Republican Vice President Mike Pence will debate Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate, Kamala Harris Oct. 7, 2020, in Salt Lake City, and the 2020 election is just around the corner. Here are five things you should know about Pence, his personal background, and his political history.

Key Takeaways

  • Mike Pence grew up in a family that supported the Democratic Party, an affiliation he shared growing up.
  • Pence became a Republican at college, eventually joining a conservative think tank before transitioning to talk radio.
  • As a congressman, Pence held firm to his hardline conservatism, even when it brought him into conflict with his party.
  • Pence delivered on promised tax cuts as Governor of Indiana but also embroiled the state in a major civil rights controversy.
  • Despite some political and personal differences, Pence has shown steadfast loyalty to Donald Trump.

1. Mike Pence Hosted a Conservative Talk Radio Show.

Michael Richard Pence was born June 7, 1959, in Columbus, Indiana, to U.S. Army veteran, Edward Pence and his wife Nancy. Pence, along with his five siblings, grew up in a tight-knit family that supported President John F. Kennedy. He attended parochial school through eighth grade followed by Columbus North High School. There, he volunteered for the Bartholomew County Democratic Party, and, in the 1980 Presidential election, Pence voted for Jimmy Carter.

It was at Hanover College, a private Presbyterian school in Hanover, Indiana, that Pence became what he described as a “born again evangelical Catholic” and, inspired by Ronald Reagan, began to see himself as a Republican. Pence went on to earn his J.D. at the Indiana University McKinney School of Law in 1986. He went into private practice before working for the conservative-libertarian Indiana Policy Review Foundation from 1991 through 1993. After losing two U.S. Congressional elections, Pence took to talk radio on “The Mike Pence Show,” where he referred to himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf."  

Pence’s radio gig helped him form what would later become a successful election strategy. Realizing that his listeners were as upset with Republicans in Washington as they were with Democrats, Pence criticized both sides. As Politico put it: “The result was a political figure still as stolid as a small-town banker but with a surgeon’s feel for the anti-Washington feelings of the grassroots Midwest — a tea party conservative before there was a tea party.”

2. Pence Served as a Congressman for 12 Years, Known for a Hardline Conservative Record.

Pence ran for Congress again in 2000 and this time, won, describing himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” Pence was willing to defy his party to adhere to his conservative principles, exemplified by his opposition to the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act and creation of Medicare Part D. This hardline conservative stance helped him win reelection in Indiana five times from 2001 to 2013.

As a staunch fiscal conservative, Pence fought for federal budget cuts before supporting aid to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and was among those opposed to the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), helping force Congress to give up plans to buy the most toxic assets from financial institutions. Not every effort was successful. His proposed immigration plan in 2006 would have incentivized undocumented workers to “self-deport” and reapply to be guest workers, but it failed. Pence also led a failed attempt in 2011 to shut down the government to cut Planned Parenthood's funding. 

3. As Governor of Indiana, He Passed A Major Tax Cut and Started a Major Civil Rights Controversy.

In 2011, Pence announced that he would run for governor of Indiana when his Congressional term was up. His platform focused on tax cuts and job growth. It likely got him elected by a narrow margin in a heated race in 2012. Pence served one term as governor from 2013 to 2017. He signed into law a $1.1 billion tax cut, delivering on the first half of that platform. He also signed legislation creating the state’s first pre-K funding program and allocating state funding to infrastructure projects. By 2016, Indiana had a $2 billion budget surplus and triple-A credit rating. As for job growth, Indiana's job growth under his administration was slightly below the national average as of July 2016, when Mike Pence was nominated for Vice President.

Indiana’s reputation took a hit with some in the U.S. in 2015 when Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The legislation allowed businesses to refuse to serve customers trying to purchase goods or services for same-sex weddings. Severe backlash came from both moderate Republicans and some corporations, many of whom threatened to pull out of the state. Ultimately, Pence altered the bill to provide exemptions to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. Pence encountered similar resistance in 2016 when he signed a bill that, among other things, prohibited abortions when the fetus had a disability. 

4. Pence and Trump Share Many Policy Positions.

Leading up to the announcement of a running mate in the 2016 election, news outlets reported that the contest was likely down to three people, Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, and Mike Pence. Trump may have chosen Pence because of any number of reasons. It's likly Trump appreciated Pence’s ability to tap into the deep pockets of the Koch brothers. Or perhaps it was Trump’s assertion that Pence, “says nice things about me.” It could even be because of Pence’s reported indifference about being chosen, something that reportedly impressed Trump. Whatever the reason, the two men hold similar positions on a number of issues.  

Like Trump, Pence opposes amnesty for undocumented residents, supports increased border security, and wants strict enforcement of laws preventing undocumented immigrants from working in the U.S. Both men favor strong national defense and increased military spending. Both are strong supporters of Israel, have the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, and oppose regulations to limit carbon emissions. Both Pence and Trump oppose abortion, although Trump adopted this position more recently than Pence. And while Pence is a fiscal conservative, both men favor lower taxes. Even when their views diverge, such as is the case with Trump's large deficit spending compared with Pence's strict fiscal conservatism, Pence has kept quiet. This loyalty has earned Pence frequent praise from Trump. 

5. Pence Has Disagreed with Trump in Public.

In an administration that has been packed with bombastic figures, Pence has a near flawless record of quiet but firm support for the president. Not only does he repeatedly quote Trump, but he also does so while smoothing some of the rough edges of Trump’s remarks, or reframing them.

Just before Pence left for a trip to Venezuela in 2017, Trump said, "We have many options for Venezuela including a possible military option if necessary." Understandably, this upset Latin American leaders. In Buenos Aires, Pence said this: "As President Trump said just a few days ago, 'We have many options for Venezuela.'” He then added, “But the president also remains confident that, working with all of our allies across Latin America and across the wider world, that we can achieve a peaceable solution restoring democracy and ending the crisis facing the people of Venezuela."

A notable exception to this pattern was his speaking out against Trump's Muslim ban. Trump called for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S. The next day Pence tweeted in stark disagreement saying, “Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional.”