By Tony Cook
A defiant Gov. Mike Pence pledged, despite poor poll numbers after a high-profile controversy over the state’s new religious freedom law, to fight his political opponents — even if it means running a less positive campaign than the one he ran in 2012.
“I will ensure our state remains true to those ideals, but we will not cower to intolerance from any quarter,” he told a friendly crowd of about 800 people at the Indiana Republican Party’s Spring Dinner. “For those expecting a campaign like 2012, they will be disappointed.”
During his 15-minute speech, he touted his administration’s economic and education agendas, including the state’s improved unemployment rate and his new alternative Medicaid expansion program.
But he also addressed the controversy over Indiana’s new religious freedom law, which a new poll released Wednesday shows has cost him dearly. The new law set off a national firestorm over concerns that it could allow businesses to refuse services to gays and lesbians.
“Hoosier hospitality came under attack, and let me say from my heart as your governor, I bear some responsibility for that,” he said. “Thoughtful debates are always welcome, they are always encouraged, but let me say those seeking to divide us and hurt our people, hurt our state, will not succeed.”
Pence did not directly address a question likely to nag him throughout the campaign: Will he support statewide civil rights protections for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people?
Democrats and some moderate Republicans see such a measure as the only way to fully restore the state’s reputation as a welcoming place after the Religious Freedom Restoration Act debacle, but Pence has traditionally opposed such laws.
“In Indiana, we won’t tolerate discrimination against anyone. But Hoosiers also know, in the changing tides of popular culture, there must be room for faith,” Pence said Thursday night.
“We will find our way forward as a state that respects the dignity and worth of every individual, and we will ensure that no government intervention, no government coercion will interfere with the freedom of conscience and freedom of religion enshrined in our state and federal constitution,” he said.
He then turned to the topic of his critics.
“As much as our opponents want to dwell on the past, elections are about the future, and I believe our party must focus on hopes and aspirations of the people of this state,” he said. “The truth is, the other side just really doesn’t want to talk about their agenda.”
He described that agenda as one of big spending, more taxes and overly stringent regulation.
“We’re not going to allow liberals and special interests in Washington, D.C., undo all we’ve accomplished together,” he said. “Because make no mistake about it, this is going to be a fight, but I’m ready.”
Pence’s speech came a day after a new poll showing the first-term governor’s popularity has continued to suffer since he signed the controversial RFRA, which supporters said was needed to protect people of faith from government overreach.
The poll showed that a majority of Hoosier voters want a new governor, that Pence’s favorability rating has fallen 6 points in recent weeks and that if the election were held today, he would be tied with two potential Democratic challengers, state schools chief Glenda Ritz and former House Speaker John Gregg.
It also showed a majority of voters support a statewide nondiscrimination law for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.
The poll was conducted by Republican pollster Christine Matthews on behalf of former Angie’s List CEO and RFRA opponent Bill Oesterle.
Talking to reporters earlier in the day, Pence dismissed the latest poll numbers.
“The only poll that really matters is going to happen in November of 2016,” he said. “The campaign starts tonight. We’re going to carry our message all across the state of Indiana.”
Democrats are hoping to capitalize on the slide in Pence’s popularity. They organized a protest outside the event, with several dozen people holding “Fire Mike Pence” signs and chanting “Pence must go!”
Cheryl Laux, a 64-year-old retiree from Danville, was among them. She said she disagreed with Pence on a number of issues.
“One of the big things is RFRA,” she said. “I thought he was very disingenuous saying he didn’t think it would affect LGBTQ people, when he had three of the biggest advocates against them at his signing.”
She was referring to the private bill-signing ceremony Pence held in his Statehouse office. One photograph of the event featured three of the state’s top socially conservative religious lobbyists and gay marriage opponents standing behind the governor.
Pence and Republican lawmakers later revised the law to prevent it from eroding local nondiscrimination ordinances.
Democrats have said the only way to fix Indiana’s reputation post-RFRA is to pass statewide civil rights protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Pence narrowly defeated Gregg in 2012 in a campaign noteworthy for its lack of vitriol.
But Gregg launched his campaign this year with a video attacking Pence over RFRA — an attack he continued in a statement released after Pence’s speech.
“Mike Pence does not deserve re-election,” Gregg said. “His administration has been one of the most divisive, dysfunctional and disappointing in our state’s history.”
Ritz did not immediately comment on the speech.
(Call Star reporter Tony Cook at (317) 444-6081. Follow him on Twitter: @indystartony.)