Is Mike Pence going to pass on the Indiana race between Trump and Cruz?

Everyone knows why he’s lying low. The question is whether his reason is good enough. Jonah Goldberg:

Pence is hardly alone on the sidelines, of course. But the crowd of wet-fingered politicians trying to determine which way the wind is blowing doesn’t matter. Pence does. If Donald Trump loses the May 3 Indiana primary, it is all but certain he will fall short of the 1,237 delegates necessary to win the nomination on the first ballot. Indiana is now the Gates of Vienna for stopping the Trumpian takeover of the GOP…

To be fair, Pence is in a pickle because he’s up for re-election in 2016, and the beleaguered Hoosier thinks he can’t afford to alienate any Republican voters. Boo hoo…

Pence is surely aware of Trump’s unfavorables. But what he may not have considered is that if Trump loses the general election in a landslide, the recriminations will be ferocious. The postmortems will undoubtedly focus on who had a chance to stop Trump when it was possible. Among the first in the dock: the Hamlet of the Hoosiers.

Yep. And Pence is right to worry. A new poll out today in Indiana has him just four points head of his Democratic opponent, 49/45. If he endorses this coming week, he’ll obviously endorse Cruz: He reportedly “loathes” Trump and Kasich isn’t competing in the state anymore thanks to his new alliance with Cruz. Cruz would be the only game in town for Pence even if they weren’t ideologically simpatico, although they are. He simply needs to decide whether he wants to risk angering Trump supporters in November by crossing their god-king in a state that may end up determining whether he gets to 1,237 on the first ballot. If he backs Cruz, some Trumpists could boycott Pence this fall. If Pence backs no one, Trump could win the state and the nomination, which may itself mean doom for Pence if the down-ballot effects this fall are bad. Cruz voters may hold a non-endorsement against him too, although they’re naturally well disposed to Pence given his full-spectrum conservatism; as angry as they’ll be if he sits out the primary and Trump ends up winning, many of them will be in triage mode this fall, looking to resist the big blue wave that having Trump as nominee risks triggering. They’re the party’s base, and bases tend to turn out. They’ll probably put aside the butthurt and support Pence anyway.

The biggest risk he’d run in passing on the race, I think, is a backlash among conservative media, much of which is anti-Trump and is already grumpy towards Pence for how he retreated on Indiana’s RFRA bill. If he runs for president in 2020, some of them will remember. But who cares if pockets of conservative media hold a grudge against the “Hamlet of the Hoosiers,” as Golderg calls him? The biggest voices in conservative media — Fox News, Rush, Hannity — are either perfectly willing to have Trump as nominee or in the tank for him outright. Pence doing Trump a solid by refusing to back Cruz won’t bother them a bit, and might even earn him some goodwill. And if Cruz ends up winning the state anyway, which is certainly possible, Cruzers might forgive Pence on grounds that his error was harmless in the end. In fact, I wouldn’t even rule out some Cruzers being glad in hindsight this fall that Pence refused to endorse. If Cruz takes Indiana but Trump takes the nomination, Pence’s strategic decision not to alienate Trumpers may come to be seen as a shrewd move designed to maximize party unity in Indiana. If Democrats are as strong this fall against a Trump-led GOP as everyone (except Trumpers) expects, that could be the difference in a close gubernatorial race. You’ll feel a little better, even as a Cruz fan, on election night learning that Indiana’s executive branch stayed red when dominoes are falling all over the rest of the country.

I think he’ll end up endorsing Cruz this week — grassroots conservatives will all but insist upon it as an ideological litmus test — but I bet he’ll do it with as little fanfare as possible. No barnstorming the state with Cruz, nothing but compliments for Trump in announcing his decision. It’ll be a pure check-the-box move, not the sort of energetic support that Cruz got from Scott Walker in Wisconsin or that Rubio got from Nikki Haley in South Carolina. Which, actually, may suit Cruz fine: Pence isn’t as popular in Indiana as Walker and Haley are with Republicans in their home states. A low-key endorsement from the governor may be all Cruz wants as a way of nudging undecided Hoosiers which way to go next week. Which reminds me: If Pence won’t come through here, what about Mitch Daniels? He’s well-liked and has all kinds of stature in the state — former governor, potential GOP draftee in 2012, current president of Purdue University. Cruz might not be Daniels’s first choice, but if he’s anti-Trump (which, as a serious conservative policy wonk, he has to be), he could conceivably make more of a difference as a surrogate for Cruz on the trail next week than Pence could. How about it, Mitch?

In lieu of an exit question, go read BuzzFeed’s story about how tepid support for Cruz has been among Jeb Bush’s and Marco Rubio’s donors. Like Pence, they probably prefer to see Cruz as nominee than Trump. But they’re not willing to do much to make it happen.

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