A Muncie industrialist helped set Mike Pence on a path that led to his becoming the running mate for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Van Smith had just left breakfast at the home of U.S. Rep. David McIntosh on a summer day in 1999. Smith and another executive at Ontario Corp., both of them GOP activists, called Pence.
"We said McIntosh is going to go for governor, and he’s going to have a press conference today. One hour later, you better announce, because you gotta get out for the congressional seat and do it early," Smith, who will soon turn 88, recalled in a phone interview.
"He said he wouldn’t do it without Karen’s blessing," Smith said.
Pence’s wife gave the go-ahead, Smith became his campaign chairman, and the following spring, Pence won a six-candidate race for the Republican congressional nomination in east-central Indiana.
The GOP field that year included Luke Messer, who would replace Pence in the House nearly 13 years later after Pence was elected governor.
When Smith called to urge a congressional bid, Pence was a conservative talk radio host who lived in Edinburgh. Smith and his wife, Margaret, had gotten to know the Pences when Mike Pence ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1988 and 1990.
"We became acquainted with them as a couple, and I was impressed with them. They became good friends, and we stayed in contact" after Pence’s failed campaigns, Smith said.
And when Muncie resident McIntosh, then in his third term in the House, decided to run for governor – he would win the Republican nomination in 2000 but lose the general election to Democratic incumbent Frank O’Bannon – Smith wanted Pence as the next congressman.
"I thought here was a guy who knows the game and has some maturity and is certainly high-character. ... We thought he would be a good candidate," Smith said.
McIntosh, president of the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, remembered talking twice with Pence before announcing his campaign for governor. The first time, Pence doubted he would try for McIntosh’s House seat. By the second conversation, Pence had warmed up to the idea.
"And then Van called, and he ended up deciding to run," McIntosh said.
"That made it easier for me to leave the seat because I knew there would be somebody good to follow," he said.
Smith was chairman of each of Pence’s six campaigns for the House, where he became the third-ranking Republican for a time, and Pence’s 2012 gubernatorial run.
He has contributed more than $25,000 to Pence’s campaigns, according to state and federal campaign finance databases.
In 2013, Gov.-elect Pence named Smith’s son Victor secretary of the state’s commerce department.
Long active in state and national GOP circles and a former chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Smith said he does not know Trump personally. Asked whether he had supported Trump or would have preferred one of his many rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, Smith said, "I will support the Republican nominee."
Smith was a delegate to the last four Republican national conventions, but he decided before the primary election season that he would not try to return for this week’s GOP gathering in Cleveland.