During the first night of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the GOP halted attempts by opposing forces to deny Donald Trump the party’s nomination for the presidency. What it has been unable to do thus far is stop speculation, even among Trump’s most fervent backers, over whether the billionaire’s selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his vice president was a smart choice.
“I really stayed out of this presidential election for the most part,” says Charles Moran, 35, a convention delegate for Trump from Hollywood, Calif. “We had 17 candidates. There were some I liked more than others. But when it came down to the final four or five it became clear to me that I wanted to support Mr. Trump.”
Apart from believing him to be the most electable Republican, Moran thinks Trump has amassed a business and philanthropic record that shows he is the most LGBT-friendly candidate Republicans can run. Moran points to Trump allowing out gays and lesbians to become members of his Mar-a-Lago club in West Palm Beach, Fla., at a time when the LGBT community was not widely accepted, as well as saying he would allow Caitlyn Jenner to use the restroom of her choice at any of his businesses or properties. Add to that Trump’s significant monetary donations to LGBT and HIV/AIDS charities.
It’s hard to imagine an LGBT conservative like Moran supporting Mike Pence as Trump’s vice president. Pence is not widely known outside of Indiana, and is largely tied to a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA) he signed into law that was seen as allowing businesses and individuals to discriminate against LGBT people.
“For the overall larger scheme of the campaign, I think it was a good pick for Donald Trump,” says Moran. “Gov. Pence was a legislative leader for the Republicans in the House of Representatives. Being the executive of a state, he has a broad knowledge of how government works. And his personality is very low-key, he’s not bombastic, he’s very deferential, and I think of Mike Pence as being the yin to Donald Trump’s yang. They compliment each other in a lot of ways.”
Moran has gotten some pushback from people on the RFRA, but says it’s a positive sign that Pence eventually proposed a “fix” to the law that reversed some of its most onerous provisions.
“There’s a lot of room for Mike Pence to grow on LGBT issues,” says Moran. “I’m glad that he listened to his constituents, had to actually sit down with the gay community, the business community, to ‘get real’ about where his state and this country are on equality and freedom.”
Other Trump supporters don’t think the Pence pick is justified. Joseph R. Murray II, of Ripley, Miss., the 39-year-old gay administrator for the Facebook group LGBTrump, thinks Trump has campaigned masterfully thus far, but calls the selection of Pence Trump’s “first mistake in this campaign.”
“The issue I have with Pence is not the whole RFRA act in Indiana,” Murray says. “The issue I have with Pence is he is pro-[Trans Pacific Partnership], he voted for the Iraq War, the fact that this fellow endorsed Ted Cruz, and he brings nothing to the ticket, except to appease the establishment that would screw you over the moment they got the chance.”
Murray notes that some religious conservatives are suspicious of Pence, because they feel he capitulated to the LGBT community and the radical Left by issuing the RFRA “fix.” Murray also argues that Trump has already won support in states with high numbers of evangelical voters, disproving the contention that he needed Pence to shore up cultural conservatives. Rather, he believes Pence was picked because he is a “career politician” with strong connections on Capitol Hill from his 12 years as a U.S. congressman, and someone who establishment Republicans believe can rein in Trump’s most politically dangerous instincts.
“I called this Trump’s ‘Palin moment,'” Murray says. “When John McCain tried to get a fresh face that conservatives trust to try and revamp his campaign, it failed miserably. And this was Trump’s attempt to appease an establishment that doesn’t like him. Do I think it’s going to tank his chances of winning? No…. I do think he wins this thing, but the Pence pick didn’t make that path any easier.”
Gregory T. Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, would have preferred Trump pick someone more moderate in their rhetoric around LGBT issues, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who supported an anti-bullying bill and signed a law banning conversion therapy on minors. But Angelo understands the political calculus that Trump’s campaign was considering when it selected Pence.
“It’s a pick not centered or inspired by policy, but more on gravitas and controlled fire, as it were,” says Angelo, whose organization has not yet made a presidential endorsement. “The fact that Mike Pence has disagreements with Mr. Trump on things like trade or the Iraq War will largely be seen as inconsequential by evangelical Christians who were seeking assurances on social issues.”
There are also LGBT conservatives who just can’t fathom supporting Trump, even if he does win their preferred political party’s nomination. For Joseph Swartz, 32, of Laurel, Md., a profound dislike of Trump has actually driven him to join “Republicans for Hillary,” a group of conservatives throwing their support to Clinton.
“I’ve been anti-Trump since Day One,” says Swartz, who supported Sen. Marco Rubio in the primary. “Trump to me is the embodiment of everything that shouldn’t be relevant in politics…. You ask him a question two to three times, and all he relies on is hyperbole and generally bland assurances…. No matter how much you ask him to follow up on it, he can never provide you with details.”
Swartz thinks Trump’s choice of Pence was “terrible,” given the Indiana governor’s reputation as a social warrior. (Pence even wrote an editorial in 1999 denouncing the Disney movie Mulan as liberal propaganda trying to influence the debate over allowing women to serve in combat roles in the military.) He points to Pence’s limited appeal outside of rural, white, religiously conservative voters in Indiana, who are already likely to vote for Trump.
“My interpretation of the pick was that [Trump] got down to a very small field of candidates he could pick from, because he had alienated so many prominent people who would be natural vice presidential picks within the Republican Party,” says Swartz. “Although Pence might seem more reasonable, he’s going to continue to be so far removed from anyone who lives in a metropolitan area, anybody who is a minority, anybody who is a young voter.”
Anthony “Rek” LeCounte is not a Clinton backer. But the 27-year-old resident of Tringle, Va., is fervently opposed to Trump and is considering voting for the Libertarian ticket of former GOP governors Gary Johnson (New Mexico) and William Weld (Massachusetts). “I would rather fall down a flight of knives into the mouth of an erupting volcano,” he says, when asked if he’d be attending the Republican National Convention. LeCounte is unimpressed with Pence as a running mate.
“There were more than a few people who are wondering if he’s just going for the vice presidency now because he couldn’t win re-election,” says LeCounte. “And maybe he couldn’t. But that’s not exactly a thing that’s going to improve people’s opinions of you.”
In the end, LeCounte feels Pence will help Trump’s campaign, if only because it will provide cover for some Republicans “who should know better” and were looking for a reason to openly support Trump. As for the GOP establishment’s hope that they can get Pence to “tame” Trump, LeCounte isn’t holding his breath.
“I know a lot of folks are waiting for that last Hail Mary, a lot of folks are in denial, like, ‘Oh, please God, this can’t be how it ends,'” he says. “I guess the metaphor is: I’m one of those guys sitting on the deck of the Titanic, in my dinner attire, with my bourbon and cigar, waiting for the whole thing to go down with dignity.”