Democrats plan to tag Donald Trump's newly-minted running mate Mike Pence as a social conservative zealot who reflects Trump's worst qualities, according to several party operatives involved in efforts to tarnish the opposition ticket right out of the gate.
As both a congressman and governor, Pence was a reliable ally of social conservatives who often says he is, "a Christian, a conservative and a Republican — in that order.” Democrats say that agenda is a major vulnerability in a general election because it alienates key voting blocs.
“That’s the top line on our message because that’s the top line in his career,” said a Democratic operative involved in the race who spoke on background because Trump’s decision had not yet been announced.
And while Trump is no Christian warrior — he has said he would champion gay rights and seems unfamiliar with the Bible — Democrats will say both Trump and Pence are divisive and discriminatory in their own ways. While Trump turns off people of color, Pence turns off women and LGBT people, they say.
Still, Democrats acknowledge Pence might be able to help Trump in the critical Midwest, which holds many swing states, and that he could help professionalize Trump’s campaign and be a bridge to Republicans in Washington.
Regardless of whom was selected, Democrats said they wanted to keep their focus on Trump, both because he is at the top of the ticket and because he is uniquely targetable.
“The worst thing I could say about Mike Pence if he joins Donald Trump’s ticket is that he’s supporting Donald Trump,” said Justin Barasky, the spokesperson for the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA, which has reserved more than $150 million in TV advertising. “This election is going to be about Donald Trump.”
On Pence, Democrats’ plan to weaponize Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law Pence signed last year that critics say allows businesses to refuse service to gay people. The law drew immediate backlash from everyone from the NCAA to Apple, with some companies canceling planned conferences in the state, impacting the state’s tourism and convention business.
Democrats will say Pence prioritized his right-wing social agenda over the health of the state’s economy.
In Congress, Pence was also a vocal advocate of de-funding Planned Parenthood, even if Republicans had to shut down the government to do it — a topic sure to come up often.
“The reason anyone in America could pick Mike Pence out of a one man lineup is because of his long history of targeted political attacks against the care provided at Planned Parenthood health centers in Indiana and across the country,” said Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “Other than that, he doesn’t have a single distinguishing characteristic.”
Related: Who is Mike Pence?
Next up on Democrat's hit list are economic issues, where they'll tag him with supporting the budget outlined by House Speaker Paul Ryan. They'll argue that he, like Trump, would cut wages and is not out for working people.
In addition, they'll call attention to Pence’s support of a flat tax, which they will say is regressive. And they’ll highlight that median household wages in Indiana fell from $53,000 to $46,900 while he was governor.
Opponents will also highlight a number of controversial statements Pence has made. Those include an op-ed he wrote 15-years ago railing against government overreach in anti-smoking legislation. “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill,” Pence wrote.
And Pence’s non-answer to a 2009 question from MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on whether he believes in evolution. “I can’t say,” he replied.
Related: Mike Pence Quick Facts
Politically, Pence will be expected to help Trump carry states like Ohio and his native Indiana, but Pence's own reelection is jeopardy, Democrats note. In 2012, he outspent Democratic opponent John Greg by more than two to one and yet underperformed Mitt Romney in the state. Pence won by 3.2 percentage points compared to Romney's 10 point margin.
And pointing to his days in the House leadership when he was a frequent surrogate for Republicans on TV, they say he has a tendency to put his foot in his mouth in high-pressure moments. Former Obama adviser David Axelrod called Pence a "rational pick" to shore up the conservative base. "But how will Pence fare in the parry and thrust VP role demands?" he asked.
Republicans have already geared up for Hillary Clinton’s potential vice presidential picks, creating a website Thursday to detail what they believe are the most effective lines of attack against her potential running mates.