COLUMBUS, Ind. — When Mike Pence introduces himself at almost every campaign meet and greet, he trots out a line with his wife: “We’re well-known, but we’re not known well.”
Those who have been watching Pence’s career the longest, in his hometown, Columbus, illustrate the base of support he’s bringing into the presidential race — and also some of the big obstacles standing in his path.
Pence, the former vice president and governor of Indiana, can still count on ardent support in local Republican circles, from people who supported Donald Trump twice and say they’re now ready for a Pence presidency.
“We know him personally, and that has a bigger value, I think, than reading and finding what other people say about that individual,” Bartholomew County Council member Jorge Morales said. “It’s not only Mike. I mean, two of his brothers live here. His mother lives here. So we see them in the community all the time.”
That community is a city of a little over 50,000 where Pence was born and raised. After two unsuccessful congressional runs in 1988 and 1990, he was elected to represent his hometown district in Congress in 2000 and served until he became governor in 2013. Now, his older brother, Greg, represents the area in the House.
Bartholomew County Treasurer Barbara Hackman, a former chair of the county GOP, attended Pence’s June 7 presidential announcement speech in Ankeny, Iowa.
“He hasn’t changed from when he was our congressman to when he was, you know, governor to when he was vice president to when I just saw him the other day in Iowa,” she said.
While Pence may not have changed, the Republican Party has. And outside of the local party officials who know Pence personally, a number of Columbus-area voters say their opinions of him have changed.
“I would have supported [his run] a few years ago, but then he kind of, I don’t know, took a downturn with the public a little bit,” said Alyssa Lucas, 25, of Columbus.
Fred Sanders, 76, of Flat Rock in neighboring Shelby County, called Pence “mealy-mouthed.”
“Oh, he was a good governor,” he said. “But he was not a good vice president.”
Pence has been running in third place in national polls of the Republican presidential primary campaign for most of the year, according to the FiveThirtyEight average. Like other surveys, the most recent NBC News poll shows Trump with a commanding lead.
The June poll also shows deep resistance to Pence among parts of the Republican Party: 33% of Republican primary voters had positive views of Pence, while 37% had negative views. Only Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had net negative ratings among Republican primary voters, who were quizzed about their feelings about Pence, Christie, Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Bartholomew County GOP Vice Chair Josh Barnett said Pence’s actions to certify the 2020 election results on Jan. 6, 2021 — which have generated skepticism on the campaign trail among some GOP voters — show that he is “consistent.”
“He showed that with his courage on a very difficult day in American history, but he’s shown that his whole life, so you know what you’re going to get, and people will just have to decide if that’s, if that’s the direction they want to go,” Barnett said.
Columbus Police Officer Matt Harris lived next door to Pence when he was in Congress and thinks the lack of national support is due to Pence’s “quieter personality.”
“He’s definitely a doer but not quite the showman that President Trump is,” he said.
Like Harris, Bruce Shearer, 81, of Columbus, sees that as a positive.
“We are Republicans, but we’re tired of Trump’s mouth,” Shearer said of himself and his wife. “We think he accomplished more than anybody ever has, but, you know, he don’t know when to shut up.”
Shearer said that he would support Pence but that he doesn’t think he’ll get the nomination because there are “not enough Christian people like him” in the GOP primary electorate.
“I just don’t think he’ll get the major vote. Because even in the Republican sector, you’ve got people that are not, they’re not behind him,” he said. “So I wish they were. He’s the man for us.”
Milo Smith, who represented Columbus in the state House from 2006 to 2018, including while Pence was governor, said, “Mike will have to step into the ring and put some gloves on more than he ever has before.”
“I hope he doesn’t do that in a way that’s uncomfortable for him. But he has to identify some of the issues and point out some of the differences and how he can do it better,” said Smith, who is a strong supporter of Pence. “And you’re going to have to take the gloves off a little bit to do that, in my opinion, or he’ll never get noticed outside of Indiana.”
CORRECTION (July 20, 2023, 11 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the name of a community in Shelby County. It is Flat Rock, not Flatrock.