What Indiana Journalists Want You To Know About Mike Pence

Donald Trump is reportedly set to announce Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate. Pence has had a “divisive” tenure as governor thanks in part to his efforts to limit reproductive rights in his home state and his support for a controversial “religious freedom” bill that could have given businesses license to discriminate against LGBT people, according to Indiana journalists who have covered him for years.

In interviews with Media Matters in recent days, several Indiana journalists highlighted that Pence currently sports a low favorability rating for an incumbent Republican in the state. Most of his support problems stem from a handful of unpopular policies, the first being an attempt to create what amounted to a government-run news service in 2013 in which the state would have sought to collect and filter news for reporters.

“The state tried to create this misnamed statewide news service called Just In that would essentially consolidate a lot of the state news services and give the governor an opportunity to put his spin on the kind of stories that should be covered,” recalled Ed Feigenbaum, who writes the popular Indiana Legislative Insight newsletter.

“Unfortunately, the media got a hold of the memo and the content before he was able to define it. His people were poorly equipped to respond to that, it was really the first misstep of his governorship.”

After that idea was dropped, Pence found himself at the center of a nationwide controversy for signing legislation that was widely viewed as an opportunity to “make it easier for religious conservatives to refuse service to gay couples.”

The anti-LGBT law, known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, was enacted more than a year ago, but was quickly amended to mitigate the law's impact after it caused a firestorm. But reporters say the anger it sparked from residents and business leaders still has not subsided. Many were upset when it sparked boycotts of local events and caused some major companies to rethink expansion plans in Indiana.

“It’s something that has cost him support, has cost him campaign contributions,” said Jim Shella, a political reporter at WISH-TV in Indianapolis. “RFRA was seen as a threat to the business community here. It’s caused him to lose support from Republicans, from donors and certainly made him a divisive character here from the perspective of Democrats and a lot of independents.”

More recently, he championed an abortion bill that was seen as among the strictest in the country and even drew complaints from some Republicans in the state legislature, according to reporters.

The law, which was recently blocked by a federal judge following a legal challenge by the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, includes provisions that would bar abortions sought due to genetic abnormalities and require that all fetal remains from abortions or miscarriages at any stage of pregnancy be buried or cremated.

“With the RFRA debate here and the latest abortion bill, it definitely has solidified his support on the conservative side,” said Niki Kelly, a 17-year statehouse reporter for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. “But it also abandoned some of the moderates and independents and made it tough for him here.”

Shella agreed: “Even some of the people who voted for the bill predicted it was unconstitutional. There were a number of pro-life Republican women who got up to speak against the bill in the Indiana state House of Representatives."

Several Hoosier State reporters say Pence, who has been in office since 2013 after a decade in Congress, is not always forthcoming to reporters beyond talking points.

“It is hard to get a direct answer out of him,” said Zach Osowski, statehouse reporter for the Evansville Courier & Press.He comes up with what he wants to say and he sticks to it. It’s frustrating for some people. It’s kind of robotic.”

Osowski said national reporters should know “he is going to stick to the talking points. If he is picked, [the Trump campaign] will pick how to approach things and he will not deviate from that, he is a hard-line party guy.”

Brandon Smith, statehouse bureau chief for Indiana Public Broadcasting, agreed.

“He sticks to his talking points, but he does it almost to his own detriment,” said Smith. “When he needs to break from those and give a real answer, he seems unwilling or perhaps even unable to do that. … It’s been frustrating for us because you only get one or two lines from him and they don’t change.”

Due to a state law, Pence will now have to abandon his reelection campaign this year, though state reporters say he might be glad to given the current state of the race.

He is polling in the 40% range and is in “a virtual dead heat” with Democrat John Gregg, a former state speaker of the house whom he beat four years ago.

“For a guy to be a solid Republican and in a state that is solidly red running against a guy that he beat four years ago and he’s in trouble in the polls tells me he’s been divisive,” said Shella of WISH-TV. “His leadership is being questioned.”

Smith of Indiana Public Broadcasting said those issues and Pence’s general approach has lowered his popularity.

“While he was highly-regarded coming into the job of governor, the perception has been that his handling of the job of governor has not been great,” said Smith. “While he is leading in most polls, he is struggling and not leading by that much. His unfavorables are higher than his favorables. In such a Republican state as Indiana … it says that the perception of him as governor has not been favorable.”