Mike Pence, Dark Horse in Training for 2016

He’s the increasing rare Republican who doesn’t outright frighten the electorate. And the way things are going, the Indiana governor might end up being the last candidate standing.

Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty

Even at a gathering of Republican bigwigs who have come together on the occasion of a speech by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, it is hard to find very many people who are very excited about Mike Pence.

And so in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in midtown Manhattan, at the annual New York State Republican Party dinner, two top GOP operatives were lifting up their pant legs to compare their respective argyle socks, and to talk about who they wanted to be their party’s standard-bearer in 2016. The names Rick Perry came up, as did Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Rand Paul. But Pence, who was slated to keynote this conference in just a few minutes?

Blank stares.

“We will have to hear what he says,” said one as he smoothed out his trousers.

What Pence told the dozens of Gotham Republicans gathered at the Sheraton was, in brief, that the federal government was big and bad, that Republicans are better than Democrats, and that Republican governors governing in Republican states with Republican legislatures are best of all.

“You see, I come from a state that works,” Pence told the crowd, who clearly by their presence in the room, come from a state that does not. “The only difference really is Republican leadership.”

According to some of the operatives in the room, Pence has been a fairly regular visitor to New York over the last couple of years, reaching out to the kind of deep-pocketed money men and women who can make a presidential candidate.

Pence told the crowd, however, that he had only first come to New York 13 years ago, at the age of 40, when he was a congressman. It was right after the 9/11 attacks, and he spoke with reverence of the city’s resilience during that terrible period, even as he told the audience, “This is a great state. You are a great people. You deserve a government as good as the people.”

Pence is a former AM radio host—“You could call me Rush Limbaugh on decaf”—and he didn’t amp up his approach for the crowd. Indeed, there were fewer applause lines than there were from the man who introduced him, a finance chairman who at one point took to banging on the lectern with a stick to reinforce the need to replace the government of heavily Democratic New York.

Perhaps, though, this is the appeal. Pence, with his thick mane of hair and thick build, looks great on a flier. Republicans, after all, over the last few years, have mostly run into trouble when they open their mouths. Pence looks the part, and is unlikely to, say, compare homosexuals to alcoholics or make a $10,000 bet or be tripped up by stories of wife-swapping in his past.

“He stays on message,” said O’Brien Murray, a leading New York GOP operative. “A lot of guys have a message but they can’t deliver it well. He has a message. And he delivers it well.”

Much of the praise of Pence is in this vein—he will not embarrass us.

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“It was good to hear that he balanced his budget and eliminated his state’s deficit. Wow,” said John Catsimatidis, a supermarket magnate and major Republican donor, in a tone that said anything but wow. “That is a wow moment, if you can do that.”

So, Pence 2016 then?

“Umm, I think it is very hard to see how Mike Pence can achieve 51 percent of the vote.”

“He’s a pretty placid guy,” conceded Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster who in 2012 worked for the anti-Pence, Newt Gingrich, and now works for Pence. “He’s very Midwestern, I would say. There is a certain even-handedness.”

To Conway, this is a strength.

“The Republican Party is too fixated on this fiction of electability.” Pence, she says, with his workmanlike demeanor, can carry the Midwestern and maybe even the Southwestern states that have been trending Democratic.

Just as she said this, one audience member, a young woman in high heels tottering out of the ballroom and into the bar, interrupted.

“I love Mike. I love love love love love him. Tell him he should run for president. Whatever he needs, money, whatever. I will vote for him. He is just soooo nice.”

Conway thanked her, and continued on. Pence, she said, “is kind of a simple guy.”

“When he opens his mouth, and articulates positions, he doesn’t scare anybody. That is important. That is key. STOP SCARING THE ELECTORATE.”

And besides, in an election season in which one after another top-tier contender seems to fall away—Christie with his legal troubles, Walker with his, Rubio with his immigration issues, Pence remains unscathed.

Republicans, she said, are approaching the Pence camp to have another look.

“In their own minds, they have done a process of elimination and he is still standing. I think 2016 is going to be a process of elimination,” she said. Some candidates will say something stupid and drop out. Some will decide not to run. Some will start out strong and fade away. This will be Mike Pence’s moment.

“I think people are going to look around and say ‘How about this guy?’,” Conway said, conceding, “He starts in Tier B, for sure.”

After Pence’s speech, rather than the usual horde of reporters that come to these annual events, there was just one who followed Pence into a back room of the ballroom. This one.

Pence posed for a picture with the state Republican chairman of Connecticut, who told him that he saw the governor on TV last night, and that he “was just terrific. My wife saw it and said ‘This guy is the dark horse.’”

Pence laughed it off. I asked him about the GOP’s prospects this year, in light of a Tea Party/establishment civil war that continues to rage.

“I sense a great deal of unity in the party,” he said. “People are coming together. There is a great deal of enthusiasm. And I sense it everywhere.”

And with that, he stepped onto a crowded elevator, and was gone.