Indiana governor in crisis mode

Indiana governor in crisis mode
© Getty Images

Indiana Gov. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceJan. 6 committee getting 'significant cooperation' from top Pence aide: CNN More voters would pick Trump over Biden if election were held today: poll Flynn, McEnany and Trump's personal assistant granted delays by Jan. 6 committee MORE (R), a 12-year House veteran with eyes on the White House, has been forced into crisis management mode in the face of mounting criticism against a new religious freedom law that critics say legalizes discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The episode has churned national headlines that threaten the state's image; sparked business boycotts that will harm the state's economy; and driven Pence to backtrack and urge immediate changes to the law he signed just a few days ago.


On Tuesday, Pence dealt with an accusation from Connecticut Gov. Dan Milloy (D) that he was a bigot, and The Indianapolis Star ran a front-page editorial on the law demanding that the governor and legislature “Fix this now.”

The outcry has been a torment for Pence, who's been forced to walk a fine line between defending the conservative principles he supports and altering the law in order to tamp down the controversy.

“He is a little bit between a rock and a hard place,” Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican strategist, said Tuesday. “On one hand, he believes in the law [and] he believes in religious freedom. On the other hand, he's the governor and the state's image has taken a hit. He's got to do something.”

That something was to call for state legislators to return to the drawing board with new language ensuring the law would not allow discrimination against gays and lesbians — a request Pence made during a long press conference Tuesday morning that was aired live on CNN.

“After much reflection and in consultation with leadership of the general assembly, I've come to the conclusion that it would be helpful to move legislation this week that makes it clear that this law does not give businesses the right to deny services to anyone,” Pence said.

“We want to make it clear that Indiana is open for business, we want to make it clear that Hoosier hospitality is not a slogan, it's our way of life.”

There's disagreement among GOP strategists about how the prominence of the debate will affect the governor's political chances on a larger stage. Pence, who had considered a run at the White House in 2012, is also weighing a bid next year, although he says he won't be making any decisions before the state's legislative session ends on April 29.

Nino Saviano, a D.C.-based Republican strategist, said Pence's handling of the religious freedom law has created “an image problem” that hurts his shot at the presidency.

“The religious freedom law is actually not that polarizing — they [Pence’s office] just failed to prevent the opposition from defining the issue,” Saviano said Tuesday. “They slept at the wheel. Now they are playing defense. It's too late. The opposition gained enough momentum and they won't let go. They are defining Pence's image along with the law.”

But Ron Bonjean, another D.C.-based GOP strategist, said the decision to alter the law in the face of the criticism would pay dividends in a national election.

“By pivoting quickly to 'fix' this law, Governor Pence is avoiding some turbulence down the road if he chose to do nothing,” Bonjean said. “In addition, he has the benefit of high profile Republican presidential primary candidates and most conservative commentators rushing to his defense.”

Indiana's new law has quickly gained a place in the 2016 presidential debate, with GOP hopefuls former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry all offering their support.

Democrats, meanwhile, have taken every opportunity to hammer Pence and the conservative supporters of the law, which they say is evidence that Republicans are simply disconnected from most voters they represent.

The governors of Connecticut, New York and Washington state have all protested the law by adopting new orders barring state-funded travel to Indiana.

The most personal attack on Pence came from Malloy, the incoming chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. In suggesting that Pence was a bigot, he pointed to the decision to invite a supporter of the law who had compared homosexuality to bestiality at the bill signing.

Pence sought to push back at suggestions he has any prejudice toward gays in his own public comments.

“I believe in my heart of hearts that no one should be discriminated against because of who they are, who they love, or what they believe,” he said. 

Marjorie Hershey, political science professor at Indiana University, said the public focus on the state has not been ideal for a governor weighing a presidential bid.

“I'm sure he would have wanted a more positive introduction [to national voters],” she said.

But Hershey also noted that Pence's strategy — which was to blame the media and the law's opponents for drumming up the controversy — will likely reverberate with some conservative voters who have long accused the media of harboring a liberal bias.