Donald Trump has hardly been out of the White House for 18 months, and yet the various electoral lanes for the 2024 Republican primary are already beginning to ossify around him. There is, of course, the Trump lane, with the ultimate audience of one. And there is the lane populated by the candidates weaned from his presidency, such as Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo. There’s also the lane teeming with MAGA carpetbaggers, like Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Rick Scott, Josh Hawley, and his new arch nemesis, Ron DeSantis. And, finally, there are the never-Trumpers, like Larry Hogan, Liz Cheney, John Kasich, and Asa Hutchinson.
Lastly, there are a few rumored candidates who don’t fit neatly into any of these lanes: namely Mike Pence, whose vice presidency saw him emerge from a little-known, unlikely-to-be-reelected culture warrior into an indefatigable apologist who dutifully sanitized Trump until the very end, when he refused to dignify his election fraud nonsense; and Glenn Youngkin, who is neither Trump-created nor Trump-inspired nor really Never Trump. Pence and Youngkin are both seemingly folksy, practical conservatives who can talk credibly about the concerns of families, despite the latter being worth hundreds of millions thanks to his roughly 2 percent stake in Carlyle. They’re also both classic “nice guys,” who embrace cultural issues, but not as virulently as DeSantis. And the two are likely going to have to go through each other to have a credible shot in the already-crowded field.
Youngkin, in fact, is a lot more like Pence than it was originally suggested by the media coverage surrounding his Jeff Roe-engineered, C.R.T.-bashing, anti-school closure gubernatorial campaign. Indeed, before he stepped foot in Virginia governor’s mansion, the fleece-wearing former private equity C.E.O. quietly started a more “charismatic” evangelical church in his basement. Youngkin went on to donate $11 million to found and fund his Holy Trinity Church, and a corresponding Christian retreat. (“The church the Governor attends was modeled off a church that he had previously attended in London,” his spokesperson Becca Glover said. “It is more charismatic than a traditional Episcopalian church in the U.S.”)
As a Republican running against a former Democratic governor in purple, educated Virginia, Youngkin hewed to the middle during his race and kept his zealotry largely to himself. But as he begins to signal his national ambitions, he has started to tell this story to the religious right, which would deprive Pence of perhaps his most valuable differentiator. It’s leading some to whisper that Youngkin is the better, richer Pence without the Jan. 6 baggage.
Perhaps befitting the mindset of a former private equity shark, Youngkin has begun sniffing blood. Richard Cullen, Pence’s lawyer during the Mueller investigation and a partner at McGuireWoods, has joined Youngkin’s administration as counselor to the governor. Macaulay Porter, a former Pence press staffer in the White House, is Youngkin’s press secretary. Pence’s former White House press secretary Devin O’Malley, was Youngkin’s communications director for the gubernatorial campaign, but ultimately turned down a job in the Youngkin administration, and went into the private sector while continuing to advise Pence.
“I think the appeal between both Youngkin and Pence is that they’re both old school politicians: studied, measured, by the book,” said a former Pence staffer. “They aren’t bombastic, showboats, or lightning rods in how they conduct themselves.” This person continued: “In a potential post-Trump era, that’s very appealing to staff. But, more importantly, many are making the calculation that this is what the American voter wants: Less drama, more deliverables.”
Pence’s inner circle has indeed been shriveling up over the years. His former chief of staff, the gifted and Machiavellian Nick Ayers, has already hitched himself to Haley’s potential campaign. Lucky for Youngkin, he’ll have the services of Roe, who engineered his dramatic upset in Virginia, which Biden won by 10 points the previous year, as his general consultant for the presidency.
Sure, Youngkin may not have been Roe’s only love: The latter publicly flirted with running Trump’s campaign until, as I reported this month, Trump started leaning toward Susie Wiles, who is currently running his political operation. But it’s a fitting political marriage. Roe’s decision to side with Youngkin elevates him as the clearest candidate to beat Trump. It also means that Roe is passing on his former 2016 candidate and pal, Cruz.
After all, Youngkin, who can only serve one term as governor in Virginia, has been breaking records in the state with his fundraising prowess. He just announced that he raised more than $1.5 million in the second quarter of his term. He met with mega-donors in New York this month and spoke at a G.O.P. Convention in Omaha which just so happens to share a media market with Iowa. He’s also making national media appearances on Fox, CBS, Bloomberg and Yahoo Finance. He recently marched in the Richmond “March for Life,” and spoke about his faith at a Liberty University convocation in March. Just as his gubernatorial campaign quickly became a model for Republicans looking to distance themselves from Trump, he is already widely perceived to be capable of running a national campaign that focuses on the family, pressing cultural hot-buttons like anti-masking in schools and regulating sex education, that both appeal to MAGA base and suburban white women who are tired of Trump.
Youngkin, of course, is less than a year into his career as a public servant, and has hardly been tested in any meaningful way other than his surprise triumph—itself an early indication of the backlash forming against Biden. But he has the obvious ambition and financial support network to make his religious edge a powerful tool, especially in defanging Pence, who has been mortally wounded among the MAGA faithful by the Jan. 6 hearings. “Jan. 6 might kill off Pence and not Trump,” mused one Republican operative, working with another candidate on a potential 2024 race. “It signed his death warrant.” Pence was booed and called a “traitor” at the Faith and Freedom Conference in Florida last year.
Marc Short, Pence’s former chief of staff, still a loyalist but also a co-host of a Youngkin fundraiser last year, dismissed the notion that the hearings have burned Pence and ceded the lane to Youngkin. “I don’t think it hurts to be known as a constitutional conservative and somebody who adheres to your oath, even if some would argue that it has negative political consequences,” he told me. Short also cited a National Review article arguing that the hearings are reminding America that Pence is a “mature, principled figure who acted with courage that day.”
“If anything he’s getting more invitations [to speaking engagements, rallies and endorsement opportunities],” said Short.
Pence has been asked to campaign for various candidates across the country, like Georgia Governor Brian Kemp; Rep. Lee Zeldin, who is running for governor of New York; Jennifer Ruth Green, who is running for a congressional seat in Pence’s home state of Indiana; and Karrin Taylor Robson, who is running for governor in Arizona. The last race, of course, pits him against his old boss, a vociferous advocate of Robson’s opponent, Kari Lake.
Pence, who still polls far behind Trump, won’t announce his intentions on Trump’s ever-shrinking timeline. First he’ll wait for his book to come out in early 2023 and then announce his intentions after.