This article originally appeared on Politico.com on January 27, 2011.
Tea time without Mike Pence in 2012
By Kasie Hunt & David Catanese
Mike Pence announced Thursday night that he won’t run for the White House, leaving conservatives looking for someone new to serve them tea.
Pence’s decision not to seek national office in favor of a likely run for governor of Indiana is a major blow to conservative activists and tea party leaders, who saw Pence as someone who could unite the traditional GOP base—evangelical and social conservatives—with the tea party’s fiscal hawks.
And it’s left a major opening for someone in a heavily crowded GOP presidential field: At the Value Voters Summit last year, Pence won the straw poll for both president and vice president, beating better-known candidates like Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin.
“I am selfishly disappointed,” said Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center and longtime conservative activist who was among a group of Washington conservatives urging Pence to run for president—and whose support is now up for grabs. “I don’t have a number two. I had a number one and a whole bunch of people are running for number two. It’s a crowded dance floor and it’s time for the people there to start strutting their stuff and see who’s got the next booty.”
Also on the list of Pence supporters now without a candidate: Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, the leader of the tea party group FreedomWorks, who had publicly encouraged Pence to make a bid for president.
That group was looking for a candidate who has a sterling fiscally conservative record—a characteristic missing from many in a field scarred by support for earmarks or votes for bailouts.
“There’s a real void for a Club for Growth kind of candidate, an ideologically conservative candidate on fiscal issues, and Pence was the closest there was to actually running,” said Terry Sullivan, a longtime GOP consultant in South Carolina who has worked for Sen. Jim DeMint.
DeMint, who is close to Pence, is adamant that he won’t run for president—despite a visit to Iowa scheduled in March—but he’ll be a key tea party voice in the primary process regardless. Running for president “is something [DeMint] doesn’t want to do, but it’s something that he’s not going to close the door on. He’d like to find someone who’s willing to make the fiscal tough calls,” Sullivan said.
Still, Pence’s move leaves particular space for a candidate who is stridently anti-abortion—a traditional GOP issue that has diminished in prominence as concerns about spending and the national debt have driven tea party anger.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, named two possible beneficiaries of Pence’s decision: Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Santorum has a long history of anti-abortion activism and is well-known in socially conservative circles, and he and Pence met several weeks ago to discuss the presidential race, in what longtime Santorum adviser John Brabender characterized as a meeting of mutual encouragement.
“When Mike moves over and runs for governor, that opens a big piece of real estate and people realize that there are only a few people to pick up that space, and I think logically Rick Santorum is one of them,” Brabender said. “This will help [Santorum] make a determination” about whether to run for president.
Santorum hasn’t officially jumped into the race, but he’s visited Iowa nine times since the 2008 elections and has hired staff in New Hampshire.
But Dannenfelser was quicker to praise Pawlenty, who gave what she called a “barn burner” of a speech to the SBA List’s annual gala last March.
“He was articulate, he really got everybody going, you could see people getting up out of their seats, excited about him,” she said.
Still, she said she’s willing to support most of the candidates in the field—except Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.
“There’s not one that I can think of with the possible exception of Mitch Daniels that I wouldn’t be happy to see going forward,” she said.
Daniels has run into trouble with anti-abortion voters after he told the Weekly Standard that the next Republican presidential nominee would have to declare a “truce” on social issues until the country resolves its fiscal problems.
Daniels is still considering a run for president in 2012. He’s term limited as governor, leaving his office open for Pence. A source familiar with Pence’s thinking said the congressman is set to run for governor, though state laws prohibiting him from fundraising during the current legislative session.
“In the choice between seeking national office and serving Indiana in some capacity, we choose Indiana,” Pence wrote in a letter to supporters that was obtained by the Indianapolis Star. “We will not seek the Republican nomination for president in 2012.”
His likely gubernatorial campaign is a victory for the Republican Governors Association, which mounted an intense lobbying effort to urge Pence to run for governor.
“I am encouraged by Congressman Mike Pence’s decision to explore how he can best serve the people of Indiana and advance the conservative cause closer to home,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the RGA chairman, said in a Thursday statement. “While the Republican presidential field lost a strong voice today, I am confident the people of Indiana will benefit from Mike’s decision.”
Pence was Perry’s first recruitment call after he became chairman, a source with knowledge of the call told POLITICO, and Pence met in Washington on Wednesday with Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, the RGA’s vice chairman, and RGA executive director Phil Cox.
Pence’s decision is a “major coup” for the RGA, said one Republican aide.
Also helping Pence along: The field for the governor’s mansion has cleared and Pence would be considered the immediate front-runner. Former Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat, decided not to run, and sitting Republican Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman also announced she would not make a bid for the governor’s mansion.