INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana Gov. Mike Pence smiled for the TV cameras this month as a technology company announced plans to hire hundreds of new workers and add its name to the tallest tower in the Indianapolis skyline. Then the celebratory news conference took an awkward turn.
Scott McCorkle, the CEO of Salesforce Marketing Cloud, used part of his time at the microphone to advocate for expanded LGBT rights. It was a not-so-subtle rebuke of a policy Pence championed more than a year earlier that provoked national backlash and threats by some businesses to leave the state.
Indiana’s financial outlook has improved since Pence took office less than four years ago, but the Republican is facing a tougher than expected battle to keep the job in the reliably red state for reasons that have little to do with economics.
Under Pence, who has described himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order,” Indiana has marched to the front lines of the nation’s culture wars. It’s a significant detour from the vision of his wildly popular predecessor, Mitch Daniels, who once called on Republicans to adopt a “truce” on social issues to focus on the economy.
The most visible departure from Daniels’ truce was Pence’s signature in March 2015 on a religious objections law, which critics argued would allow businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians for religious reasons. Groups threatened to boycott the state, late-night television shows mocked the policy and a coalition of gay rights supporters and business interests — including Salesforce — successfully demanded that lawmakers approve changes.
Recently, Pence signed a law banning abortions in cases where a fetus could have a potentially life-threatening condition, has supported a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and clashed with the local Catholic archdiocese by opposing the settlement of Syrian refugees in Indianapolis.
Despite their qualms, many Republicans say there is no chance they will support his Democratic opponent, former state House Speaker Gregg, whom they see as a threat to many of Daniels’ hard-fought victories. Yet even some of Pence’s allies have suggested he may have overreached on the social policies, alienating moderate voters.
Now the governor is trying to shift debate back to the economy and is hoping voters’ fondness for Daniels, whose legacy looms large, can help him beat Gregg, who lost to Pence in 2012.
At a recent campaign kickoff rally, Pence praised Daniels as an “outstanding governor.” A second term, he promised, would build on the work of his predecessor, who in 2004 wrested control of the governor’s office away from Democrats for the first time in 16 years.
What remains to be seen is whether the independent and moderate Republican voters Pence needs are buying it.
Dave Brinson, an Indianapolis Republican who is retired, says he will for the first time vote for a Democratic governor out of frustration with “the things that have made the national news” under Pence.
“These people have spent more time wondering about whether somebody has to bake a cake for a gay person than they have about the practical matters of the state,” Brinson said.
Republican Jeff Darling donated $1,000 to Pence in 2012. This election, the social services administrator from southern Indiana has given $500 to Gregg after he was “dismayed” by some of Pence’s social initiatives.
Several high-profile donors who previously supported Pence are sitting out the race, including former Daniels campaign manager Bill Oesterle. The co-founder of tech company Angie’s List, Oesterle donated $150,000 to Pence last election. This year he has given nothing.
Philanthropist Christel Dehaan gave Pence $20,000 for the 2012 election. This time she has contributed $200,000 to Gregg.
“To suburban, college-educated women within the Republican Party — no question, it is off-putting,” said Betsy Wiley, a former Daniels administration official who is supporting Pence because of his education and fiscal policies. “Those are the ones who are struggling with, ‘Why do we have to keep talking about my reproductive organs?'”
Pence performs far better in rural parts of the state than in densely populated urban areas, said Christine Matthews, a pollster who worked for Daniels. That shifts much of the focus to the suburbs, including the affluent and well-educated “doughnut” counties surrounding Indianapolis.
During a recent speech in Indianapolis to the Downtown GOP Club — an audience that skews younger and urban — Pence noted that the party has its differences but most everyone agrees on fiscal matters.
Scott Fadness, the GOP mayor suburban Fishers, says Pence needs to make up lost ground with suburban voters turned off by social issues.
Fadness, who is supporting Pence, says economic issues can win voters over, but added he would “like to see a lot more pragmatism and maybe less ideology.”
Pence says Gregg supports “union bosses and liberal special interests,” which he says will lead to “more deficits, more debt, higher taxes, fewer jobs, more government.” The Republican governor previously disavowed political attacks and once wrote a manifesto titled “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner.”
The election, Pence says, will serve as a referendum on economic policies implemented under Republican rule, but his remarks could just as easily apply to social issues.
“Those are the policies that are on the ballot this year,” Pence said. “It’s not just a choice between two candidates. It’s a choice between two futures.”