The months before Donald Trump picked Pence off the political garbage heap were not easy ones for the governor. While Oesterle and others eventually declined to challenge Pence in a GOP primary, his approval ratings remained under 50 percent, and he was even with a Democratic challenger in head-to-head matchups. He did gain experience in being booed that would serve him well at a performance of Broadway’s Hamilton in November. In the aftermath of the RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] fiasco, Pence was lustily booed at the home opener for the AAA Indianapolis Indians. “This is Indiana, not New York — we don’t boo anyone,” says Michael Leppert, a Democratic lobbyist. “It’s just not done.” Then rumors of Trump’s interest began to spread. At first, Indiana politicos were incredulous and wondered if anyone had actually looked at Pence’s record. But then it began to make a certain kind of sense: Trump was down in the polls, and no one from the GOP elite was interested in joining his train wreck. Pence looked downright statesmanlike when compared to the other possible choices: the Bridgegate-plagued Chris Christie, the thrice-married stegosaurus Newt Gingrich and noted crazy man Rudy Giuliani.
Leppert saw a transformation in Pence beginning with his speech at the Republican National Convention.
“If you watch his State of the State addresses, he seemed disinterested and low-key,” says Leppert. “But once he got on the national stage and could start pontificating on policy issues, it was like a light went back on.”
When he first joined the Republican ticket, media coverage of Mike Pence focused on his ultra-conservative record. In a wide-ranging piece in Rolling Stone, Stephen Rodrick documents an often-forgotten fact: that by the time he was tapped to become Donald Trump’s running mate, Pence’s political career was on the brink of implosion.