Days after the election, Mike Pence called a close friend for a 30-minute conversation to analyze what had just happened and what it all might mean for the future of the Republican Party. According to this person, the vice president was upbeat about the success of GOP candidates lower down the ballot, but Pence also sounded skeptical about the various lawsuits and legal challenges that the President’s campaign was preparing.
“I’m not sure (he spoke) with the vigor of a man who is confident these suits will be successful,” the friend told CNN.
Whatever his tone implied, Pence has struck a careful balance since the election. In his rare public remarks, he has refrained from fully endorsing Trump’s false claims the election was fraudulent, promising instead to fight to ensure “every legal vote is counted.” And while the President has continued to tweet baseless conspiracies about a stolen election, Pence has traveled the country dutifully promoting the administration’s contributions to Covid vaccines and stumped for Senate candidates in the crucial Georgia runoff next month.
It’s a typical posture for the vice president: playing the part of a dedicated soldier while steering clear of the most inflammatory rhetoric from his boss.
“The tightrope walk will continue,” a longtime Pence adviser said. “He’s been good at it, he’s just gonna have to keep doing it.”
According to conversations with seven Republicans close to Pence, the vice president remains committed to toeing the line for Trump. That’s not only part of Pence’s loyal disposition, it’s also key to what sources say are Pence’s significant ambitions to run for president in 2024.
Pence and those around him have long hoped that his fealty would pay off and position him as Trump’s natural successor.
There’s just one problem: Trump doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. He has floated the idea of running in 2024, and has raised hundreds of millions of dollars since the election, some of which went to a new leadership PAC Trump has established that could help fuel his future political ambitions.
According to those close to him, Pence is keenly aware that as long as Trump toys with the idea of running again, he has no path to the White House himself.
“It’s obviously gone a long way over the last four years,” the Pence adviser told CNN about the vice president’s consistent loyalty. “But Mike Pence running in four years is determinant on what the President wants to do.”
“He needs to work”
It’s not entirely clear what Pence’s immediate plans are once he’s out of office — even down to where he’s going to live. For nearly eight years, ever since he moved into the governor’s residence in Indianapolis in early 2013, Pence and his wife Karen have lived in government housing. The first order of business, said his close friend, is finding a permanent place to sleep at night.
People close to Pence who spoke to CNN think he is most likely to decamp to Indiana rather than stick around Washington. The vice president’s office declined to comment for this story.
And after nearly 20 years of earning a government salary, he spent six terms as a US congressman before serving four years as Indiana governor, Pence will need to earn some money.
“He needs to work,” said one senior Republican with knowledge of the White House.
Jon Thompson, Pence’s former spokesman on the Trump campaign, says he’ll have options.
“Most former presidents and vice presidents have written a book,” said Thompson. “He can raise money through that. Maybe he’ll take a look at giving paid speeches.”
“He’ll absolutely have the options to do that, something both Democratic and Republican former presidents and vice presidents have done.”
Pence is also likely to remain an active Republican advocate, regardless of what Trump decides to do.
“He can spend the next couple years traveling the country, giving speeches, attending Republican events and fundraisers, keep an active and high profile while he makes the decision on whether he wants to run,” said Thompson.
A path for 2024?
In what may be the first 2024 GOP presidential cattle call, Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel has invited several potential White House hopefuls to the RNC’s January meeting in Florida, Politico first reported. Among those attending is Pence.
Despite being vice president, Pence remains something of a dark horse for the 2024 nomination. Other Trump administration figures like Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo, and senators such as Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley, have gotten much of the White House buzz so far.
But some Republicans close to Pence say they like his pathway to the nomination.
“I think that the vice president could do well, one by virtue of his office,” said Pence’s friend. “And two, by being loyal to the program that so many Republicans are enthused about but bringing a completely different personality and style of governing.”
One current senior administration official praised Pence’s ability to channel Trumpism in his own distinct style.
“It’s one of Mike’s great strengths,” the official said.
Some Republicans don’t think Trump is likely to run for a third time in four years, despite the President floating the idea privately.
“I don’t think (Pence) is boxed out of 2024,” said another senior Republican official.
The official predicted Trump is likely to fade and that Pence will benefit from patiently biding his time. For now, that means remaining — at least tangentially — on board with Trump’s evidence-free claims that the 2020 election was stolen, and the fundraising he has done off of it.
Emails sent in Pence’s name have focused on supporting the Republicans in the Georgia runoffs or supporting a vague “Election Defense Task Force.” But donors who give through these appeals by Pence are sending much of their money to Save America, a new pro-Trump leadership PAC.
For the short term, at least, Pence is helping raise money for a cause to prolong Trump’s political career — at the potential expense of his own. Pence’s own PAC, the Great America Committee, had just over $400,000 on hand, according to its latest filing to the FEC. Trump’s Save America, meanwhile, already has nearly $450,000 on hand, despite being just weeks old.
“He’s still going to have a small apparatus through that gives him the funds to still be active,” said Thompson.
While the specter of another Trump presidential run would freeze the 2024 Republican presidential field, Pence advisers say the vice president could benefit. Unlike some other potential candidates, Pence does not need to get people familiar with his name nor would he need much time to put together a political operation.
“There’s a scenario where freezing the field puts him in a different position than the other potential candidates,” a senior Trump administration official said.
Staying the course for now
In the meantime, Pence is focusing on official business in his remaining 46 days in office.
Though most of his schedule has taken place behind closed doors, on Wednesday, Pence went to the Capitol to swear in Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat, who won the November 3 election — undercutting Trump’s claims of fraud in that state.
On Thursday, Pence traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, for a roundtable discussion on vaccine development and distribution. And earlier this week, he led a coronavirus task force meeting and spoke with the nation’s governors on the worsening pandemic.
On Friday, Pence made his second trip to support both GOP Senate candidates in Georgia, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, following a bus tour and multiple rallies with both last month.
Pence spoke on Friday before what was supposed to be a unity rally in Savannah, although both Loeffler and Gov. Brian Kemp did not attend because of the death of a Loeffler staffer in an accident earlier in the day.
In his remarks in Savannah, Pence made reference to the President’s claims but focused on the need for Republican voters to go to the polls.
“I know we’ve all got our doubts about the last election. And I actually hear some people saying just don’t vote. My fellow Americans, if you don’t vote, they win,” Pence said. “We can fight for our President and we can fight for more Republicans in the Senate at the same time.”
It’s a preview of how Pence will likely spend his first couple of years after leaving office and in the run-up to a presidential campaign: Stumping for GOP candidates across the country and keeping himself aligned with Trump.
“The midterm elections, the off-year elections, the elections for dog catcher,” said Pence’s friend. “It’s back on the rubber-chicken circuit.”