INDIANAPOLIS — Throughout nearly two and a half centuries, more than a dozen Hoosier men have looked into a mirror and beheld a future president. Only two — grandfather and grandson Presidents William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison — ended up living in the White House for a combined total of four years and 30 days after defeating incumbent presidents.
One Hoosier, Socialist Eugene Debs of Terre Haute, ran for president in 1920 while living at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary after being convicted of sedition. The only 20th Century major party nominee, Republican Wendell Willkie of Rushville, lost to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, only to be considered for vice president four years later for a term in which FDR would only live for six weeks. Another favorite Hoosier son, U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh, ran for three weeks before bowing out in late 2006, only to become a finalist for Barack Obama’s 2008 ticket, losing out to Joe Biden at the 11th hour.
This week, former Indiana congressman, governor and U.S. vice president Mike Pence joins the ranks of perceived Hoosier presidential timber. Will he join the Harrisons with a legacy address of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Or will he be discarded into the historical dustbin, joining the esteemed personages of Ned Hannegan, Charles Fairbanks, Paul McNutt, Birch Bayh, Richard Lugar, Vance Hartke and Pete Buttigieg?
Being Hoosier can be tough, particularly if you’re running for president. In 1976, U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh dropped his bid as long-shot Jimmy Carter jelled, saying, “I just got tired of being everybody’s second choice.” In 1996, Sen. Lugar was reduced to being a “fleck on the screen,” vanquished there by skeptical media. Lugar’s campaign never had a chance, with the Oklahoma City terror attack reducing his City Market campaign launch to an afterthought.
In 1999 Dan Quayle became what Howey Politics Indiana described as the “first political victim of the internet” after he couldn’t escape his veep past. Now Mike Pence will try despite coming into this race between a rock (Never-Trumpers view him as a sycophant toady for most of his term) and a hard place (Trumpers see him as a traitor to their lost cause).
On his 64th birthday on Wednesday, Pence pledged to thread a historically narrow needle, finally announcing the pursuit of his life’s goal, the American presidency. In a campaign video, he conjured the leadership of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, never mentioning his former boss, President Donald Trump, who now leads the 2024 GOP field by a 30% margin.
In Iowa, Pence directly confronted Trump and the Jan. 6 insurrection. “Jan. 6 was a tragic day in the life of our nation,” Pence said. “President Trump’s reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol. But the American people deserve to know on that fateful day, President Trump also demanded I choose between him and our Constitution. Now voters will be faced with the same choice. I chose the Constitution and I always will.
“President Trump was wrong then and he is wrong today. I kept my oath to the Constitution of the United States,” Pence continued. “I had hoped he would come around to my role that day. That was not to be. The Republican party must be the party of the Constitution of the United States. I believe that anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States, and anyone who asks someone else to put them over the Constitution should never be president of the United States again.”
On Ukraine, Pence reminded voters that Trump called Russian President Putin a “genius” after the invasion began in February 2022. Pence said, “I know the difference between a genius and a war criminal.” He called the Ukraine war “America’s fight.”
He then trained his sights on the Democratic incumbent, saying, “Our country’s in a lot of trouble,” accusing “President Joe Biden and the radical left” of weakening America “at home and abroad.”
Pence will run on his advocacy of a national abortion ban, backing Ukraine in its war with Russia, increasing military spending, going back to his free trade roots, and stoking a series of social issues involving transgender students, and reining in drag shows before children.
Pence kicked off his campaign in Iowa instead of his home state of Indiana, hoping to galvanize his support among influential evangelical voters there that could lead to a breakthrough. In 2020, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg won the Democratic Iowa caucuses by concentrating on small town and rural voters.
At this early stage, Pence does not appear to be gathering support among fellow Hoosiers. There were no endorsements from the state’s congressional delegation. House Speaker Todd Huston has signed on to help Pence gain support among the Republican General Assembly supermajorities and spoke on his behalf at the Iowa kickoff.
The Pence brain trust is counting on several elements to thread his needle. He needs Trump to face additional indictments in the Mar-a-Lago top secret document case (with grand juries currently meeting in DC and Florida), the Jan. 6 insurrection case, and the Georgia “find me 11,800 votes” case.
Pence believes that Gov. DeSantis will fade, barring a last-minute personality transplant.
It will be a tough and unprecedented tight-rope walk.
The columnist is managing editor of Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs at StateAffairs.com/pro/Indiana. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.