When Indiana Gov. Mike Pence accepts the vice-presidential nomination on Wednesday night, he will address a country that knows him best for promoting his state’s religious freedom law, a measure widely criticized for promoting LGBT discrimination.
But it is unclear whether Pence, an evangelical Christian who is still a stranger to many voters, will actually address the issue at the Republican National Convention in an effort to woo social conservatives who supported the law but are wary of Donald Trump. (After backlash, Pence signed a "fix" bill.)
“The question is if they do something tonight to try bringing those religious voters on board, and if so, what they do and whether it will be effective,” Liz Mair, a Republican strategist who has worked to oppose Trump, told BuzzFeed News in an interview Wednesday.
Mair said that when it comes to religious liberty and LGBT protections, “Trump obviously dances around this stuff a little, but Pence is not seen as dancing around it.”
Indeed, promoting Pence’s socially conservative agenda on a national stage could endear the presidential ticket to a sect of evangelicals who backed more pious candidates in the primaries, such as Ted Cruz and Ben Carson.
As NPR reported Wednesday, the Trump campaign is relying on Pence to rally conservatives behind Trump.
“Because of [Pence's] popularity within the grassroots of the Republican Party ... we feel that he helps accelerate the unification of the party in a really meaningful way,” Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort told NPR.
Yet Trump’s most outspoken gay backer hopes Pence remains silent on domestic LGBT politics.
Chris Barron, the head of Gays for Trump, believes Pence should pledge his allegiance to Trump’s “policy positions” in broad strokes, telling BuzzFeed News that Trump is “the most pro-gay friendly Republican nominee we have ever had.”
“I don’t need Mike Pence to rehash what played out in Indiana,” he said, stressing that he wanted Pence to focus instead on "radical Islam," “whose stated goal is to exterminate LGBT people.”
Neither Trump nor Pence has been a supporter of LGBT rights, with Trump suggesting on the campaign trail that he would appoint Supreme Court justices who overturn marriage equality and offering mixed messages on other LGBT issues.
But Pence has taken a harder line.
As a congressman, he voted against a bill to ban discrimination on the basis for sexual orientation in employment. He also supported the Defense of Marriage Act, which blocked the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages in states where it was legal.
Pence continued to oppose same-sex marriage after the Supreme Court struck down state bans nationally. More recently, he denounced the federal government expanding transgender protections in schools.
Still, on Pence’s most scrutinized position — Indiana’s religious freedom law — his record could be a double-edged sword, warned Mair. Reacting to the backlash, Pence angered conservatives when he signed follow-up legislation to say the original law could not be used as a defense for discrimination.
“Conservatives who I talk to in the Never Trump movement have a soft spot for Pence, but the way he handled the religious liberty thing was not cool,” said Mair.
“I think the mere presence of Pence on the ticket is enough to make them feel more comfortable,” said Mair, referring to highly engaged evangelical voters.
Speaking to Pence’s speech Wednesday, she said, “If I were writing the speech, I would avoid the topic [of LGBT issues] because I don’t think it’s obvious how that will play with everybody tuning in.”
She believes, in the end, Pence will be a wash with social conservatives. “I think the story will be that Trump tried to do something to assuage religious voters by picking Pence, but — ha, ha — it didn’t work.”
Dominic Holden is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Dominic Holden at email@example.com.
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