A Midwestern man with strong Conservative credentials, Indiana governor Mike Pence might seem like an unusual choice of running mate for brash New Yorker Donald Trump – but contrasts can sometimes be complimentary.
By choosing a quieter personality with years of Washington experience, the Republican presidential nominee may be balancing the ticket with an eye towards attracting the more traditional wing of the Republican Party in November.
"The conservative branch of the party - who has been suspicious of Donald Trump – know that they can trust Pence," said Gary Nordlinger, Professor at the Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University. With years of Washington experience and a worldview strongly rooted in Christian Conservative values, Pence fills the traditional role of a vice presidential pick by allowing his running mate to take the lead.
“He’s just a guy who doesn’t cause controversies, he’s not going to overshadow you,” said Nordlinger.
Pence presented himself that way in his first stop for the Trump campaign, saying, “People who know me well, know I’m a pretty basic guy – I’m a Christian and I’m a conservative and a Republican in that order.”
That sense of authenticity was present in Pence back in the 1990s during his time as a conservative talk radio host, said Randy DeCleene, a partner at the global consulting firm. DeCleene was a young man just out of Indiana University, sorting out his hopes for the future and for public service, when he sent letters to several public figures asking for advice. Only Pence called back.
“The over-arching message of what he had to say was very positive and upbeat and inspiring," DeCleene remembers of their twenty-minute conversation. “Good people do good things when no one’s looking and that’s part of being from the middle part of the country and a state like Indiana."
After two unsuccessful runs for Congress, Pence finally became a Representative for Indiana in 2000. In his twelve years on Capitol Hill, Pence worked alongside House Speaker Paul Ryan who introduced him at the Republican National Convention last month as a man of faith and conviction, saying, “He comes from the heart of the conservative movement and the heart of America.”
Despite gaining experience in Washington, Pence is a traditional conservative who does not see government as the only answer to fixing problems. Even as he was hailed for bringing government experience to the Trump ticket, Pence noted in his first campaign speech, “We’re tired of being told a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives better for us than we can plan them for ourselves.”
Pence returned to Indiana in 2012 to serve as governor, where his strong stands on social conservative issues such as abortion and the conflict between gay rights and religious freedom courted controversy and protests. His beliefs on those issues contrast with Donald Trump's. Trump has, in the past, called himself “very pro-choice,” but more recently said he is “totally against abortion.” Trump has also expressed a far more accepting view on gay marriage than Pence.
Ultimately, the addition of Pence to the Republican ticket will only work if Trump allows his running mate the room to build bridges within the party. In the weeks since joining the campaign, Pence has had to answer for Trump’s remarks about the parents of a dead Muslim-American soldier, a call for Second Amendment supporters to fight back against Hillary Clinton’s gun control efforts, and a claim President Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton “founded” ISIS. Pence has defended Trump through these controversies even as the campaign is enduring continual staffing shakeups.
“Trump – as he has a tendency to do – has pretty much drowned out Mike Pence and the efforts he has undertaken to try to build that bridge,” said Stella M. Rouse, director at the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland.
“The campaign that Trump wants to run is not really conducive to what Pence brings to the ticket,” she said.
If the contrasting running mates can find common ground before November, the benefits could be significant.
“If Trump is elected, Pence can be of great value in terms of dealing with members of Congress on behalf of the administration,” said Nordlinger.
And for DeCleene, who followed Pence’s career as he built his own life in politics in Washington, D.C., Pence’s personal values are even more important.
“I think he has those qualities to be a bold, broad, strategic leader,” he said.
Pence will need to highlight those qualities in the closing weeks of the campaign, as he attempts to convince voters he bring the right balance to the Republican ticket.