Biography of Mike Pence, Vice President of the United States

The American politician and lawyer served as the 48th vice president.

Vice President Mike Pence during a campaign rally
Hal Yeager / Getty Images

Mike Pence (born June 7, 1959) is an American politician and lawyer who served as the 48th vice president of the United States under President Donald Trump from 2017 to 2021. A member of the Republican Party, he previously served as the governor of Indiana from 2013 to 2017, and as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001 to 2013.

Fast Facts: Mike Pence

  • Known For: U.S. congressman (2001–2013), governor of Indiana (2013–2017), vice president of the United States (2017–present)
  • Born: June 7, 1959 in Columbus, Indiana
  • Parents: Edward Joseph Pence, Jr. and Nancy Pence-Fritsch
  • Education: Hanover College (Indiana), BA in 1981; Indiana University School of Law, JD in 1986
  • Spouse: Karen Sue Batten Whitaker (married in 1985)
  • Children: Michael, Charlotte, and Audrey

Early Life

Mike Pence (Michael Richard Pence) was born on June 7, 1959, in Columbus, Indiana, the third of six children of Edward Joseph and Nancy Cawley Pence. Edward's father was Richard Michael Cawley, an Irish immigrant from Tubbercurry, Ireland, who became a Chicago bus driver. Edward Pence owned a string of gas stations in Indiana and was a Korean War veteran; his wife was an elementary school teacher.

Mike Pence's parents were Irish Catholic Democrats and Pence grew up admiring President John F. Kennedy, even collecting JFK memorabilia as a youngster. He graduated from Columbus North High School in 1977, received a BA in history from Hanover College in 1981, and earned a law degree from Indiana University in 1986.

Pence met Karen Sue Batten Whitaker, a divorced elementary school teacher, in 1984 at an evangelical church service. They married on June 8, 1985, and have three children: Michael, Charlotte, and Audrey.

Early Career

As a young man, Pence was a Catholic and a Democrat like his parents, but while at Hanover College, he became a born-again evangelical Christian and a fundamentalist conservative Christian Republican with a desire to serve in politics. He practiced law until he entered politics, making unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Congress in 1988 and 1990. He recalled that experience as "one of the most divisive and negative campaigns in Indiana's modern Congressional history," and admitted his participation in the negativity, in "Confessions of a Negative Campaigner," published in the Indiana Policy Review in 1991.

From 1991 to 1993, Pence served as president of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, a conservative think-tank. From 1992 to 1999, he hosted a daily conservative talk radio program called the "The Mike Pence Show," which was syndicated state-wide in 1994. Pence also hosted a Sunday morning political TV program in Indianapolis from 1995 until 1999. When the Republican representing Indiana's 2nd Congressional District announced his retirement in 2000, Pence ran for the seat a third time.

2000 Congressional Election

The primary campaign for the seat was a six-way contest pitting Pence against several political veterans, including state Rep. Jeff Linder. Pence emerged the victor and faced the Democratic primary winner Robert Rock, the son of a former Indiana lieutenant governor, and former Republican state Sen. Bill Frazier as a populist independent. After a brutal campaign, Pence was elected after earning 51% of the vote.

Congressional Career

Pence began his congressional career as one of the most outspoken conservatives in the House. He refused to support a Republican-backed bankruptcy bill because it had an abortion measure in it, with which he disagreed. He also joined a Senate Republican lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the newly enacted McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. He was one of just 33 House members to vote against President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind Act." In 2002, he cast a vote against a farm subsidy bill, for which he would later express regret. Pence won his subsequent reelection; that same year, the district was renumbered as the 6th.

In 2005, Pence was elected to chair the Republican Study Committee, an indication of his growing influence.

Controversies

Later that year, Hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast and Republicans found themselves cast as insensitive and unwilling to assist with the cleanup. In the midst of the catastrophe, Pence called a press conference announcing the Republican-led Congress would include $24 billion in spending cuts, saying "... [W]e must not let Katrina break the bank." Pence also stirred controversy in 2006 when he teamed with Democrats to break a deadlock on immigration. His bill ultimately foundered and he was castigated by conservatives.

Campaign for Minority Leader

When Republicans took a significant beating in the 2006 election, Pence observed, "We didn't just lose our majority. I believe we lost our way." With that, he threw his hat into the ring for Republican leader, a post that had been held for less than a year by Ohio Congressman John Boehner. The debate centered around the failures of the Republican leadership leading up to the general election, but Pence was defeated 168-27.

Political Prospecting 

Despite his political setbacks, Pence emerged as a major voice for the Republican Party under Democratic House leadership and in 2008, he was elected House Republican Conference Chairman—the third-highest ranked position in House party leadership. He made several trips to primary states in 2009, which led to speculation that he was considering a run for the presidency.

After Republicans regained control of the House in 2010, Pence declined to run for Republican leader, throwing his support instead to Boehner. He also stepped down as chair of the Republican Conference, leading many to suspect he would challenge Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh or run for governor of the state. In early 2011, a movement led by former Kansas Rep. Jim Ryun got underway to draft Pence for president in 2012. Pence remained non-committal but said he would make a decision by the end of January 2011.

Pence decided in May 2011 to seek the Republican nomination for governor of Indiana. He ultimately won the election by a narrow vote, taking office in January 2013. In March 2015 he signed a "religious freedom" bill into law, which allowed businesses to cite religious beliefs in denying service to potential customers. The bill, however, led to accusations of discrimination against the LGBT community. Pence ran unopposed in the Republican primary for governor in May 2016 in a bid for a second term.

Vice Presidency

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Pence again considered running but backed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for the GOP nomination. In December 2015, he criticized then-candidate Donald Trump's call for a temporary U.S. ban on people from Muslim-dominated countries as "offensive and unconstitutional." The following June, he characterized Trump's critical comments on U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel as "inappropriate." At the same time, however, Pence praised Trump's stand on jobs. In July, Trump named him as his running mate in the presidential election. Pence accepted and pulled the plug on his gubernatorial campaign.

During his acceptance speech for the nomination of Republican vice presidential candidate at the 2016 Republican National Convention, then-Senator Pence described himself as a “principled conservative” and supporter of the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement, saying he was “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.

Pence was elected vice president on November 8, 2016, and was sworn in on January 20, 2017, alongside President Donald Trump.

On January 27, 2017, Pence spoke at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., becoming the first vice president, and at the time, the highest-ranking United States official to ever speak at the annual anti-abortion event, until President Trump did so in 2020. During the 2020 vice presidential debate, when asked what he would want states to do if Roe v. Wade were overturned by the Supreme Court, Pence refused to endorse criminalizing abortion, instead simply referring to himself as “pro-life.”

On February 5, 2017, Pence warned Iran that it “would do well not to test the resolve of this new president [Trump],” following their ballistic missile tests conducted the previous month. Iranian officials had said their missile program was purely for defensive purposes. Pence also sat in on calls made by President Trump to foreign heads of government such as Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Two days later, on February 7, 2017, in his dual constitutional role as vice president and president of the United States Senate, Pence made the first ever tie-breaking vote to confirm a presidential Cabinet member. His vote broke a 50-50 tie to confirm Betsy DeVos as the secretary of education. His second tie-breaking vote came on March 30, voting to advance a bill to defund Planned Parenthood. President Trump signed the controversial bill on April 17. In total, Pence cast 13 tie-breaking votes, seventh-most in history and more than his previous four predecessors—Joe Biden, Dick Cheney, Al Gore, and Dan Quayle—had cast combined.

In April 2017, Pence toured the Asia-Pacific region. In South Korea, he met with acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn and condemned North Korea's latest missile launch. In Japan, Pence met with Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, pledging U.S. assistance in working with Japan, South Korea, and China "to achieve a peaceable resolution and the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," adding that "The era of strategic patience is over and all options are on the table."

On May 21, 2017, Pence delivered the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, an honor traditionally extended to first-term presidents. In 2017, however, Pence was invited instead when Trump decided to speak at Liberty University, a private evangelical university founded in 1971 by televangelist, and conservative activist Jerry Falwell.

On October 8, 2017, Pence honored President Trump’s request by walking out of a football game between the NFL's Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers after members of the 49ers, led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem.

In February 1, 2018, Pence, along with his wife, headed the U.S. presidential delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. However, much of Pence's time at the games were affected by the ongoing North Korean crisis. Before the opening ceremony, Pence skipped a dinner hosted by South Korean president Moon Jae-in, as he would have shared a table with North Korea's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-Nam. Instead, he met with four North Korean defectors alongside his special guest, Fred Warmbier—father of Otto Warmbier, an American who was arrested in North Korea for attempted theft and sentenced to 15 years in prison, before being returned to the U.S. in a comatose state.

In May 2017, Pence filed Federal Election Commission paperwork to form Great America Committee, a political action committee (PAC). In doing so, Pence became the first vice president to have started a fund-raising PAC while still in office. Pence denied a New York Times article alleging that he planned to run against President Trump in 2020, calling the suggestion "laughable and absurd,” and “disgraceful and offensive.” Of course, they were also wrong, as Pence would again run alongside Trump in 2020.

Siege of the Capitol

In early January 2021, President Trump began pressuring Pence to take action to overturn the Electoral College results of the November 3, 2020 election, which had been won 306 votes to 232 votes by Democrat Joe Biden. As vice president, Pence was required by the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to preside over the January 6, 2021, joint session of Congress to count and certify the states’ electoral votes—typically a non-controversial, purely ceremonial event.

For days before the joint session, Trump declared both in public, mainly via social media, and in private that Pence should use his position to overturn the election results in swing states and declare Trump the winner of the election. On the advice of his lawyers, Pence showed reluctance to do so, stating that the Constitution did not give him that power. However, Trump insisted that “The Vice President and I are in total agreement that the Vice President has the power to act.” In a phone call hours before the joint session, Trump reportedly told Pence, “You can either go down in history as a patriot, or you can go down in history as a p***y.” Before the start of the Joint Session, Pence stated in a "Dear Colleague" letter to all members of Congress that the Constitution prevented him from deciding which electoral votes counted and which did not.

On the morning of January 6, 2021, President Trump held a rally at which he urged several thousand listeners to march to the Capitol and demand that Pence “do the right thing.” Still contending that the 2020 election had been “stolen” from him, Trump urged the crowd on with statements such as “We will never give up. We will never concede. Our country has had enough. We're not going to take it anymore."

Many of the listeners, some armed, then marched on the Capitol, where they breached police barricades, broke out windows, and stormed inside the Capitol building. Rioters invaded the offices of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, flipping tables, pillaging her desk, and ripping photos from walls. 

As Capitol police battled with the rioters and ordered the Capitol locked down, the Senate and House recessed from their discussions about the electoral count, and Pence was "whisked away" from the chamber. Pence was not evacuated from the Senate chambers until 14 minutes after the initial breach of the Capitol was reported. He and his family were eventually ushered from the Senate chambers into a second-floor hideaway.

The Washington Post reported the angry mob chanting “hang Mike Pence” came within 40 feet of the vice president as trump called him a “wimp” and worse in a series of Twitter posts.

Hours later, Pence, rather than Trump, approved the deployment of the National Guard. After the Capitol was finally cleared, Congress resumed its joint session and officially certified the election results with Pence declaring Biden and Harris declared the winners.

On January 20, Pence, unlike Trump, attended the inauguration of Joe Biden as president of the United States. Afterward, Pence left the Capitol accompanied by his successor, Vice President Kamala Harris.

Pence Weighs Presidential Run

Early 2022 polls of registered Republican voters regarding their preferred 2024 presidential candidate showed that Pence could begin a campaign as a front-runner for the nomination if former President Trump decided not to run again. The same polls, however, indicated a sharp decline in Pence's chances if Trump were to seek to become the second president, after Grover Cleveland, to serve two non-consecutive terms.

In May 2022, The New York Times reported that Pence was considering a presidential run regardless of whether Trump decided to run for a second term. After leaving office, Pence began making high-profile speeches in early nominating states in which he distanced himself from Trump's continued attempts to cast doubt on the validity 2020 presidential election. In what was described as a “proxy battle” between Pence and Trump, Pence endorsed incumbent governor Brian Kemp over the Trump-backed candidate, former senator David Perdue in the primary for governor of Georgia. Pence's candidate Kemp easily won the nomination. In the 2022 Arizona gubernatorial primary election, Pence endorsed land developer Karrin Taylor Robson, while Trump endorsed TV news anchor Kari Lake, who won the nomination.

Sources

  • D'Antonio, Michael and Peter Eisner. "The Shadow President: The Truth about Mike Pence." New York: St. Martin's Press, 2018. (partisan left)
  • De la Cuetara, Ines and Chris Good. "Mike Pence: Everything You Need to Know." ABC News, July 20, 2016. 
  • Neal, Andrea. "Pence: The Path to Power." Bloomington, Indiana: Red Lightning Press, 2018. (partisan right)
  • Phillips, Amber. "Who is Mike Pence?" Washington Post, October 4, 2016. 
  • "Mike Pence Fast Facts." CNN, June 14, 2016.
Updated by
Robert Longley
History and Government Expert
  • B.S., Texas A&M University
Robert Longley is a U.S. government and history expert with over 30 years of experience in municipal government and urban planning.
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Hawkins, Marcus. "Biography of Mike Pence, Vice President of the United States." ThoughtCo, Sep. 20, 2022, thoughtco.com/a-profile-of-indiana-congressman-mike-pence-3303403. Hawkins, Marcus. (2022, September 20). Biography of Mike Pence, Vice President of the United States. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/a-profile-of-indiana-congressman-mike-pence-3303403 Hawkins, Marcus. "Biography of Mike Pence, Vice President of the United States." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/a-profile-of-indiana-congressman-mike-pence-3303403 (accessed November 27, 2022).