No one in Indiana is likely more glad to see the calendar flip over into a new year than the governor, Republican Mike Pence.
When 2015 opened, the Hoosier governor seemed golden. Speculation abounded then about whether he planned to run for president in 2016.
His prospects last January seemed genuine. He had a modest, but solid national profile, a decent record of conservative governance as a state chief executive and a genial, reassuring media presence. Perhaps just as important, he’d placed a couple of loyal former staffers in key positions with the conservative super-funders the Koch brothers, which meant he had better access than most to an ATM that is crucial to GOP presidential candidates.
Pence as a serious presidential prospect seemed plausible.
Flash forward to now.
As we enter 2016 – the presidential campaign year that might have been Pence’s best shot at the White House – the governor not only isn’t angling to occupy the Oval Office, he’s now in what promises to be a tough, tough fight to hold onto his current office.
How did the tumble occur?
The short answer is that 2015 happened.
Pence faced a series of political challenges that exposed his worst flaws as a leader – a tendency to think that constant communication is an adequate substitute for actual thought and to believe that smiling geniality can take the place of doing one’s homework.
The first crisis to expose chinks in Pence’s armor was the national laugh fest that accompanied the roll-out of Just IN, the governor’s proposed state-run news agency. When the dust cleared, it became clear that Pence planned to build little more than a single website where all state press releases would appear, but his puppyish need to oversell everything prompted him and his staffers to suggest he was creating something that would supplant newspapers, TV and radio stations and all other forms of communications.
The reaction from journalists across the country was swift and unforgiving. Pence became both a pariah and a punchline.
Then things got even worse.
The donnybrook over the ill-advised Religious Freedom Restoration Act turned Indiana into a national and international joke – and prompted a host of companies, other states, not-for-profits, associations and conventions to say they would refuse to do business with or in Indiana.
Bad as the RFRA hit was for the state, it may have been even worse for the governor.
When Pence – belatedly – realized RFRA might be a problem, he went on national television to make his case. Once there, he turned in a performance that veered back and forth between pugnacity and incoherence.
He seemed both mean and incompetent.
And that’s when the bottom fell out.
Pence’s approval rating as governor prior to Just IN and RFRA had been solidly in the 60 percent range. After those twin disasters, it fell to just slightly more than half that – and has not climbed to more than 50 percent since.
And while the governor is doubtless grateful to see 2015 disappear in the rearview mirror, his troubles are far from over.
The big challenge confronting Indiana political leaders is determining whether the state should add language protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered citizens to our civil rights laws. A clear majority of the state’s independent, moderate and progressive citizens favor doing so.
But Pence’s base – social conservatives – opposes the change with almost rabid vehemence. They even have filed a suit challenging the modest “fix” to the RFRA debacle saying that any language in state law preventing them from discriminating against LGBT citizens is more than they will stomach.
And that leaves the governor with a difficult choice – stick with the people who have supported him for years even if it means alienating a majority of Hoosiers who just want to move forward or line up with that majority, which already may have lost patience with him.
As 2015 dawned, Mike Pence looked like a political prince. As 2016 opens, he looks like a man fighting for his life.
What a difference a year can make.