During the first of Vice President Pence’s two unsuccessful races for Congress, he rode a single-speed bicycle more than 250 miles around his district, much of it accompanied by his wife, Karen, along for the journey.
And during his years as a House member in Washington, after he had finally won on his third attempt, Mike Pence proudly displayed an antique red phone on his desk — a Christmas gift from his wife for which only she had the number, a hotline straight from her to him.
More than a decade later, even as cellphones were the norm, Mike Pence had that same red phone installed in his statehouse office — a reminder, both physical and symbolic, of the direct and enduring connection between Mike and Karen Pence.
Now, as second lady, Karen Pence, 60, remains an important influence on one of President Trump’s most important political allies. She sat in on at least one interview as the vice president assembled his staff, accompanied her husband on his first foreign trip and joins him for off-the-record briefings with reporters, acting as his gut check and shield.
On the vice president’s visit last month to Germany and Belgium, the Pences quietly toured Dachau concentration camp, often holding hands, and huddled together on the Air Force Two ride home to debrief on the trip. When Mike Pence, 57, ventured to the back of the plane to chat off the record with reporters, his wife accompanied him, bearing a silver tray of cookies and standing by his side for the 20-minute conversation.
“As governor, Mike Pence had a very tight inner circle, and Karen Pence was very much a part of that,” said Brian Howey, publisher of Howey Politics Indiana, a nonpartisan political newsletter in the state. “I would characterize her as the silent, omnipresent partner. You knew she was there, you knew there was some considerable influence she wielded, but, boy, she was not public about it.”
Over the years, Karen Pence has repeatedly said that one of her "hard and fast rules" is that she never weighs in on or attempts to influence policy.
Pence, through a spokeswoman, declined interview requests for this profile. (Her spokeswoman did, however, say she would be open to participating in a story that focused solely on her art therapy initiatives and other passions).
Friends and aides, meanwhile, say she is the Pence family “prayer warrior,” a woman so inextricably bound to her husband that even then-candidate Trump understood her importance and consulted her in critical campaign moments.
When Trump called to offer Mike Pence the No. 2 slot, the businessman knew Karen Pence was by his side and asked, “I hear Karen is there, too? Can I talk to her?” And nearly three months later, when an Access Hollywood tape revealed Trump talking crudely about women, Trump called his running mate to apologize and then asked him to hand the phone to his wife, so he could apologize personally to her, too.
Though aides said Karen Pence was among those most upset by the tape, they stressed that she also emerged privately as one of Trump’s staunchest defenders overall.
“She was a major part of our campaign, and she just never flinched,” said Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president. “Karen Pence was one of the biggest pro-Trump people and Trump defenders there was … She has a great sense of people and saw at events and rallies the enthusiasm and support for Mr. Trump.”
Born Karen Sue Batten in Kansas, she grew up just north of downtown Indianapolis, where she met Steve Whitaker, her first husband, in high school, where she was valedictorian and president of the Speech Club. In a telephone interview, Whitaker recalled few details about his 21-year-old bride. The marriage ended, he said, after they simply grew apart as he, then a medical student, spent long hours at the hospital.
In fact, he added, the last time he saw her was more than three decades ago, when they ran into each other on the street in Indianapolis. He didn’t know who she was married to — or that her husband was Trump’s running mate — until shortly before the election.
“We were kids,” said Whitaker, now the chief medical officer of a Seattle-based biopharmaceutical company. “We probably didn’t necessarily know what we were doing.”
Later, after dating Mike Pence for eight months, Karen engraved a small gold cross with the word “Yes” and slipped it into her purse to give him when he popped the question.
He did, just a month later, as the two were feeding the ducks at a local canal. He hollowed out two loaves of bread, placing a small bottle of champagne in one and the ring box in the other for her to discover as she tore off pieces, according to local news reports. (They later got the bread shellacked, as a keepsake, a local paper noted).
The Pences were married in a Roman Catholic church in 1985 but later became evangelical Christians.
In 2002, Mike Pence told the Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.
Supporters and critics alike cite her as a force behind her husband's socially conservative stances, including his opposition to gay marriage and the religious freedom law he signed as governor of Indiana, which opponents worried would allow business owners to discriminate against gays and lesbians by citing religious concerns.
“You can’t get a dime between them,” said Ken Blackwell, senior fellow at the Family Research Council and a senior domestic policy adviser on the Trump transition team. “It is not him seeking her approval, but his doing a sort of gut check with what they have learned together and come up through together in terms of their shared Christianity.”
In 1991, Karen Pence, then an elementary-school teacher, penned a letter to the editor in the Indianapolis Star, complaining that the paper's "Children's Express" section had featured an article that "encourages children to think they're gay or lesbian if they have a close relationship with a child of the same sex" or admire a teacher of the same gender.
“I only pray that most parents were able to intercept your article before their children were encouraged to call the Gay/Lesbian Youth Hotline, which encourages them to ‘accept their homosexuality’ instead of reassuring them that they are not,” she wrote.
Friends of Pence — who say she quietly held a small Bible study group during her time in the governor’s mansion — say her faith has sustained her through challenging periods, from when she and Mike first had trouble getting pregnant to the vagaries of politics, including her initial reluctance to support his third attempt to win a congressional seat.
Vicki Lake, the wife of the Pences’ former pastor, recalled a visit from Karen Pence one day at her Greenwood, Ind., home. As Pence was leaving, Lake recalled, “She grabbed my hands, and we prayed together in my laundry room.”
“That’s the kind of person she is, a person who believes in prayer, a godly mother and wife,” Lake said. “In fact, when Mike was a congressman, Karen would send out prayer requests to people — to pray for them as a family, that God would give them the strength to do all that they had to do.”
Marilyn Logsdon, who met Karen Pence when they were elementary-school teachers in the late 1980s and later served on her charitable board when she was the first lady of Indiana, recalled her friend beginning meetings with prayer. “She would say, ‘Before we look at these grants, let’s just ask God for wisdom and discernment,” Logsdon said.
Pence has stayed close with many of the women she met in church, as a teacher and through her children’s play groups, all of whom describe her as a loyal friend. Lake, who has a disease that hinders her red blood cell production, says Pence often prays for her hemoglobin count. “I personally get an occasional text asking me, ‘How are your numbers?’ ” she said.
Lake also remembers a lunch at the Cheesecake Factory in Greenwood with Pence, who ordered a salad-to-go for a friend after the two women had finished their meal. “Now this is the governor’s wife,” Lake said, “and she was going to stop by her house and drop off this salad for a friend.”
As Indiana’s first lady, Pence became the first governor’s wife in modern memory to keep her own office suite on the second floor of the statehouse, just down the hall from her husband.
She reached out to all her living predecessors for tips and advice on the job, eventually settling on her own dictum: The role was hers to mold as she saw fit. Pence, who minored in art at Butler University and still paints watercolors, combined her interests in art, education and families, becoming the honorary chair of the art therapy program for Indiana’s Riley Hospital for Children and serving on the board of Tracy’s Kids, an art therapy program at children’s hospitals in the Washington area.
Now, as second lady, she expects art therapy to be one of her big initiatives, along with work supporting military families. On Thursday, Pence hosted roughly two dozen female service members at her residence for a small reception in honor of Women’s History Month.
“I just want you to know how much we appreciate you, and I think a lot of times, people in the military, men and women, aren’t told enough how much we appreciate you,” she said. “So we are saying thank you to you.”
In Washington, Pence is repeating many of her routines. She has begun reaching out to her counterparts and, like her predecessors, plans to keep an office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where her husband’s team works.
She hired as her chief of staff Kristan King Nevins, who previously served as first lady Barbara Bush’s chief of staff and also worked for the CIA, where her portfolio included counterproliferation, counterterrorism and cyberoperations in the Middle East and North Africa.
In the governor’s office, Pence accompanied her husband on trips abroad, including to Germany and Japan. And almost exactly a month into his vice presidency, she joined him on his first trip overseas to the Munich Security Conference — a practice that will likely be routine for future foreign travel.
“They are in a strong, supportive marriage bound by common faith,” said Peter Rusthoven, a lawyer active in Indiana Republican politics who has known the Pences for more than 25 years. “I don’t think they make decisions separately.”
Indeed, her prime allegiance remains to her husband, and the loyalty is reciprocal. Among all the frustrations Mike Pence has faced since becoming Trump’s No. 2 — the Access Hollywood tape; the revelation that Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, lied to him about his contact with Russians; the failure of the health-care bill for which he lobbied — the most publicly outraged he has become involved an Associated Press story that published his and his wife’s private AOL email addresses.
Mike Pence’s team demanded that the AP take down Karen’s private email, and when it didn’t, the vice president tweeted that his wife was owed an apology.
The email accounts, naturally, were all-but-matching his-and-hers emails, exactly the same but for the first initials.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.