Marjorie Dannenfelser was traveling to a Council for National Policy meeting last week with a longtime Mike Pence advisor when she heard the news that Donald Trump had picked the Indiana governor as his running mate.
Ever since Trump won Indiana in early May, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List and many other social conservative leaders have been weighing how Trump would handle their policy priorities, on everything from abortion to judicial nominees. But with Pence, there is no need to wonder—for the last two cycles Dannenfelser even tried to recruit him to run for president.
“Honestly, I began to breathe an exhale, and start to think, okay, we can accomplish this,” she says. “It’s really hard to run an election on reluctant ascent. If you can’t win your base, you can’t win. … It’s a whole new ballgame now.”
Now as social conservatives gather in Cleveland for the Republican National Convention, they are finding in Pence new momentum to motivate their base for the general election. At a luncheon for top social conservative activists and donors hosted by the Susan B. Anthony List and Family Research Council Action on Wednesday—a moment when speakers would normally be championing the Republican nominee—the vice presidential candidate was a more common theme.
The room applauded when Senator Deborah Fischer of Nebraska called Pence a piece of “really excellent news.” Kansas governor Sam Brownback reassured the group that the Supreme Court “is worth it all,” and continued, “Mike Pence is a good friend of mine… a solid prolife guy. This should really give you some heart.”
Congresswoman Virginia Foxx of North Carolina encouraged the gathering to press onward. “If Christians are not involved, we leave it to the Philistines, and I am not willing to do that,” she said, referring to an enemy group in the Bible. “You are doing God’s work.”
The message largely resonated with key players in the room. Ellen Barrosse, national committeewoman for Delaware and a Republican donor who backed Cruz early, is very encouraged. “I think Pence is going to give Trump very good advice,” she says. “Pence has worked for change very effectively in Indiana, he has been a great champion on the life issue, he has been fantastic for their economy, and he knows how to work with legislature.”
Carolyn McLarty, national committeewoman for Oklahoma who also was an early Cruz supporter, hopes Pence’s longtime conservative record will rub off on Trump. “I hope Pence can influence Trump to make solid, conservative decisions and appointments,” she says. “I’m praying that Trump will surround himself with good people. I don’t know if he has yet.”
At a lunch honoring longtime conservative activist Phyllis Schlaffly in Cleveland on Tuesday, Rebecca Hagelin, former vice president of the Heritage Foundation, glowed over the Pence news. Unlike Trump’s promises to appoint certain judges and enact certain tax plans, she says, choosing Pence is a “solid action,” a sign he will follow through on his prolife commitments. “This gives me hope that maybe Donald Trump is becoming more conservative,” she says. “How could I not do everything possible to get someone like Mike Pence elected vice-president?”
Just because Trump has now checked social conservatives’ top three boxes—vice presidential pick, Republican platform support, and judicial nominee selection—doesn’t mean he is totally in their clear. If Trump were to go against one of his commitments in a debate with Clinton, Dannenfelser says, it would be “demoralizing” for the social conservative ground game. But the foundation Trump has is now stronger. “We would correct him, and then I think he would correct himself,” she says. “The limits, and potential of our ability do our job, are in his hands.”
And while Pence may make supporting Trump easier for social conservative leaders, even he may not be their real rallying point. “I can do this because of Hillary,” Barrosse says. “The calculus is pretty simple: this is deadly serious stuff.”