By Brian Howey
— For evangelical Republicans, the apex of political power and influence is within their grasp.
The likely ascension of "Gov. Mike Pence" will deliver them from the economic dominance of the Grand Old Party, giving the "true believers" not only the most socially conservative governor in modern Indiana history, but potentially presiding over super majorities in both houses of the Indiana General Assembly, where House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tempore David Long provide not only lengthy tenures, but impeccable pro-life credentials.
This evangelical move into unprecedented political power comes as church attendance and affiliation is dropping in Indiana as well as the United States. A report issued in May by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies revealed that church membership is down 5 percent in Indiana over the past decade, 9 percent in conservative Northeastern Indiana, and 2 percent nationally.
There have been pro-life governors in modern Indiana politics. Democrats Evan Bayh and Frank O'Bannon possessed such credentials, though they were not activist about it. Gov. Mitch Daniels signed into law not only the defunding of Planned Parenthood, but also other abortion restrictions despite his vow to maintain a "truce of social issues." Daniels did not initiate such legislation, but once it arrived on his desk he willingly signed.
Thus the stars align with Pence, Long and Bosma in ways they never have before in modern Hoosier governance. From the administration of Republican Gov. Robert Orr (who was personally pro-choice and both he and First Lady Josie Orr were members of Planned Parenthood), through the first two years of Daniels, there were pro-choice Republican legislative leaders in former Speaker Paul Mannweiler, Senate President Pro Tempore Robert D. Garton and Senate Finance Chairman Larry Borst. At one point, the pro-life roles were flipped in the House with pro-choice Mannweiler leading the GOP while pro-life John Gregg led the Democrats.
The push of the evangelical wing of the party began routinely enough with a passing of the House torch in 2002 when Mannweiler retired from the legislature, giving way to Bosma, who became Speaker for the first time in 2004 for two years and again in 2010. In 2004, Brent Waltz upset Borst in the Republican primary, and in 2006, Greg Walker stunned Garton, again in a Republican primary.
The irony is that Pence adhered to Daniels' call for a social issue "truce" during most of the 2012 campaign cycle. While he talked about Indiana's economic and "moral" challenges at both his campaign kickoff in June 2011 and a year later at the Indiana Republican Convention, he has observed a relative silence on almost all social issues.
The Pence campaign has tended to lock the candidate down. As I sought an interview that never happened last July, spokeswoman Christy Denault said at one point that the campaign was determining which reporters "were on our side." The Pence media availabilities dwindled from early summer when he began his policy rollout to just a few during the autumnal homestretch.
Faced with the potential super majorities, the early calculation of Team Pence seems to be: we don't need the press. What the press needed was for Pence to put this balance into context.
The Pence silence on moral issues is a departure from his years in Congress, when he politely disagreed with Daniels' truce. On Jan. 24, 2011, when both Pence and Daniels were flirting with a 2012 presidential run, Pence said at the March for Life, "We will keep gathering until Roe v. Wade is sent to the ash heap of history where it belongs. We must not remain silent when great moral battles are being waged."
With the Pence campaign of today, there is growing speculation that his emphasis on jobs and education will eventually give way to the social issues that have been a significant part of his congressional career.
Should that occur, expect cries of "bait and switch."
While many expect the initial Pence legislative thrust to be economic in nature, with one of the most conservative legislatures in memory coming into office in November, there will be an array of social legislation dealing with chemical abortion, personhood, and creationism originating from senators and House members. While Pence has not actively discussed his "moral agenda," he has said that since he is pro-life, people can expect him to sign any pro-life legislation that crosses his desk.
During the debate sequence only one moral issue was directly posed to the candidates, dealing with creationism in public schools. Neither Pence nor Gregg directly answered the question about moral issues. "On issues of curriculum, they should be decided by parents and local schools," Pence said, "not dictated out of Indianapolis."
Could Pence be expected to veto such a bill, based on local control? And will he rely on legislative leaders like Long and Bosma to put the clamps on controversial legislation, as Bosma apparently did - possibly at the behest of Daniels - on such legislation as creationism?
Or will a Gov. Pence essentially tell his evangelical base in the House and Senate to focus on the economy during the first couple of years? A scenario along those lines might be that Pence needs to come out of the blocks strong on job creation as a key ingredient for what many expect to be a serious look at the 2016 presidential race, should Mitt Romney lose to President Obama next week.
- Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana online at www.howeypolitics.com.