It had been nine years since Mike Pence had run and brawled for a congressional seat, twice unsuccessfully challenging U.S. Rep. Phil Sharp.
His friend, U.S. Rep. David McIntosh, was planning to run for governor. What became the 6th Congressional District would be open. At his gubernatorial campaign kickoff in Columbus in June 2011, Pence recalled a vacation horseback ride in Colorado in 1999 when he pondered a return to congressional politics with his wife, Karen.
The couple spotted two red-tailed hawks drafting in the winds above the mountains. He would run once more, they decided, but “no flapping.” They would “soar.”
What has become clear in his gubernatorial race against Democrat John Gregg is that Pence is going to keep his sunny, good mood demeanor and “soar” with a warm and fuzzy message, a bank account double that of his opponent, and when it comes to taking the gloves off, Mike Pence the “good cop” will rely on “bad cop” surrogates to bloody up his opponent.
Appearing the Indiana Black Expo, Pence told Amos Brown, “We’re going to continue to put out a positive message about aspiration. We can build a better Indiana. It’s about aspiration for every community in the state.”
Thus, last week Pence released his fifth feel-good TV ad focusing on jobs. Seated with Karen, he talked about jobs pumping gas and baling hay, and then “I found myself out of work. We got through, tightening our belts.” He added that he wants Indiana to be known “everywhere as the state that works.”
“I know the pain of losing a job,” Pence tells a state with a persistent 8 percent jobless rate. It was the first time in nearly a year the state’s jobless rate increased as nearly 266,000 people were without work in data adjusted for seasonal swings in employment. “We’re kind of going sideways right now,” said Anthony Sindone, a continuing lecturer in economics at Purdue University North Central.
The Gregg campaign responded to the new Pence ad, saying, “After two and a half months of commercials, Mike Pence finally mentioned jobs for the first time in his latest ad. Unfortunately for Candidate Pence, Congressman Pence’s record shows that he has voted against jobs for Hoosiers time and time again.“Congressman Pence has no credibility on this issue,” said Daniel Altman, communications director for Gregg for Governor. “His commercial says he will protect Hoosier jobs, but as congressman he has voted time and time again to give thousands of Hoosiers the pink slip.”
That was followed the next day by a broadside from the GOP “bad cop” — in this instance, Indiana Republican Chairman Eric Holcomb — who accused Gregg of “embellishing” his record as Indiana House speaker. He took Gregg to task for taking a $1.7 billion surplus and converting it into a $760 million deficit. “I am not going to let an embellished record stand on its own,” Holcomb said, standing in front of a placard that said, “We can’t afford John Gregg (literally).”
But the emerging dynamic is that Pence is going to stay above the fray and project his sunny message while surrogates will do the dirty work.
As president of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation in 1991, Pence wrote a tome titled “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner” in which he discussed the gutter brawl tactics he used against Sharp in 1988 and 1990. One of the Pence campaign TV ads had an actor posing as an Arab thanking Sharp for American dependence on foreign oil.
“Negative campaigning, I now know, is wrong,” Pence acknowledged.
What Pence does not do is characterize his article as an apology, describing it in 1991 for the Muncie Star Press as a “confession, an admission, a personal indictment. That’s the extent of it.”
The Holcomb attack was seen by Indiana Democrats as the current dynamic. “Part of that stems from the fact that Mike Pence doesn’t want to run a negative campaign,” Indiana Democratic Chairman Dan Parker told WISH-TV, “so he’s going to have Eric do it.”
The strategy likely will work if Pence can maintain a big poll lead. In the only independent media poll taken in the race – the March 26-27 Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll – Pence had a 44 percent ot 31 percent lead over Gregg. Pence’s hard favorable stood at 32 percent and his hard negative at 20 percent (compared to 10/4 percent for Gregg, who was unknown by 71 percent of the likely general election voters surveyed).
Pence was unknown by 30 percent at that point in the Howey/DePauw Poll, so the clear Pence strategy in the five TV ads he has run since the May 6 primary is to gin up his name ID with the series of bio ads.
Gregg has been forced to rely almost exclusively on earned media, though Parker told me he expects Gregg to begin his TV ad campaign before Labor Day. When he does, Gregg faces two huge challenges: To define himself, and then redefine Pence, whom he has consistently characterized as a radical and “extremist” on social issues.
Gregg also has to hope Pence slips up, like heavy favorite Stephen Goldsmith did in 1996 with his mishandling of the Meridian Street police brawl, allowing Frank O’Bannon to pull off a stunning upset.
Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana. Follow him on Twitter @hwypol. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's.