Yearly address gives Pence chance to turn political page

Calling 2015 a challenging year for Gov. Mike Pence would be an understatement.

His handling of a controversial religious freeedom law, rejection of Syrian refugees trying to resettle in Indiana and initial opposition to needle exchanges intended to fight a rural HIV outbreak all drew unwanted, widespread and mostly negative attention — scrutiny that his fellow Republicans say obscured Pence's actual accomplishments.

"They stumbled on some PR things a few times, and he would probably be the first to tell you that," said Mike McDaniel, a former Indiana Republican Party chairman.

With an eye to his re-election bid, Pence will have an opportunity to reframe the debate Tuesday at 7 p.m. during a statewide broadcast of the annual State of the State speech. The occasion offers Pence a chance to turn the corner with what McDaniel calls an "unfiltered" message ahead of a November rematch with Democrat John Gregg, the former Indiana House speaker whom he narrowly beat in 2012.

Expect a laser-like focus on new jobs — companies either expanding or moving into the state — an improving economy and planned infrastructure projects, all things McDaniel says Pence can highlight in the speech without critical voices saying, " 'Yeah, well what about this?' "

Still, as much as Pence may try to focus on economic issues, he has yet to offer an opinion on the social issue sharply dividing the state: whether lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people should have statewide civil rights protections. LGBT people are not protected from discrimination under state law, though several local governments have approved their own ordinances.

"The governor of the state can't hide under his desk on an issue like this that he helped create," said Dan Parker, one-time state Democratic Party chairman who was also an aide to former Gov. Evan Bayh. "If he doesn't address the issue, I think he puts himself in a very small corner."

The religious freedom law that Pence signed in March was met by extensive criticism from inside and outside of Indiana, charging that the law would sanction discrimination against LGBT people on religious grounds. Pence and lawmakers changed the law seven days later, but the issue drove a wedge between social conservatives and the Republican business establishment.

After months of "studying" the issue, Pence recently hinted that he may discuss LGBT rights during the speech.

Recent public opinion surveys suggest most people in the state support such rights, but conservative evangelicals, which make up much of Pence's traditional voter base, remain vocally opposed.

Pence spokesman Matt Lloyd declined to comment on what's at stake, saying "we'll leave that to the pundits."

Paul Helmke, a former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne, said Pence will have to navigate a "minefield."

"Everyone is going to be looking for how the governor deals with the religious freedom and same-sex marriage challenge that sunk him last year," said Helmke, who is now a public affairs professor at Indiana University.

But Marjorie Hershey, a fellow IU political science professor, questioned whether an annual address made by a Republican governor in a Red state is, in fact, electorally significant.

"The overwhelming proportion of voters won't pay the slightest attention," Hershey said. "For a lot of people it doesn't matter what Gov. Pence has done, they are still going to vote as a Republican or Democrat."

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