Mike Pence, the Anti-Huckabee

This Politico story about the group drafting Indiania Congressman Mike Pence to run for the GOP presidential nomination is full of interesting tidbits about Republicans’ dissatisfaction with the rest of the field:

An Indiana congressman with just five terms in public office, Pence is currently the subject of a draft movement—but he may well pick a gubernatorial run over a White House bid.

. . . .
The pro-Pence crowd consists of a group of traditional conservatives who, while sympathizing with her, don’t view Sarah Palin as a serious presidential candidate. They doubt Mike Huckabee will run again or can broaden his appeal. And they believe the rest of the field features has-beens or candidates insufficiently pure on cultural issues.

While Huckabee doesn’t fall into the “insufficiently pure on cultural issues” camp, the conservative dissatisfaction with him has dogged him since his 2008 run, and indeed dates back to his tenure as governor of Arkansas. Pence has the support of the Club for Growth, the hardline anti-tax, free market-worshipping group which contributed to the conservative freezing out of Huckabee in 2008. I wrote a piece in 2007 that broke down that discontent:

The fanatically anti-tax Club for Growth — which Huckabee has disparaged as “the Club for Greed” — has gotten a lot of mileage out of its portrayal of Huckabee’s tenure in Arkansas as that of a “habitual tax-hiker.” Huckabee has fired back, saying that the Club for Growth’s figures are wrong, and besides, the Club doesn’t understand what it takes to run a state government. He argues that his policies of taxing gasoline sales to pay for road construction and using state revenue to pay for poor children’s health insurance did not ravage the pocketbooks of Arkansans, but provided desperately needed services to his state.

It wasn’t just the Club for Growth, though; I talked to several Arkansas Republicans who had soured on Huckabee as governor, and took their complaints to the highest echelons of the conservative movement’s elite. They succeeding in sinking him, and even though Huckabee’s more recent rhetoric echoes the tea party mantras, that won’t matter for these elephants who won’t forget his Arkansas days of sympathy for immigrants and poor people.

Possibly more interesting than what these political elites are doing to draft Pence is how Huckabee diehards will react to this intentional recruitment of a competitor to Huckabee. As I reported last year, many Huckabee volunteer activists gripe their guy is slighted by the Tea Party movement, by Fox News, and by the very conservative elites Huckabee was so critical of in 2008.

The Politico piece makes clear that the conservatives behind the draft Pence movement value his unwavering Christian conservatism, but that they find his Club for Growth/Dick Armey-endorsed fiscal positions to be a crucial factor for winning over more of the conservative base than the evangelicals drawn by Huckabee’s aw-shucks preachiness. If both Huckabee and Pence end up running, they’ll be competing not only to out-Jesus the other, but to prove which one is more of the anti-tax, budget-slashing purist.

In 2008, Huckabee’s supporters loved his anti-elitist, anti-Wall Street talk, and movement elites’ snubbing of him both baffled and angered his grassroots supporters. One might think Huckabee would be some sort of conservative populist favorite for 2012, given the state of the economy. But if Huckabee does decide to run in 2012, it looks like he’s in for a repeat of 2008 from his party’s fiscal zealots — and it will be fascinating to watch the reaction of his grassroots supporters who contend he’s the real conservative but that the conservative movement is out to undermine him.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email