INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s decision not to fulfill the political buzz and chase White House dreams in 2016 doesn’t necessarily clear up questions about his future.
Pence plans to formally announce his bid for a second gubernatorial term next month. But lingering unhappiness over the handling of a religious objections law this spring which critics viewed as anti-gay and businesses spoke out against in force could make him the first sitting governor to face a serious primary challenge since the state adopted the system in the 1970s.
Two wealthy Republican businessmen are already talking about launching or supporting challenges to Pence. If they follow through, the race could expose the depth of GOP turmoil caused by this year’s debates over similar religious initiatives in states such as Indiana, Arkansas and Louisiana.
Republican pollster Christine Matthews said the tumult left many people questioning Pence’s motivations.
“I think he still has some work to do to mend things with the business community – not just the business community but a fair chunk of the Republican Party,” she said.
Pence championed social issues during 12 years in Congress but largely sidestepped them early in his governorship. He had been seen by some in GOP circles as someone who could unite the party’s religious and business wings, and stoked talk of a national run with speeches to prominent party and conservative groups and trips overseas.
Those prospects faded quickly when he signed the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act in late March, touching off national criticism and following on the heels of last year’s battle over a proposed state constitutional ban on gay marriage.
Fears that the law would give business owners legal license to discriminate against gays based on religious beliefs prompted companies to ban travel to the state and some conventions to threaten cancelations – a politically dangerous fallout as Indianapolis has thousands of jobs tied to major sporting and business events. Already, Indiana has made the first $750,000 payment of what’s expected to be a $2 million image-rebuilding contract with a New York public relations firm.
Business leaders torched Pence, saying the measure painted Indiana as an intolerant place. And after the law was revised, some in his conservative base accused him of caving in to pressure. By April, Pence’s approval ratings had steeply dropped.
Pence enters the campaign with huge advantages in fundraising and name recognition over possible opponents – although Democrats and gay rights supporters are likely to push for adding sexual orientation to civil rights protections, adding to the political thorn in his side.
“Pence won’t really be able to control that,” said Matthews, who did polling work for former Gov. Mitch Daniels’ campaigns and noted that Pence will have to rebuild his reputation among voters. “It’s going to become like the scab that doesn’t heal over.”
Pence campaign spokesman Robert Vane said the governor is confident of his support among Republicans and pointed to his work with the GOP-dominated Legislature to advance many initiatives.
“The governor was very clear that he regretted what happened and he regretted some of the noise around it,” Vane said of the religious objections law. “But they worked together, not only to craft a fix, but also to do dozens and dozens of other good things for Hoosiers on things like education, a balanced budget amendment, infrastructure.”
Bob Thomas, who owns auto dealerships in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, said he was weighing a challenge to Pence in the GOP primary because the governor has ignored important issues, such as methamphetamine abuse and an overhaul of the troubled state Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Many business leaders lost confidence in Pence over the religious objection law, he said.
“That was because of Mike Pence,” Thomas said. “He talks about all this stuff. He energized the religious right to bring these issues to the Legislature. He told them he would sign it.”
Thomas spent nearly $600,000 of his own money for an unsuccessful 2010 Republican primary challenge to then-U.S. Rep. Mark Souder in northeastern Indiana.
A major player in business and political circles, Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle, announced last month he was stepping down as leader of the Indianapolis-based consumer review company to become more involved in state politics and help repair the damage from the religious objections law. Oesterle hasn’t said whether he’ll seek office himself or support other candidates, although he did run Daniels’ 2004 gubernatorial campaign and gave at least $150,000 to Pence’s 2012 campaign.
Vane said it was still speculation whether any Republicans will actually challenge Pence.
Two Democrats have already announced candidacies for their party’s 2016 nomination, including former Indiana House Speaker John Gregg, who narrowly lost to Pence in the 2012 gubernatorial election. Democratic state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who has clashed repeatedly with Pence on education policy, could also enter the mix.