INDIANAPOLIS — Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Pence ended lengthy speculation Thursday in announcing his bid for Indiana governor, saying his conservative principles would appeal to voters beyond his party and guide the state well.
Pence, who describes himself as "a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order," has the backing of many tea party voters. He is considered the favorite in the race because of his strong name recognition, network of supporters and campaign cash that could help him clear the field of other Republicans considering a 2012 run for governor.
"Hopefully over the course of the next year and a half, Hoosiers will get to know me and my family," Pence told The Associated Press. "They'll understand that our brand of conservatism is a mainstream, common-sense brand of conservatism that I trust will resonate with Republicans, independents and many Democrats."
Indiana Democrats – who lost several Statehouse seats in last November's Republican surge and are still looking for an official candidate for governor – are hoping that Pence will ruffle feathers among more moderate voters who may be disgruntled by sweeping changes enacted in the state since the 2010 elections.
Some teachers are upset with an education overhaul pushed by current Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, and labor unions are angry at what they consider GOP attempts to limit their power. Democrats are jumping at the chance to define Pence as a right-wing outlier.
"Mike Pence makes Mitch Daniels look liberal," said Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker. "He's a very divisive person. He deals with issues in a very ideological, vitriolic way. I think he's going to have a hard time bringing people together, and that's what Hoosiers are looking for."
But since Pence was in Congress during the recent Indiana legislative battles, that message may not resonate in the governor's race as it may in state House and Senate contests, said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
"He obviously has exceptional conservative credentials, and Indiana's a conservative state," Downs said. "Pence has the potential to run away with it."
For Democrats, former House Speaker John Gregg is considered a leading potential candidate. Gregg has said he plans to form an exploratory committee but hasn't made a formal announcement yet. Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson of Bloomington has also been mentioned as a candidate. U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly originally said he may consider running for governor, but is now contemplating a run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Richard Lugar. Former Sen. Evan Bayh and Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel both have declined to run.
Pence, who plans to complete his sixth term in Congress, is scheduled to attend events in Indiana this weekend and plans an official campaign kickoff at a historic farm in his hometown of Columbus on June 11.
He announced his plans to supporters on a conference call from Washington, though the decision had been widely expected since he resigned his No. 3 GOP House leadership position in November and ruled out a White House run in January. Pence has spent the months since then meeting with constituents around the state and speaking at political dinners. His campaign even sent a blank email Wednesday that included a "Mike for Indiana" logo.
Pence described his decision as the "worst-kept secret in politics" and said it was best to get the announcement out of the way Thursday rather than delaying it until he could get back to Indiana on Friday.
Democrats said it was proof that he's more focused on Beltway politics.
Pence told supporters he's seeking the governor's office because he feels he can lead the state as it's on the verge of an era of growth, thanks to Daniels' leadership.
"The work isn't over," Pence said. "To keep Indiana growing, Hoosiers know we must have principled leadership at every level to make the right choices. We need to live within our means and embrace policies that will create good jobs, great schools, safe streets and strong families."
Daniels cannot seek a third consecutive term under state law. He is expected to announce in coming weeks whether he'll run for president. Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman will not seek the governor's office. Republican businessman Jim Wallace of Fishers said he'll formally announce his campaign next week.
"We will offer voters a clear choice in the race for governor in 2012," Wallace said in a statement Thursday.
Deanna Martin can be reached at . http://twitter.com/deanna_martin
Pence campaign: www.mikepence.com