,” she says. “He is rarely in the statehouse, and they don’t tell us when he is. We see it on Twitter. The few times he has had events since July, he doesn’t talk to Indiana reporters at all.”
National reporters who’ve been able to travel with him aren’t getting much out of him, anyway, she notes. “He doesn’t gaggle.”
Smith says it’s been “one of the delights of my life the past few months” to see Pence dodge questions from the national media. “They are experiencing what we in Indiana have experienced in the last few years,” he says.
Weidenbener of Indianapolis Business Journal says there is so much star power atop the presidential tickets that the vice presidential nominees–both Pence, and Tim Kaine on the Democratic ticket–have been lost.
A consequence, Weidenbener says, is that Pence’s personal politics have been pushed aside. “He seems so incredibly calm compared to Donald Trump, so straightforward.”
That is certainly one side of Pence, she says. “But I do think he is very, very conservative, and that’s something people at the polls should know.”
TOP IMAGE: Photo by Gage Skidmore