Former Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday kicked off his campaign for president, officially beginning an extraordinary competition against his former boss, Donald Trump, more than two years after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol upended their relationship.
“Today our party and our country need a leader that will appeal, as Lincoln said, to the better angels of our nature,” Pence said in a video announcement that touted his work as vice president but did not mention Trump. “My family and I have been blessed beyond measure with opportunities to serve this nation, and it would be easy to stay on the sidelines. But that’s not how I was raised. That’s why today, before God and my family, I am announcing I am running for president of the United States.”
The former Indiana governor’s decision to seek a return to the White House—this time in the top slot—represents his most direct challenge to Trump, after serving dutifully for four years but resisting his exhortations to overturn the 2020 election. Public polls of the GOP race this year have shown Pence and a pack of other rivals in the single digits, well behind Trump, the clear polling leader, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is in second place.
Pence’s entrance comes during a stretch of several Republican campaign launches, with former New Jersey governor Chris Christie kicking off his run Tuesday and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum doing so Wednesday. Pence has spent considerable time laying a foundation for his run this year, making trips to early nominating states and GOP gatherings promoting his vision for the country’s future.
“It’s going to be a historic moment when you have a former vice president challenge a former president,” said Scott Reed, co-chair of Committed to America, a super PAC supporting Pence’s candidacy. “It just shows you how high the stakes of this election are. Now, Pence has addressed January 6 head on, but he’s going to continue to talk about ways in which he differs with the former president on policies—policies that they pursued together while they were in office. He’s not going to try to out-Trump Trump; he’s going to stand out as a leader of character.”
Since they left office, there has been a stark divide between Pence and Trump over the Jan. 6, 2021, attack, in which a violent pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol on the day lawmakers gathered to certify the electoral college results, some chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” The aftermath of the 2020 election marked the only time Pence broke publicly with Trump during his four years as vice president.
While Pence has mostly tried to promote his own ideas in the run-up to his launch, he has picked his spots for voicing direct criticism of Trump over Jan. 6, saying at a white-tie dinner earlier this year that Trump’s “reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day. And I know that history will hold Donald Trump accountable.”
Leading up to Jan. 6, Trump repeatedly made false claims that the election had been stolen and used incendiary language at a rally near the White House that morning. Yet, Trump has claimed the violence he inspired that day was Pence’s fault. “Had he sent the votes back to the legislatures, they wouldn’t have had a problem with Jan. 6, so in many ways you can blame him for Jan. 6,” Trump said in March.
Now Pence is charting his own path as a traditional conservative Republican in the model of President Ronald Reagan. Pence is expected to invest heavily in Iowa, where he’s already made several visits and will launch his campaign with remarks in Ankeny, a suburb of Des Moines.
A Pence adviser said the former vice president picked Iowa as opposed to Indiana for his launch to symbolize a “forward-looking vision of the country.” The campaign plans to travel to all 99 counties in Iowa, according to the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview strategy.
But there is plenty of skepticism about his chances. “This could be very difficult for him. . . . Iowans will be nice, but I don’t know if there’s the enthusiasm there for him to actually build up a campaign and do what’s necessary to compete,” said Craig Robinson, an Iowa Republican consultant.
Pence has spent the past several months reminding voters of his long-standing ties to the antiabortion and evangelical communities, as well as his consistency on policy issues that, until recently, were long considered traditional Republican orthodoxy. His allies recently launched the Committed to America super PAC to reintroduce him to voters. The group, which can raise unlimited funds but cannot coordinate with the Pence campaign on spending strategies, will invest heavily in a paid voter contact program.
The Pence team’s theory of the case is that the Republican base did not drift as extreme as some assume during the Trump era, and that Pence can capitalize on the policy successes of the Trump-Pence administration, without the baggage of the controversies and chaos of Trump himself—which has left even some Trump supporters exhausted and looking for an alternative candidate.
Yet that path to the nomination is shaping up as a difficult one. Some Trump loyalists have made clear they view Pence as a traitor for not overturning the results of the 2020 election, while those eager for change still view him as too closely associated with the former president. During an April appearance at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Indiana, Pence was greeted with some applause and loud boos.
After two unsuccessful bids for Congress and a stint as a talk radio host—during which he billed himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf”—Pence was elected to the House in 2000 and quickly established himself as a principled conservative, both politically and personally.
He railed against much of the spending of the George W. Bush era, including Bush’s Medicare prescription drug expansion, and in 2002, he told the Hill that he doesn’t dine alone with women other than his wife or attend events featuring alcohol without her. During his time in Congress, he also served as chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
Trump tapped Pence as his running mate in 2016. During the primary, Pence had supported one of Trump’s chief rivals, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.). Once in office, Pence promoted the administration’s policies and was seen as a staunch defender of his boss.
Despite having near-universal name recognition, Pence has nonetheless struggled to crack double digits in national polls. In focus groups of Republican voters, respondents regularly make clear that while many think Pence seems like a nice guy, he’s not one of their top choices to become the party’s nominee. A May poll from Quinnipiac University found that among Republicans, 48 percent had a favorable view of him, 35 percent had an unfavorable view of him and 15 percent had not heard enough.
This year, Pence has parted ways with several of his rivals, differentiating himself from some of the 2024 field with his stalwart support for Ukraine in the face of the Russian invasion last year. He also set himself apart from some during a March speech at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, where he called for “common-sense” changes to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, as well as the growing national debt.
“Ignoring the problem is no longer an option,” Pence said in prepared remarks for a May speech at the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy. “Joe Biden’s policy is insolvency. Sadly, so is President Trump’s. And the same can be said of any candidate unwilling to talk about the urgent need to save Social Security before it collapses.”
During a visit this past weekend to Iowa for Republican Sen. Joni Ernst’s “Roast and Ride” event, Pence appeared to allude to his former boss by saying, “We have to resist the politics of personality,” and referring to “the siren song of populism.”
He has also sought to distinguish himself from Trump when it comes to abortion. “I don’t agree with the former president, who says this is a states-only issue,” Pence said at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s spring kickoff event. Trump has dodged questions about a national ban on the procedure.
A staunch opponent of abortion rights, Pence has said he would support a 15-week abortion ban. As a member of Congress, Pence also supported “personhood” legislation, which defines life as starting at the moment of conception and would ban abortions based on the 14th Amendment. He told CBS News recently that he would like to see abortion pills “off the market.”
In April, Pence testified to a federal grand jury that is examining Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. A federal judge ruled this spring that Pence needed to comply with a subpoena from special counsel Jack Smith but could remain silent on subjects relating to his role in Congress on Jan. 6.
The Justice Department, meanwhile, has closed its investigation into Pence’s possession of potentially sensitive government documents after leaving office and will not pursue charges, officials said last week.