Analysis: Pence faces tough decision about how to campaign for 2016

By Lesley Weidenbener
TheStatehouseFile.com

Lesley Weidenbener, executive editor, TheStatehouseFile.com

Lesley Weidenbener, executive editor, TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS – It was no surprise on Thursday night when Republican Mike Pence announced he’d seek a second term as governor – but he did drop a bit of a bombshell about how he’ll do it.

Analysis button in JPG“I’m ready to take on those who would misrepresent our record and trash our good state and people to advance their political agendas,” Pence said during a speech to the GOP faithful at a party dinner.

That matters because Pence has said for years that he wouldn’t run negative campaigns. In fact, he once wrote an essay titled “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner,” a reaction to nasty races he ran in 1988 and 1990 against then U.S. Rep. Phil Sharp, a Democrat.

In the latter campaign, Pence paid for an ad in which an actor posed as an Arab and thanked Sharp for the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. And it was just one of the harsher moments of the race.

Since then, Pence has run only clearly positive campaigns – although he’s done so largely in an environment when attacks would not have made sense anyway. Four years ago – in a race that proved closer than expected – Pence stuck with a series of happy ads that featured him and his wife talking about Indiana.

Gov. Mike Pence talked with reporters on Thursday about his plans to run for a second term. Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, TheStatehouseFile.com

Gov. Mike Pence talked with reporters on Thursday about his plans to run for a second term. Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, TheStatehouseFile.com

Had that race gone on longer, Pence might have had some tough decisions to make about how he’d address Democrat John Gregg’s record. Now, he seems to be acknowledging, even as the race begins, that he’s already made the decision to do what it takes to be competitive.

“For those expecting a campaign like 2012, they will be disappointed,” Pence said.

“I have long believed that negative personal attacks have no place in public life and I hope our opponents feel the same way,” he said. “But elections are about choices and Hoosiers deserve to know the records of those who would lead our state.”

Of course, Pence didn’t actually say he’d go “negative” – a word with a meaning that depends on which side of a campaign you’re on. But it’s a different attitude than he brought to the 2012 battle.

“If our opponents choose to talk about our record, we will return the favor,” Pence said. “And we will make sure that the choice in this election is clear.”

Highlighting an opponent’s record can certainly stop short of the Arab commercial that got Pence so much flack back in 1990. But there’s a fine line between simply talking about an opponent and setting a negative tone that turns off voters.

Former Gov. Mitch Daniels toed that line incredibly in his 2004 campaign. With happy music and by speaking straight to the camera, Daniels maintained credibility as a straight-talker with a positive message while simultaneously attacking his opponent’s record. Most voters never seemed to perceive the Daniels campaign as negative.

But that’s an unusual accomplishment.

Already, some voters perceive Pence has been picking on state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, and gay Hoosiers, who oppose the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

An overly negative campaign could only reinforce those perceptions. But given his lower approval ratings, staying all positive all the time probably won’t be enough to win.

Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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