Just a few weeks ago, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was on the endangered species list. An embattled governor with a long list of enemies — many of them with “Pence Must Go” and “Fire Pence” yard signs decorating their lawns — he was locked in a desperate struggle for re-election.
Pence’s campaign had thrown a massive amount of money and negative advertising at his Democratic opponent, John Gregg, without moving Gregg’s poll numbers down while the Republican incumbent’s numbers continued a slow slide.
Pence was in trouble.
Knowledgeable observers, including staunch Republicans, predicted that the governor’s political career would be over if he lost to Gregg.
Then Pence landed on the Republican national ticket as GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s running mate.
Now, just a month or so after the death watch on his ambitions was being conducted in earnest, Pence now has The Wall Street Journal
— the voice of conservative orthodoxy and the Republican ruling class for a century — editorializing that Trump should step aside and let the vice-presidential nominee carry the flag for the GOP.
Then there’s Pence calling heavy hitters in the Republican Party — the Bush family, Ohio Gov. John Kasich — urging everyone to come together to defeat the Democrats.
And there’s Pence adroitly walking back Trump’s most extreme statements, providing cover for — and collecting political IOUs from — Republican U.S. Senate, House and state candidates all over the country in the process.
In doing so, Pence is back on the footing with which he feels the most familiar. He’s the voice of soft-spoken conservatism, the one who advances his arguments without raising his voice, the Republican who somehow manages to keep a foot in each one of the party’s warring camps.
There are those who dismiss Pence’s emergence on the national scene as a voice of relative reason as situational. He looks sane, they argue, only because he’s being compared with Trump, whose impulse control is only marginally better than Charlie Sheen’s.
There is some truth to that perception, but it’s not the whole truth.
Pence’s improbable rise to national prominence is at least in part attributable to his willingness to allow people to underestimate him. He’s always been more than happy to let people think he’s not that smart nor that capable nor that tough.
His troubles at the Statehouse made it easier for him to encourage people to sell him short.
Pence never was comfortable or a good fit as governor. State and local issues bored him. Even after he took the oath of office as Indiana’s chief executive, he dragged the conversation (and the state’s attention) back to national issues — shaking his fist at the White House over Obamacare, attempting to establish an Indiana foreign policy by banning Syrian refugees, etc.
Leaving the governor’s race has unleashed Pence to follow his instincts.
Those instincts have led him back from defeat before.
The conventional wisdom is that Pence’s career will end if Trump goes down to the kind of spectacular defeat polls suggest is coming. A debacle of that magnitude, that reasoning contends, will taint everyone associated with it, especially Pence.
I’m not so sure.
At the very least, he’s going to come out of this race with many people in the Republican Party thinking of him as a guy who took one for the team. A lot of those down-ticket GOP candidates are going to know what he did to help make their races easier.
Some of them may even remember that four years from now.
And, again assuming the polls are right and Hillary Clinton wins the presidency Nov. 8, if Pence doesn’t want to challenge an incumbent in 2020, there’s another opportunity closer to home.
Hoosier Democrat Joe Donnelly’s U.S. Senate seat will be on the ballot in 2018.
I can’t think of another Republican — with the exception of former Gov. Mitch Daniels, who has made it clear he’s done with politics — who is better positioned than Pence to challenge Donnelly. A seat in the Senate would give Pence the chance to engage on the national and international issues that interest him.
There are a lot of Hoosiers who thought that, because Mike Pence was down, he also was out for the count.
They were mistaken.
The man can take a punch.
The man is nothing if not resilient.