Pence tried again two years later, this time ditching the bike in favor of vicious attack ads. The race is remembered as one of the nastiest in Indiana history. In one notorious Pence campaign spot, an actor dressed as a cartoonish Arab sheikh thanked Sharp for advancing the interests of foreign oil. Afterward, a humbled Pence attempted public repentance by personal essay.
With two failed congressional bids behind him, Pence decided to change tack. Pence also demonstrated a knack for seizing on more-creative wedge issues. By the time a congressional seat opened up ahead of the election, Pence was a minor Indiana celebrity and state Republicans were urging him to run.
In the summer of , as he was mulling the decision, he took his family on a trip to Colorado. One day while horseback riding in the mountains, he and Karen looked heavenward and saw two red-tailed hawks soaring over them. Before long, he was climbing the leadership ranks and making connections with key figures in the conservative-Christian establishment.
In , as he began plotting a presidential run in the upcoming election cycle, Pence met with Ralph Reed, the evangelical power broker, to seek his advice. Reed told Pence he should return home and get elected governor of Indiana first, then use the statehouse as a launching pad for a presidential bid. Casting himself as the heir to the popular outgoing governor, Mitch Daniels, he avoided social issues and ran on a pragmatic, business-friendly platform.
When the race tightened in the homestretch, Pence faced immense pressure from consultants to go negative. A former adviser recalls heated conference calls in which campaign brass urged him to green-light an attack ad on his Democratic opponent, John Gregg. Pence refused. Then, in early , Pence stumbled into a culture-war debacle that would come to define his governorship. At the urging of conservative-Christian leaders in Indiana, the GOP-controlled state legislature passed a bill that would have allowed religious business owners to deny services to gay customers in certain circumstances.
Pence signed it into law in a closed-press ceremony at the statehouse, surrounded by nuns, monks, and right-wing lobbyists. A photo of the signing was released, and all hell broke loose.
Corporate leaders threatened to stop adding jobs in Indiana, and national organizations began pulling scheduled conventions from the state. What took place instead was an excruciating minute interview in which Pence awkwardly danced around the same straightforward question: Does this law allow a Christian florist to refuse service for a same-sex wedding?
For Pence—and the conservative-Christian movement he represented—this was more than just a talking point. Conservative Christians had lost the battles over school prayer, sex education, and pornography censorship, and the Supreme Court was poised to legalize same-sex marriage.
Meanwhile, a widespread decline in churchgoing and religious affiliation had contributed to a growing anxiety among conservative believers. By , white evangelicals would tell pollsters that Christians faced more discrimination in America than Muslims did. Liberals were no longer working toward tolerance, it seemed—they were out for conquest. After seven chaotic days, Pence caved and signed a revised version of the religious-freedom bill—but by then it was too late.
His approval ratings were in free fall, Democrats were raising money to defeat him in the next gubernatorial election, and the political obituaries were being written. Things looked grimmer for Pence, and the religious right, than they ever had before. It was the Fourth of July weekend, and the two men were sizing each other up as potential running mates. Each had his own hesitations.
Coming into the game, Trump had formed an opinion of the Indiana governor as prudish, stiff, and embarrassingly poor, according to one longtime associate. But as the two men played golf, Pence asked what his job description would be if they wound up in the White House together. It would be the honor of a lifetime to serve you.
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Trump released a list of potential Supreme Court nominees with unimpeachably pro-life records and assembled an evangelical advisory board composed of high-profile faith leaders. When the campaign approached him with the offer, Land says, he was perplexed.
Nonetheless, as decision time approached, Trump was leaning toward New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a fellow bridge-and-tunnel loudmouth with whom he had more natural chemistry. But they were unable to get through to Trump. Then, on July 12, a miracle: During a short campaign swing through Indiana, Trump got word that his plane had broken down on the runway, and that he would need to spend the night in Indianapolis. With nowhere else to go, Trump accepted an invitation to dine with the Pences. In fact, according to two former Trump aides, there was no problem with the plane. The gambit worked: Three days later, Trump announced Pence as his running mate.
On the stump and in interviews, Pence spoke of Trump in a tone that bordered on worshipful. Campaign operatives discovered that anytime Trump did something outrageous or embarrassing, they could count on Pence to clean it up.watch
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There was no talking point too preposterous, no fixed reality too plain to deny—if they needed Pence to defend the boss, he was in. But people close to Pence say he felt no conflict between his campaign duties and his religious beliefs. Later, as the chairman of the House Republican Conference, he saw his job as being a servant to his fellow GOP lawmakers. And when he accepted the vice-presidential nomination, he believed he was committing to humbly submit to the will of Donald Trump.
Republicans across the country withdrew their endorsements, and conservative editorial boards called on Trump to drop out of the race. Most alarming to the aides and operatives inside Trump Tower, Mike Pence suddenly seemed at risk of going rogue. One campaign staffer told me that when she was asked on TV the day after the tape came out whether Pence would remain on the ticket, she ad-libbed that, yes, he was percent committed to Trump.
Such a move just four weeks before Election Day would have been unprecedented—but the situation seemed dire enough to call for radical action. One Republican senator called on the party to engage emergency protocols to nominate a new candidate. RNC lawyers huddled to explore an obscure legal mechanism by which they might force Trump off the ticket.
Republican donors and party leaders began buzzing about making Pence the nominee and drafting Condoleezza Rice as his running mate. Amid the chaos, Trump convened a meeting of his top advisers in his Manhattan penthouse. He went around the room and asked each person for his damage assessment. Priebus bluntly told Trump he could either drop out immediately or lose in a historic landslide. Priebus did not respond to requests for comment.
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The furtive plotting, several sources told me, was not just an act of political opportunism for Pence. He was genuinely shocked by the Access Hollywood tape. The couple was appalled by the video, however. Whatever God had planned for Mike Pence, however, it was not to make him the Republican nominee that weekend.
Trump proved defiant in the face of pressure from party leaders. By the time Trump left St. The campaign stabilized. The race tightened. And on the night of November 8, , Pence found himself standing on a ballroom stage in Midtown Manhattan—silently, obediently, servant-leaderly—while Trump delivered the unlikeliest of victory speeches. In political circles, there had been a widespread, bipartisan recognition that Pence was a decent man with a genuine devotion to his faith.
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But after watching him in , many told me, they believed Pence had sold out. Scott Pelath, the Democratic minority leader in the Indiana House of Representatives, said that watching Pence vouch for Trump made him sad. Of course, Pence is far from the only conservative Christian to be accused of having sold his soul. But the president has also enjoyed overwhelming support from rank-and-file conservative Christians.
And while his national approval rating hovers below 40 percent, poll after poll finds his approval rating among white evangelicals in the high 60s. The fact that such an ungodly president could retain a firm grip on the religious right has been the source of much soul-searching—and theological debate—within the movement. On one side, there are those who argue that good Christians are obligated to support any leader, no matter how personally wicked he may be, who stands up for religious freedom and fights sinful practices such as abortion. On the other side of the debate is a smaller group that believes the Christians allying themselves with Trump are putting the entire evangelical movement at risk.
Russell Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention, has made this case forcefully. But even as the debate rages on, there is one thing virtually all conservative Christians seem to agree on: Mike Pence. Regardless of how they voted or what they think about Trump, they feel a sense of identification with him, and trust in him.
One pastor compared Pence to Mordechai, who ascended to the right hand of a Persian king known for throwing lavish parties and discarding his wife after she refused to appear naked in front of his friends. Pence has also drawn comparisons to Daniel—who served a procession of godless rulers—and to Joseph of Egypt, the valiant servant of God who won the favor of an impetuous pharaoh known for throwing servants in prison when they offended him.
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