SIOUX CITY — When Donald Trump added Mike Pence to the GOP ticket last month, the Indiana governor’s selection was expected to shore up conservative support through the Midwestern states. It was hoped that the more mild-mannered appeal and evangelical zeal of Pence would attract the Republican base of voters that supported the unapologetic conservative candidacy of Ted Cruz.
On Monday, the fruits of Pence’s addition were perhaps the most evident to date.
Just before taking the stage at a town hall in this northwest Iowa town, Rep. Steve King, the seven-term, social-conservative congressman representing the largely rural, evangelical district, made a surprise appearance to back the GOP ticket despite months of serving as one of Cruz’s most ardent backers and his top surrogate across the Hawkeye state before his Iowa caucus victory. Last November, King had called Cruz “the candidate who is the answer to my prayers.”
But with the GOP ticket set, and his friend, Pence, from Congress slotted into the second spot, King looked to settle any hesitancy among Republicans in the swing state of Iowa.
“I'm walking into those polls, and I'm going to vote for Donald Trump and Mike Pence for our new administration,” King told the crowd of 200. “And I'm going to do my best to bring others with me.”
Pence went on to thank King, suggesting he “ought to take Steve out on the road,” which is exactly what Cruz did through the rural regions of the state ahead of the last February’s caucus. The Texas senator did not dominate the western part of the state but pulled in a significant share of rural and evangelical voters whose turnout in November is expected to be key to the ticket’s victory in the state.
Pence’s ability to directly pitch his own roots could be central to his message in the final three months of the campaign.
"Sioux City feels really like home to me,” Pence said, noting he grew up with cornfields in his backyard in his hometown of Columbus, Indiana.
Jamie Johnson, the ticket’s new coalitions director and an ordained minister who formerly served as a senior director for Rick Perry, suggested Pence’s addition is key to the GOP’s play in Iowa.
“This was strategic for Mike Pence to come to the western half of Iowa where faith, family and freedom, God and guns are cherished,” Johnson said. “Ted Cruz did very well west of Interstate 35, and Mike Pence’s presence here will help inform those voters that there will be a man in the White House working next to Donald Trump who will represent those values.”
Cody Hoefert, the co-chair of the Iowa GOP, laid out the stakes of the region’s voters on the election directly: “It’s the reddest part of the state – and it’s where Republicans really need to make sure we drive turnout to win in the fall.”
Denoting an issue central to the state’s economy, Pence also took on corn ethanol production, ensuring that any change to rules that require ethanol make up a certain amount of the U.S. fuel supply would be “a nonstarter.”
“I promise each and every one of you, Donald Trump supports the biofuel mandate of the Renewable Fuel Standard,” Pence emphatically stated – perhaps more certain than any other line of the afternoon – to the crowd. “And he won't be looking to California environmentalists to advance policies that will cost jobs here in Iowa and in Indiana and across this country.”
He also looked to ease concerns about the U.S.’s commitment to the coal industry after a woman in the crowd rose up to ask Pence about the ticket’s take on its future.
Pence promptly noted that “southern Indiana is a big coal state” and reassured the gathering that “Trump is going to end the war on coal on day one of his administration.”
Sen. Joni Ernst, the freshman senator from Iowa who gave the keynote address at the Republican National Convention two weeks ago, introduced Pence at his evening stop in Council Bluffs, the sister city of Omaha on the Iowa-Nebraska border.
Trump and Pence both attended a rally with several thousand in Des Moines last week after Trump, just days earlier, made a two-stop trip in the eastern Iowa cities of Cedar Rapids and Davenport.