INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana Gov. Mike Pence smiled for the TV cameras this month as a technology company announced plans to hire hundreds of new workers and add its name to the tallest tower in the Indianapolis skyline. Then the celebratory news conference took an awkward turn.
Scott McCorkle, the CEO of Salesforce Marketing Cloud, used part of his time at the microphone to advocate for expanded LGBT rights. It was a not-so-subtle rebuke of a policy Pence championed more than a year earlier that provoked national backlash and threats by some businesses to leave the state.
Indiana’s financial outlook has improved since Pence took office less than four years ago, but the Republican is facing a tougher than expected battle to keep the job in the reliably red state for reasons that have little to do with economics.
Under Pence, who has described himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order,” Indiana has marched to the front lines of the nation’s culture wars. It’s a significant detour from the vision of his wildly popular predecessor, Mitch Daniels, who once called on Republicans to adopt a “truce” on social issues to focus on the economy.
The most visible departure from Daniels’ truce was Pence’s signature in March 2015 on a religious objections law, which critics argued would allow businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians for religious reasons. Groups threatened to boycott the state, late-night television shows mocked the policy and a coalition of gay rights supporters and business interests — including Salesforce — successfully demanded that lawmakers approve changes.
Recently, Pence signed a law banning abortions in cases where a fetus could have a potentially life-threatening condition, has supported a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and clashed with the local Catholic archdiocese by opposing the settlement of Syrian refugees in Indianapolis.
Despite their qualms, many Republicans say there is no chance they will support his Democratic opponent, former state House Speaker Gregg, whom they see as a threat to many of Daniels’ hard-fought victories. Yet even some of Pence’s allies have suggested he may have overreached on the social policies, alienating moderate voters.
Now the governor is trying to shift debate back to the economy and is hoping voters’ fondness for Daniels, whose legacy looms large, can help him beat Gregg, who lost to Pence in 2012.