Election 2016

Will Koch Brothers’ Fave Mike Pence Deliver for Trump?

They may hate Trump, but he could put one of their own a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Image of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey

CLEVELAND, OHIO—The nomination of Mike Pence as the running mate of Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has many on the coasts scratching their heads, asking, “Mike who?” But at AlterNet, we’ve been watching the Indiana governor for years, since his glory days as a Tea-Partying member of Congress.

In Pence, Trump finds a twofer who may soothe two key Republican constituencies that harbor doubts about him: the religious right and the Koch brothers. Pence is close to both.

While they may never admit it, the Koch brothers may need Trump in order to maintain the effectiveness of their i360 voter data operation, which is on its way to supplanting the voter data platform operated by the Republican National Committee. A voter data operation is only as good as the data it collects, so if the Kochs want i360 to benefit from the data mine that will be the presidential campaign, they may wish to lift their ban on Trump’s use of it.

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The billionaire brothers, who run a network of donors to their vast infrastructure of Republican-allied political operations, so loathe Trump that Charles Koch described the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as voting for either “cancer or a heart attack.” David H. Koch, meanwhile, is reported by Politico to have withdrawn his $1 million donation to the Republican National Convention because of the party’s new standard-bearer.

Having built no ground operation of his own, Trump desperately needs the ready-made, plug-and-play infrastructure built by the Kochs, the mightiest entity of which is Americans for Prosperity, whose president just loves, loves him some Mike Pence. And why wouldn’t he? Phillips’ boss, David Koch, has given some $300,000 to Pence’s campaigns, according to the website Follow the Money.

“Governor Pence spent more than a decade leading the fight for economic freedom from inside the halls of Congress,” wrote AFP president Tim Phillips in a release touting one of Pence’s many appearances at the group’s conferences. “Our activists are looking forward to hearing how he’s using those experiences to serve the state of Indiana, grow its economy and defend the American dream.”

In August 2014, Phillips, appearing on a C-SPAN show, called Pence “one of our favorite governors.”

When Pence initiated legislation for a massive tax cut that was opposed even by some Republicans in the Indiana legislature, Americans for Prosperity footed the bill for a six-figure television ad buy to support it.

Pence describes himself as "a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order." That Pence, who has attributed the nation’s woes to moral failure in the nation’s families, would choose to so ally himself with a thrice-married, foul-mouthed character like Trump speaks to the governor’s ambition to be president. If Trump wins the presidential election, Pence would be next in line. But even if Trump loses, Pence positions himself by taking the national stage and looking oh-so-reasonable in comparison to the showman at the top of the ticket.

In 2010, Pence emerged as a favorite speaker on the high-profile stages provided by the neo-libertarian astroturf group FreedomWorks and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity. Yet when the overlap between the Tea Party movement and the religious right began to show itself, Pence remained conscious of the Tea Party branding as a secular movement—a strategic ploy by right-wing leaders to broaden the right’s appeal beyond the boundaries of evangelical Christianity. 

In the fall of that year, he went to the Values Voter Summit, a religious-right gathering, he stuck to his Tea Party messaging, simply infusing it with the key words right-wing evangelicals love to hear. As I reported for AlterNet at the time, Pence said:

“We must not remain silent when great moral battles are being waged," he said. "Those who would have us ignore the battle being fought over life, marriage, religious liberty have forgotten the lessons of history. As in the days of a house divided, America's darkest moments have come when economic arguments trumped moral principles. Men and women, we must demand, here and now, that the leaders of the Republican Party stand for life, traditional marriage and religious liberty without apology.”

When I approached him on his way out of the hall after that speech, I asked him whether the Tea Party movement was secular or religious. He replied: 

"I think it's an authentic movement of the American people that are wanting to see our national government return to the common sense and common values of the majority of the American public," he said.

I pressed him. "Are you saying it's neither secular nor religious?" I asked.

"I think it's an authentic American movement," he replied, before hurrying off to catch a plane.

That’s some awesome message discipline right there—a political virtue the Trump campaign has yet to display.

But despite Pence’s hardcore anti-woman, anti-LGBT stances—he signed into law one of the nation’s most draconian anti-abortion statues—not every leader of the religious right is crazy about him.

Tony Perkins, who leads the Family Research Council, fell out of love with Pence when, after the Indiana governor signed into law a so-called “religious freedom” bill that would have allowed businesses to refuse services to people whose morals their owners disagree with, the governor succumbed to ferocious backlash and watered down the law, which clearly targeted LGBT people. 

Ian Millhiser writes at ThinkProgress:

In an interview with NBC News’ Leigh Ann Caldwell, Perkins claimed that Trump “can do better” than Pence. And suggested that the real estate mogul choose “someone who has not capitulated on something as fundamental as religious freedom” as his running mate.

On Thursday, Trump announced he would delay his scheduled announcement of his running-mate pick because of the devastating attack in Nice, France, that killed 84 people. Trump’s announcement had been slated for Friday at 11:00am; the delay is fueling speculation that the GOP presidential candidate is having second thoughts about Pence.

With Trump, anything is possible. Stay tuned.

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Adele M. Stan is a weekly columnist for The American Prospect. Follow her on Twitter @addiestan.