WASHINGTON — Mike Pence isn’t exactly unknown in America, but former vice presidents travel with a small entourage and since leaving office Pence has been able to slip in and out of airports mostly without fanfare.
After Pence’s refusal to cave to the demands of former President Donald Trump became a focal point of Jan. 6 committee hearings, advisers say he is getting approached a lot more often.
“You saved the republic,” is the message he gets from strangers on the street.
Once demeaned by the left as a Trump flunky and dismissed by the right as lacking the charisma to be president, Pence is getting a second look in the political world.
Even Democrats who recoiled at much of what the Trump administration did over four years are congratulating Pence for what he refused to do one day in January 2021 — overturn the election.
“I’m not a Republican, but I just want to say thank you,” people tell him as he travels, advisers say.
The test for Pence is whether he can parlay the goodwill he’s earned into a successful presidential bid. He hasn’t announced his candidacy yet, but he’s plainly running. For the first time in a long political career, Pence, a former governor and member of Congress, has a shot at expanding his base beyond the conservative Christian voters that he’s relied on thus far.
“The hearings have certainly done one thing: confirm that Mike Pence is a national hero,” said Mick Mulvaney, who was Donald Trump’s third White House chief of staff. “That’s always a pretty good starting point if you want to run for president.”
Pence’s task in a 2024 primary isn’t an easy one. For every GOP voter who respects him for preserving democratic traditions, there’s another who resents him for defying Trump. If he is to survive a 2024 Republican primary that’s likely to include his former boss, Pence will need to assemble a unique coalition comprising never-Trumpers who appreciated his show of courage, and disillusioned Trump voters looking for an alternative.
The problem is that neither camp seems smitten with the idea of “President Pence.”
Many establishment Republicans dislike him for the four years he spent as Trump’s sidekick. Loyal to the point of “obsequious,” as Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., recently described him. And a chunk of Trump voters never quite embraced him as one of their own. (Part of the reason Trump picked Pence was to win over more traditional Republicans.)
“I see within the MAGA movement an enduring and pretty significant disappointment in him,” Frank Pavone, an anti-abortion activist, said at a Faith & Freedom conference in Nashville, Tennessee, this month. “I don’t think he would have sufficient support within this movement to actually pull that off.”
Pence’s advisers insist he has a path should he choose to run. He’d deliver the low tax, border security and anti-abortion policies that Trump promoted, minus the unceasing drama that trails Trump like Pigpen’s dust cloud. Other potential GOP candidates, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, would offer much the same thing with perhaps a bit more swagger than Pence.
Pence plans to make his decision in early 2023.
“Mike and [wife] Karen will pray through this and try to ask for discernment on where they’re called next,” said Marc Short, Pence’s former White House chief of staff.
Sarah Longwell is a Republican strategist who has conducted two focus groups with Trump voters since the Jan. 6 hearings began. None said they wanted to see Trump back in the White House — a first in her experience. When the topic turned to the 2024 presidential race, people tend to gush about DeSantis. They namecheck South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. No one mentions Pence unprompted. When his name comes up, the reaction is “blah,” Longwell said.
“Pence gets credit from the kinds of people who are getting excommunicated from the party: Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney,” she said, referring to the two Republican members of the Jan. 6 House committee. “And the fact that they are so complimentary of him doesn’t endear him to the base of voters that Trump appeals to. I feel for Pence a little bit. He’s one of those people for whom doing the right thing will ultimately redound to his detriment.”
One of Pence’s dilemmas is what to do about Trump. He’s not quite broken with him, even though Trump has emphatically broken with Pence. At the Faith & Freedom conference, the former president told the audience that Pence “had a chance to be great” on Jan. 6, but lacked “the courage to act.”
It’s not Pence’s style to hit back. He suggests that Trump remains fixated on a lost election when the better approach is to focus on the future. But that’s about as far as he’ll go.
“Trump disgraced himself as he left office,” said John Hammond, a Republican National Committee member and Pence supporter. “For Mike Pence to attack him would be a distraction. It’s a trap that people get lured into.”
At times Pence sounds like a scorned suitor. He insists Trump is wrong to think that, as vice president presiding over the electoral vote count, he could have unilaterally overturned the election on Jan. 6.
But Pence is still a cheerleader for Trump’s policies. In one of his podcasts in April, he heaped praise on the man whose supporters tried to hunt him down and drag him to a makeshift gallows. “I submit to you that Donald Trump added to the [conservative] agenda,” he told his listeners, by “changing the national consensus on China” and promoting trade policies that “put American jobs and American workers first.”
Another conundrum for Pence is the Jan. 6 committee itself. While it has elevated his profile, polls show most Republicans believe it’s biased.
Even though the committee heaps praise on him, Pence has kept his distance. He has dismissed the panel as a Democratic effort to distract from President Joe Biden’s failings.
“That’s the split-screen that we have right now: what’s going on in Washington, D.C., which is entirely focused on the past, and Mike Pence going out and helping candidates and saying the Republican Party is the party of the future,” one Pence adviser said.
When a former aide, Greg Jacob, testified publicly earlier this month, Pence wasn’t watching. He was in Ohio raising money for Republican Gov. Mike DeWine and Rep. Steve Chabot. Next month, when the committee holds another set of hearings, he plans to travel to South Carolina — an early primary state — and meet privately with members of the House’s Republican Study Committee, a conservative caucus that he chaired when he was in Congress.
“If he was our president, we’d be in great shape. Pence is a good man,” said Rep. Roger Williams of Texas, a member of the study committee.
Trump-world is watching Pence closely. Should he become a rival for the GOP nomination, Pence can expect withering attacks no different than those Trump unleashed on opponents in 2016.
“As you would imagine, we pay attention to the folks in the field who look like they might be running for president,” a Trump adviser said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely.
Trump faced primary opposition in 2016, this person added, and “he took them all very seriously and he took them on one by one. I think the vice president wouldn’t be any different.”
Pence will face scrutiny from other quarters, as well. He isn’t blameless in the run-up to Jan. 6, critics say. He could have helped give cover to state elections officials who were being pressured by Trump to overturn the results had he stated soon after the election that Biden had won fair and square. But that didn’t happen.
“On the one hand, he was quite courageous to stand up to Trump,” said Rick Hasen, a law and political science professor at the University of California, Irvine. “On the other hand, I thought that Pence should have followed the lead of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney in quickly recognizing Biden as the legitimate winner months before we got to Jan. 6. That would have taken a lot of wind out of the sails of the effort to use Pence to manipulate the election.”
Rank-and-file Democrats are split over how much credit to give Pence, given that legal experts agree he had no authority to block the certification of elections in certain states that Trump lost. He followed the law — the minimum that should be expected from any elected official. Still, many who oppose Pence’s conservative politics admire the integrity he showed on the day he was whisked to an underground loading dock in the Capitol to escape assassination.
“In an era in which courage is a precious commodity, you should be praising it,” Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., who was trapped in the House chamber on Jan. 6, said.
“When people show political courage in an age where not only is it punished, it actually presents a risk to one’s life, we should be supporting it and celebrate it. Period. No matter from whom it comes.”