Hours after House Republicans applauded him in Washington, D.C., for having refused Donald Trump’s election demands, former vice president Mike Pence took the stage at a South Carolina church Wednesday night to tell the faithful about his next political battle.
“We find ourselves at a turning point in American history,” Pence preached to about 1,500 parishioners at the Florence Baptist Temple. “The Bible tells us, without a vision, the people perish.”
The vision Pence offered, suffused with scripture and calls to political action, sounded like the stump speech of a presidential candidate seeking evangelical votes in the South’s first primary state. He spoke about the next steps in the fight against abortion—now that the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade—reforming the tax code and the alleged immoderation of Democrats. When he mentioned his time in the White House, he made no direct mention of the former president.
“The Trump-Pence administration,” he said instead.
A six-term congressman and former governor of Indiana, Pence, 63, spent nearly five years as Trump’s obsequious sidekick—a quiet badge of conservative credibility next to the volatile political newcomer, always ready with a display of fealty or a look of solemn assent. But in the 18 months since the two men split, Pence has flipped a switch, returning to the path he was on before he began praising Trump in their private chats on the golf course. Pence wants everyone to know that he is once again his own man—and his team is looking to reintroduce him ahead of a possible 2024 presidential bid.
Advisers and allies say they think Pence is likely to run, and insist he will not base his decision on whether Trump chooses to run again.
“It’s truly unfortunate that they had a falling out because Pence had been a very loyal and I think a very effective vice president. But it is where it is,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an adviser to both men. “And Pence is carving out a space for himself.”
It’s a space that has attracted generous praise from a passel of conservative activists like Gingrich, but there is little evidence of broad appeal among Republican voters, and most GOP election strategists see him as a long shot for the nomination. After dining with House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy at a Tuesday fundraiser, Pence received an ovation Wednesday from about 50 of his former House colleagues on the Republican Study Committee for refusing to interrupt certification of President Biden’s victory on Jan. 6, 2021, as Trump demanded.
He and Trump are both scheduled to travel Friday to Arizona to rally for rival gubernatorial candidates, after Pence’s pick for Georgia governor, Brian Kemp, soundly defeated Trump’s favored candidate in May. And next week, both men return to Washington for separate policy addresses about the post-2024 Republican agenda at two dueling think tanks. Since leaving the administration, he has made more than a dozen trips for House Republican candidates and is planning a range of fundraisers for candidates this fall, including for Kemp.
“Pence is making moves as if he’s a future presidential candidate, which I truly believe he is,” says Kellyanne Conway, a former Trump White House adviser who has long been close to Pence. “The question is whether that’s 2024 or 2028. He’s in demand and on message, and those two things are incredibly important and are what impress people.”
But it remains unclear if voters want what Pence is selling. Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist who has been conducting regular focus groups with Republican voters, said there is little evidence of a public groundswell for Pence, while other possible alternatives to Trump, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, appear to be in vogue. Pence’s name is almost never volunteered as a preferred candidate in her groups, and polls consistently show him trailing a range of other Republican candidates.
“We ask people, ‘So what about Mike Pence?’ and you get a lot of: ‘Eh,'” she said. “That’s the sound people make—’Eh.'”
And though Pence’s team says he would run in part on the conservative accomplishments of the Trump-Pence presidency, Longwell found in her focus groups that hardcore Trump voters prize Trump’s combative ethos.
“Why wouldn’t a MAGA voter choose him?” she asked. “That presupposes it’s somehow about policy and not culture warrior combative grievance stuff. Why do they like DeSantis? Because he fights.”
Even some of Pence’s allies say he is likely to face an uphill path at best in 2024. There doesn’t always seem to be much clamor for his brand of politics, and Trump is likely to slash him aggressively should he announce for president, some say.
But he is aggressively working to build out a team—he has about a dozen aides currently at a Washington office, with a budget of $20 million for his nonprofit group this year—and to be ready for a possible announcement for president in spring 2023.
Regular visits to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, along with stumping for midterm candidates, are the most visible parts of the effort. Pence bought himself five acres with a pond in Zionsville, splurging on a 54-inch zero-turn John Deere mower he can brag about on the campaign trail. He began flying commercial again sometimes when donors aren’t available to lend him a plane, remarking with surprise to aides at how Southwest Airlines seats customers.
He has been writing two books that could anchor his next campaign, a memoir, due out this fall, and narrative of his faith journey, aimed at the evangelical voters such as those he addressed Wednesday night.
“Pray for our opponents,” he told the South Carolina church Wednesday in decidedly un-Trumpian turn. “That their hearts would soften and their minds would open to the unimaginable beauty that is life.”
To watch Pence on the campaign trail today, as a yet unannounced candidate, is to witness a throwback to an earlier time in Republican politics—broadly saccharin, full of homages to Ronald Reagan and attempts at small-town humor. Pence’s new nonprofit, Advancing American Freedom, has been planning retreats with donors in the mountain West, last year in Wyoming and this fall in Montana. The board is stacked with social conservative and evangelical leaders.
“He is doing all the things you would do to appeal to that wing of the party,” said Gary Bauer, an evangelical activist and former presidential candidate who sits on the board. “He stays in contact with the whole conservative movement.”
Pence has called for a new movement to push each of the 50 states to ban abortion, though his advisers say he still supports exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, a position taken by all Republican presidential nominees since Roe. His group has filed a flurry of amicus Supreme Court briefs for multiple social issue cases in recent months. In one, Pence’s team argued that abortion was harmful because access resulted in increased sexual activity out of wedlock, resulting in more children “born into homes with more limited resources than if a sexual ethics of commitment and exclusivity were the norm.” Advisers say he plans to get involved in state abortion fights.
“It’s introducing people to who Mike Pence always was,” said Marc Short, Pence’s top adviser. “If he were to run, he may not be the biggest celebrity. But if we’re going to go back to a principled conservative who represents the things we stand for, then there’s no one better than Mike.”
It is a delicate dance, dependent on not directly picking a fight with the still reigning personality-in-chief, who has in recent months shown more than a bit of ambivalence toward his former running mate. Trump called Pence “a good man” who made a “big mistake” in December, and then in January said more directly, “He could have overturned the election!” in a news release.
Trump’s advisers say he is not concerned about Pence as a rival, and is still upset about Pence’s decision on Jan. 6. Should Pence run and start to gain traction, they say, Trump is likely to try to tear him down, sniping that his former No. 2 doesn’t have what it takes to serve as commander in chief. Trump is also angling to announce his own 2024 candidacy this fall.
“Pence’s theory of the case works better if you’re writing a term paper than actually running for president with the president you served waiting angrily in the wings,” said one Trump ally, who like some others for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly. Trump did not respond to a request for comment.
Nonetheless, should Pence run, his advisers say he would be prepared to criticize Trump and differentiate himself from the man he faithfully served in key moments. A 2024 Pence campaign would likely make the point that Trump is the only person who lost to Biden, one aide said, and Pence could point out that he disagreed with the First Step Act, Trump’s criminal justice reform bill.
The two men have not spoken in more than a year, and Pence has resisted entreaties to meet with Trump at one of his clubs, people close to him say. Some of his endorsements, advisers say, such as in Arizona, are calculated bets partially meant to go against what he views as a Trump political mistake. In Georgia’s gubernatorial Republican primary, he backed Kemp, who won overwhelmingly against David Perdue, Trump candidate.
As has become clear in the repeated hearings of the Jan. 6 committee, Trump repeatedly demanded that Pence help overturn the outcome of the 2020 election. Pence’s chief of staff said he warned the Secret Service that the president’s rhetoric would put Pence in danger, and the vice president was forced to flee the Senate chamber seconds ahead of rioters, egged on by the chant, “Hang Mike Pence.”
The turnabout was shocking for Pence’s orbit in the legacy conservative movement that Trump had disrupted. They had come to view the bargain he struck with Trump as a profitable one, yielding three conservative Supreme Court justices and four years of mostly conservative governance.
The first time Pence publicly addressed his break with Trump, at a New Hampshire Republican dinner in June 2021, he described the U.S. Capitol attack without attributing blame as a “dark day” and confessed that he and Trump would probably never see “eye to eye” on the events. But his plea was not for accountability or recognition, but simply to move on.
“Let’s press on with a positive agenda. Let’s tell the story to our neighbors and friends about everything we were able to accomplish,” he told the crowd. “As the Bible says, ‘Forgetting what is behind, let’s strain toward what is ahead.'”
Then, in February, Pence went a bit further, arguing that his boss was incorrect in his claims that Pence had the authority to overturn the results of the 2020 election: “There is nothing more un-American than the notion that any one person could overturn the election,” Pence said. “President Trump is wrong.”
Advisers say he has grown increasingly frustrated with Trump’s statements attacking him, and aides have made a practice of privately helping reporters notice all the ways Pence is separating himself in speeches.
“He is in many ways challenged by being perceived as either too close to Donald Trump by anti-Trump voters or not close enough to Trump by Trump supporters, and it creates something of a rock-and-hard-place political positioning,” said Whit Ayers, the Republican pollster.
Pence is expected to offer his most extensive and critical comments about Trump and Jan. 6 in his forthcoming memoir—and Simon and Schuster agreed to a seven-figure book contract because he vowed to be so open about it. He then is expected to embark on a more aggressive travel and interview schedule, as his team seeks to build out his brand. But he is unlikely to participate directly in any of the Jan. 6 hearings, and he remains reticent to criticize Trump publicly.
Pence’s team has watched closely as polls have shown Trump’s hold on the party waning, with more Republicans looking for other candidates and fewer Republicans supporting a 2024 run by the former president. One Pence confidant jokes that the Trump, the 800-pound gorilla in Republican politics, is now “maybe 700 pounds.” There is growing optimism in his camp that Pence’s reemergence as his own person, seemingly unaffected by the supplication of his White House years, has helped to open a space in the party to at least envision a post-Trump future.
“I’m bullish that there is a lane and I’ve been vocal that I think Republicans need to challenge Trump,” said Alyssa Farah, a former aide to both Pence and Trump at the White House. “Coming out of the Jan. 6 hearings, he’s showing that he was principled person in the room who put his country first and he’s also the principled Republican backing incumbents across the country rather than dividing the party.”
There is scant precedent for a former president facing off against his vice president in a campaign for the White House. Teddy Roosevelt, running on the Progressive Party ticket, challenged William Howard Taft, his old running mate. Their feud allowed Democrat Woodrow Wilson to take the White House, changing the course of U.S. history.
Pence’s vision for himself and his country is different.
“Make no mistake about it,” he told the congregation at the Florence Baptist Temple, “as we gather tonight, we must recognize that we have only come to the end of the beginning.”