Pence Would Bring a Lot to Team Trump, at Great Political Risk
Policy + Politics

Pence Would Bring a Lot to Team Trump, at Great Political Risk

WIth Donald Trump promising to announce his choice of a vice presidential running mate this week, speculation seems to be settling on Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, which in some ways is perfectly understandable, and in others is quite puzzling.

Putting a stalwart social conservative and Evangelical Christian like Pence on the ticket might help to ease concerns among Republicans about their presumptive nominee’s conservative bona fides. And that’s no small concern for Trump right now.

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Republican presidential candidates in general face a much tougher electoral map than Democrats for primarily demographic reasons. To be successful, a GOP candidate must unite the party and ensure a large voter turnout. Right now Trump is contending with a hard core of “never Trump” opposition within the party that extends even to an effort to overthrow the primary results at next week’s nominating convention.

Naming a strong conservative like Pence to the ticket could be seen as an effort to placate members of the party who fear that Trump is either a liberal in disguise or an opportunist with no real political convictions at all.

But Pence brings considerably more to the table than that. The 57-year-old attorney-turned radio talk show host-turned politician served six terms in the House of Representatives, where he was elected chair of the House Republican conference, the number three position in the GOP’s House leadership at the time. Add to that his nearly four years as Indiana’s governor, and Pence brings 16 years of government experience to a ticket that currently boasts zero.

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Those are some of the reasons why it’s easy to understand how Pence could be appealing to the Trump campaign. But there are at least three factors working against a Trump-Pence ticket becoming reality.

First, from a purely electoral standpoint, Pence doesn’t add much to the ticket. Unlike, say, adding Ohio Gov. John Kasich to the ticket -- something the former candidate for the Republican nomination has ruled out -- Pence would not put a swing state in play.

Indiana has voted Republican in 9 of the last 10 presidential elections (President Obama edged Arizona Sen. John McCain there in 2008.) If Trump needed Pence to keep Indiana in play, it would be a sign that he is headed for a crushing loss in November.

Second is that Pence is running for reelection in November, and recently won the Republican gubernatorial primary. If he were to join the Trump ticket, Indiana state law would force him to quit the governor’s race. The means that Pence would be giving up a strong chance to return to the governorship in order to play a role in a Trump campaign that is very, very far from being an assured success. And the governor’s race might not be the only one affected by Pence’s withdrawal. On Monday, Democratic former senator Evan Bayh was expected to announce that he would run for Senate again in a race for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Dan Coats.

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Bayh represents a real threat to win the seat in a year when the GOP is struggling not to lose its grip on the US Senate majority. With Bayh running, a decision by Pence to take himself out of the election and therefore off the top of the ticket could do serious damage to GOP hopes of retaining Coats’ seat.

Finally, while many of the other names being thrown around as possible Trump VP picks are people with no plausible chance of winning elective office again -- think Newt Gingrich and Chris Christie -- Pence is a relatively young man with a real political future. Many had expected him to run for president in this cycle, and 2020 is almost certainly on his radar screen.

For that reason, it looks like a risky choice for the Indiana governor to tie his fortunes to a Trump campaign that has already begun tearing the Republican Party apart. While House Speaker Paul Ryan’s status as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee in 2012 probably strengthened the case for him to be an eventual presidential nominee, it’s far from clear that linking up with Trump would have the same effect on Pence.

So it will be fascinating to see, when Pence appears with Trump at a rally Indiana Tuesday night, whether he hops aboard the Trump Train, or like others before him, just waves as it rolls by.