Indiana Republicans Look For Path Forward After Mike Pence 'Religious Freedom' Mess

05/01/2015 07:31 am ET | Updated May 01, 2015

WASHINGTON -- In Indiana these days, no one, including the GOP, is happy with Gov. Mike Pence (R).

On April 2, Pence signed a revised version of Indiana's widely denounced "religious freedom" law, closing the door on a controversy that had brought national scorn to his state and cost local economies valuable tourism dollars.

"It didn't do our brand any good, for sure. One, it didn't do the state brand any good. Two, it didn't do the Indiana Republican Party brand any good. And three, it didn't do Mike any good. And that's pretty obvious," said former Indiana GOP Chair Jim Kittle.

Since that time, Pence has kept his head down and largely stayed out of the spotlight. But behind the scenes in Indiana, many Republicans are still seething and looking for ways to retake control of the party's direction. And the results of those discussions are likely to become more public in the coming days, now that the Indiana General Assembly has wrapped up its legislative session.

One Republican operative in the state, who declined to be named in order to speak openly, said the Religious Freedom Restoration Act controversy brought to the forefront "a simmering disconnect between the [former Gov.] Mitch Daniels-era people and the Mike Pence people." Others took issue with that description, saying the real divide is broader: between Pence and, essentially, the rest of the state Republican Party.

Daniels, who served from 2005 to 2013 and is now the president of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, still inspires intense loyalty among many Republicans in the state. He helped bring the state party out of the wilderness after 16 years of Democratic governors. Daniels made fiscal issues his focus, declaring a "truce" on social issues (although he did sign a bill defunding Planned Parenthood in 2011).

Pence, on the other hand, was known as a strong social conservative in Congress, where he served from 2001 to 2013. When Pence ran for governor, he followed in Daniels' footsteps and largely stayed away from social issues. But the RFRA controversy has seemingly confirmed many people's lingering fears that Pence would revert to his old self and steer the party, and the state, far to the right.

"There's always been kind of, in the back of people's heads, a concern about what Mike Pence could end up doing to hurt [the successful state GOP] brand," the Republican operative told The Huffington Post.

RFRA was not on Pence's agenda. Rather, it was pushed by the GOP leaders who control the state legislature. But Pence essentially became the face of the bill -- and, for many in the country, the face of discrimination in Indiana.

On March 29, Pence went on ABC's "This Week" to try and mitigate the growing controversy over the law he'd recently signed. He repeatedly refused to answer the question of whether the measure would allow businesses to deny service to same-sex couples, and his evasion turned the simmering controversy into a full-blown mess. (Pence later said he didn't believe the measure would allow for that, although he acknowledged that the law had to be clarified to make that explicit.)

But the damage was done. Organizations pulled their conferences from the state, musicians canceled concerts and businesses said they would give Indiana a wide berth.

"We continue to be stunned by just how wide and deep the animosity is -- in Republican strongholds -- against Governor Mike Pence (R) and the Republican Party, in that order," wrote Ed Feigenbaum, who covers the ins and outs of Indiana state politics, in the April 13 edition of the newsletter Indiana Legislative Insight. "While undoubtedly there is a different narrative in out-state rural areas that were not subject to the same intense media coverage and social network squawking as in Central Indiana, urban areas, and college towns, the big takeaway is that the Governor and his party are in deep trouble."

That trouble shows in the polls. A recent Howey Politics Indiana (HPI) poll shows Pence's favorable rating at just 35 percent, and his unfavorable rating at 38 percent. And in a recent poll from the Human Rights Campaign, 53 percent of Indiana voters said that Pence's signing of RFRA made them feel unfavorably toward the governor. Only 38 percent said they felt favorably.

"I've been covering Indiana politics for three decades, and I don't recall a sitting governor experiencing that kind of decline over this short period of time like we've seen here," said Brian Howey, publisher of HPI.

The dissatisfaction with Pence spilled into public view on April 15, when Bill Oesterle, the CEO of Indianapolis-based Angie's List, announced his resignation and his intention to return to politics. Oesterle ran Daniels' 2004 gubernatorial campaign, is a major donor in the party and was a vociferous critic of RFRA.

Immediately, speculation in Indiana centered around whether Oesterle would challenge Pence in a primary, presenting a pro-LGBT candidate who would no doubt have strong appeal -- and fundraising potential -- in the business community.

Oesterle is still figuring out his plans, but he recently told Indianapolis Star political columnist Matthew Tully that he may instead look to shape the party from the outside, with a new political organization to counter the influence of social conservatives.

"The primary chatter underestimates the work that is needed," he said. "It diminishes the magnitude of the work that has to [be] done. That's the work of putting the party in a position once again in which it has the support of the majority of the voters in this state. We have, because of what has been done, the very real risk of permanently alienating a large bloc of Hoosiers. That's going to be hard to overcome."

Kittle called Oesterle "a fabulous guy" and "a good friend." He said Oesterle could have an impact on the Indiana GOP by perhaps serving "as a conduit for some folks who, at this point, think this party has gone too far to the right."

But it's not just the moderate wing that's mad at Pence -- he has managed to anger the right as well. Many conservatives who supported RFRA were incensed when the governor agreed to the legislative "fix" that prevents businesses from denying services to same-sex couples.

Twenty religious leaders, including a pastor who had literally stood behind Pence at his private signing ceremony for RFRA, held a rally this week, where they rebuked the governor for his "betrayal" of them. And there is speculation that Pence could even face a primary challenge from the right when he's up for re-election in 2016.

"I think it would be very hard for anyone -- assuming Mike's going to run, and I'm virtually positive he is -- so assuming he runs, I think it would be very difficult to win a primary [against him]," said Kittle. "I don't think it would be helpful, either, because it could then put the Republican Party at an even further disadvantage [in the general election]. We didn't win by a landslide last time."

Neither Pence's campaign nor the Indiana GOP returned requests for comment.

On Thursday, Pence received his first Democratic challenger: former Indiana state House Speaker John Gregg, who narrowly lost to Pence in 2012. In his announcement, Gregg said that under Pence, "Indiana has been given a bad name."

In the meantime, Pence is picking up the pieces. The state recently spent $2 million to bring in a public relations firm to help rebuild Indiana's image in the wake of the RFRA fiasco. Feigenbaum told HuffPost it was a good sign that Pence recently hired Matt Lloyd, his communications director from his time in Congress, to run his press shop in Indianapolis.

"Matt is a big-time, big-picture guy who knows how to maneuver Pence around petty politics and through serious politics," said Feigenbaum. "[He] understands the politics of policy, unlike some other Pence aides."

"I think Mike's really going to have to reach out to diverse communities, whether it's the business community, which has been very supportive of him up to now, or it's the LGBT community," said Kittle. "I think he does understand that this was not the right time and the right thing to do. It was a mistake. I believe he feels that way. I think he'll have to express that."

Want more updates from Amanda? Sign up for her newsletter, Piping Hot Truth.

Also on HuffPost:

Reactions To Indiana's 'Religious Freedom' Law
Suggest a correction