INDIANAPOLIS — Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike Pence built a national brand name for himself as an unabashed social and religious conservative, a good-natured warrior for the causes he believes in. But talk of those causes has been largely absent from his run for Indiana governor over the last year.
Instead, Pence has run almost exclusively on economic issues, saying that creating jobs has to be "job one" for the next governor. The shift to fiscal issues has Democrats crying foul, but the Pence campaign say that is the nature of an ailing economy that has left many Hoosiers jobless.
"For the past year, Mike has been listening to Hoosiers and what's important to them," said Pence spokeswoman Christy Denault. "The fact is, what Indiana needs to work even better is a focus on jobs and schools. Hoosiers will have the chance throughout the summer to hear all about Mike's proposals for a governing agenda, and they can judge the merits of those ideas for themselves."
Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Baron Hill served with Pence from 2001 to 2005 and from 2007 to 2011. When asked if Pence worked in Washington more as a fiscal conservative or a social conservative, Hill said it was clearly the latter.
"Social issues, there's no question about that," Hill said of Pence's focus. "He even says we cannot ignore these kinds of issues, that they have to be first and foremost. And I think he wants to advance that agenda. Now, he's running for governor and he understands that's not going to get him elected, so he's playing to political whims here."
On a national scale, Pence built a name for himself in part by consistently pushing efforts to pull federal funding for Planned Parenthood. However, Denault points out he also authored tax cut measures like a call to cut the top capital gains tax rate to 10 percent.
Perhaps the height of that movement was the America's President Committee started by former Reagan counsel Ralph Benko and former U.S. Rep. Jim Ryun to draft Pence into the presidential campaign. In many conservative circles, Pence was the more popular Hoosier pick for president than Gov. Mitch Daniels. Pence's name is still mentioned frequently as a future contender for the White House among Indiana Republicans.
Indeed, Daniels and Pence represent opposite sides of an intraparty debate for Republicans. When Daniels said Republicans need to call for a "truce" on social issues to focus on fiscal measures, it rankled some in the party base, including Pence, who argued that pressing moral issues cannot be ignored.
During an Indiana Right to Life rally on the south lawn of the Statehouse, Jane Boss said economic concerns easily trump social concerns for her in race for the governor's office. However, she said, issues like the federal mandate that religious institutions provide contraceptive health care coverage can turn that prioritization on its head.
"Having said all of things about the religious freedom, the only other thing I would come this far for is pro-life. That's the other big deciding issue for me in who I'm going to vote for," said Boss, 48, who drove from her home in Corydon for the rally.
Across the lawn, Maria O'Rourke, 45 of Indianapolis, said she did not think the two broad topics — economic and social issues — can be separated easily. Strong morals and concern about social issues drive individuals to build stronger communities, she said, although she cautioned that people shouldn't be forced into charity or collective aid.
"Social issues, the morality of a culture, it affects the economy. It goes together," O'Rourke said. "So as far as the governor's race, I want to see both. I want to see the candidate who is looking at both of those."