In the last two weeks, one installment of the Republican presidential primary began in Lynchburg, Virginia with Senator Ted Cruz announcing his candidacy; another installment, elsewhere, died. At the Indiana State Capitol in Indianapolis, Gov. Mike Pence signed into law Senate Enrolled Act 101, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Flanked by nuns, monks, clergy and a rabbi — among others — Pence presented his state with the adoption of a law that will allow individuals or corporations to use religious beliefs as defenses in legal proceedings. Particularly, an individual or a corporation can refrain from a business transaction in the event that he, she or it disagrees with the prevailing religious beliefs of the owner. Criticism swelled immediately, not only within Indiana but across the country, as critics of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act pointed out that the law would allow for discriminatory business practices toward gay and lesbian consumers.
It is true that Pence has not declared a formal candidacy or even started an exploratory committee, as several other Republican presidential hopefuls have already done. When Pence articulated his own outlook on his career, he admitted he prefers to move slowly. “I’m an A to B, B to C, C to D guy,” he said in February at the National Governors Association in Washington.
Pence’s career supports this slow and methodical climb up the political food chain. He won a congressional seat in 2000, became the Republican Conference Chairman — the third-highest ranking party leadership position — in 2008 and ran a successful campaign for governor in 2012. The media frequently refers to Pence as a potential “dark horse” Republican for the 2016 presidential candidacy, since he boasts a reduction in his state’s unemployment rate from 7.9 to 5.8 percent, cut business taxes while increasing the state tax revenue and presides over the nation’s fastest-growing school voucher program. Yet that seemingly plausible next step now rests miles ahead for the governor after what has arguably been the worst week of his career.
Reluctant to capitulate to the protests of Hoosiers across Indiana and countless individuals across the country, Pence stood his ground and declared that the law would not be amended. Of course, he followed that statement by adding, “but if the General Assembly in Indiana sends me a bill that adds a section that reiterates and amplifies and clarifies what the law really is and what it has been for the last 20 years, then I’m open to that.”
But it was too late. The political damage had already been inflicted. Across media platforms and spectrums, Pence’s political fortunes were being written off as worthless. Adam Wren declared the Governor’s “dream” was crumbling in Politico, and conservative pundit Ann Coulter told Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly, “I’m glad this Mike Pence isn’t running for president.”
Some voices in the media countered this opinion. Tom LoBianco, a columnist for the Indianapolis Star, suggested that, “Now Pence is a hero to his base, and every Silicon Valley honcho and Hollywood star he stands up to only strengthens his standing.” LoBianco also noted that supporting such a policy in conservative Indiana plays well to the voters that brought Pence to the governor’s office. If Washington is all of a sudden out of Pence’s plans, there is still a race in Indiana that can easily be won.
If Pence is to be proclaimed a hero among conservatives, his momentary victory is a hollow one at best. With the signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the business community struck back — and hard. Angie’s List, an Indianapolis-based online consumer review service, announced the cancellation of a $40 million expansion of its operations in the capitol. Governors from New York and Connecticut, as well as mayors such as Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, have stepped forth and announced that their governments have banned state-funded travel to Indiana. In the entertainment industry, comedian Nick Offerman and the band Wilco have even canceled scheduled appearances within the state.
Inside Indiana, the business community that looked to benefit from hosting the Final Four has been on high damage control. Business leaders have looked to make the best of their circumstances. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted, “The Colts have always embraced inclusiveness, tolerance and a diverse fan base. We welcome ALL fans to Colts Nation.”
It may not be too late for Indiana, but it is too late for Pence.
As 11 other states flirt with enacting their own versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, one has to wonder why this issue is taking the stage now. Arkansas recently passed a version of Indiana’s law that is similar but contains more specific language. This law is not a new concept, as 20 other states already maintain their own “religious freedom” laws, including Rhode Island. Rhode Island passed its own version in the early 1990s after the U.S. Supreme Court reached a decision that would not allow Native Americans to use peyote in religious ceremonies. This law can serve as a positive example for Pence since the Rhode Island version explicitly protects gay and lesbian individuals, while the Indiana version explicitly makes them vulnerable to civil rights abuses.
This political mess is an aftershock of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., a Supreme Court case that shook the country last June. The ruling, which allowed corporations to act on religious principle, was a victory for social conservatives in corporate America. Initially, Pence’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act featured language, or a lack thereof, that would have more easily allowed for corporations to exercise their religious philosophies. But as protests have mounted and criticism has been heaped on, Pence recently signed amendments to his law, potentially entirely undermining its intent.
Pence is starting to look like a fish floundering in defeat. Indeed, former President Bill Clinton signed the first Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, but times have changed. Twenty-two years later, we find ourselves in a much different country and a much different world than before. Governor Pence, if you wanted to ignite a presidential campaign, you should’ve faced forward and not looked back. Perhaps, one day, you’ll look back and realize this blunder. Rest in peace, Pence 2016.
Ian Kenyon GS is a public affairs candidate with the Taubman Center for Public Policy. Continue the conversation with him about Pence and 2016 at email@example.com.