“The Big Elephant”: Mike Pence Readies His Act III

Mike Pence Addresses GOP Lincoln-Reagan Dinner In New Hampshire
Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
September 20, 2021

Shortly after the events of January 6th, Mike Pence appeared to have become persona non MAGA in the Republican Party. Donald Trump loathed him for certifying Joe Biden’s election victory, reportedly refused to speak to him on the day of the insurrection, and briefly banned his staff from the White House grounds. Some of the president’s supporters had become convinced that Pence had the power to overturn the results, and were infuriated by the apparent betrayal. Several of the rioters at the Capitol chanted for him to be hanged. While Trump flew south to Mar-a-Lago for Biden’s inauguration, Pence awkwardly welcomed the 46th president in what many presumed was a final, irrevocable split.

Pence’s political arc has been defined by opportunism. His career seemed all but over by the time Trump picked him over Chris Christie in 2016. But by early 2021, it seemed like his fantasies of leveraging his time in Trump’s shadow for a 2024 run were truly cooked. I expected to see him one day running a right-wing think tank, and shrugged when I saw him take positions at Nixon-era institutions like the Heritage Foundation and Young America’s Foundation.

So the news, last week, that Pence and his allies have been exploring his options for a presidential run took me by surprise. Axios reported recently that Advancing American Freedom, a group staffed with Pence alumni, including his former chief of staff Marc Short, is looking to raise $18 million this year in order to “test the waters” for 2024.

Perhaps I’ve been in the MAGA echo chamber for so long that my ears have been ringing with post-Trump tinnitus. But after talking to people in contact with Pence, I’m willing to believe that there may be a political path forward for the former vice president—one that would allow him to reestablish his White House ambitions, shift the narrative surrounding his falling-out with Trump, and soften the grassroots backlash if (or when) he moves forward. In the past few days alone, Pence headlined a steak fry in Nebraska, launched a podcast, supported an amicus brief seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade, and met with the families of some of the Marines recently killed in Afghanistan. These are not the moves of a politician retreating from the national stage.

The Pence Playbook, like the man himself, is careful and slightly opaque. Over the next few months, a person with knowledge of Pence’s plans told me, Pence will continue to give speeches, attend G.O.P. events, and build relationships among the sort of Reagan-loving constitutional conservatives who embraced Trump but held their nose on Jan. 6. He plans on stumping for candidates and retaking the House, building goodwill among the base. After the midterms, Pence also plans to publish his memoir, acquired by Simon & Schuster in a seven-figure deal. (Representatives for Pence, Simon & Schuster, and A.A.F. did not respond to requests for comment.)

The currently untitled book will cover all the traditional beats of a presidential aspirant’s autobiography: his personal biography, time in politics, and political vision of the future. Pence, of course, will be undertaking a somewhat thornier task. “He’s going to try and thread the needle and say, ‘Look, I was there for Donald Trump. I was the guy,’ but he’s also trying to lay out his [own] vision,” the person with knowledge of Pence’s plans said. A book tour should also provide Pence cloud cover to reintroduce himself to the public—making the rounds on radio shows, cable news interviews, and countless swing-state bookstores—without triggering his former boss. Of course, even the most well-laid plans could quickly be derailed. As this source put it: “The big elephant, besides if whether Trump runs, is: do Trump voters see him as disloyal?’”

At first glance, a Pence run might seem like wishful thinking. Trump, after all, has near-total dominance over G.O.P politics from his perch at Mar-a-Lago, and consistently out-polls any would-be challengers for the 2024 Republican presidential mantle. It’s hard to imagine Kristi Noem or Ron DeSantis, let alone Pence, taking a shot at the king unless his health, or his legal status, took a turn for the worse.

But Pence has three things going for him. First, when 2024 is taken out of the equation, he still has a strong approval rating among Republicans. When he left the White House, a few weeks after January 6th, Pence’s approval ratings among self-identified Republicans and conservatives was in the high 70s, according to a Morning Consult poll at the time. Months later, he remains in the high 60s and low 70s, though he still trails Trump by a wide margin. 

Second, Pence’s strategic silence about January 6th means he has avoided exile to the same Never-Trump leper colony where Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger found themselves after harshly criticizing Trump. On the contrary, Pence still has a warm relationship with most Republican insiders. He holds plum positions at two of the most prominent conservative think tanks. Perhaps most important, according to the person aware of Pence’s plans, his relationship with Trump is not quite as frosty as #resistance dramatists think: in April, Trump called Pence while the former veep was recovering from having a pacemaker installed. One advisor close to Trump described the call as “short and cordial.” 

Finally, because of these connections, Pence is sitting in a pretty spot: if Trump doesn’t run—and more importantly, indicates that he’s forgiven Pence—the former VP theoretically occupies a middle ground where he’s identifiable as both a Constitutional conservative and an ally of the MAGA agenda. That’s potentially highly attractive to those Republican voters trapped between fealty to Trumpism and discomfort over January 6th. As Heritage’s Rob Bluey told me: “As a former vice president, governor and member of Congress, he’s demonstrated a commitment to conservative values and the U.S. Constitution,” and described Pence as “a thoughtful, dedicated, and principled colleague who leads with integrity.”

Unlike most of the people who rode Trump’s coattails to power in 2016, Pence was invited into Trumpworld for what he brought to the ticket: a devout Christianity to counterbalance Trump’s near-total ignorance of religious matters; a social conservatism to neutralize Trump’s tabloid history; a reassuring dullness to moderate Trump’s destabilizing pugilism. As vice president, Pence also occupied a rarified place in the Trump pantheon, alongside Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, as someone who could not be fired. Pence took to the role with missionary zeal, playing the unswerving, loyal servant at every turn—through the Access Hollywood debacle, through Charlottesville, two impeachments and a disastrous pandemic response.

For four long years he held the line, rarely engaging in the vicious office politics that defined the Trump White House. But his downfall in MAGA world came swiftly. A strange, extralegal fantasy had taken hold among Trump’s base, involving a rather torturous interpretation of an obscure law from 1877, that posited a means by which Pence, in his role as President of the Senate, could simply refuse to count the votes from the Electoral College when they were ceremonially ratified by Congress on January 6th. This was, as several Constitutional lawyers told me at the time, utter nonsense. But that didn’t stop millions of die-hard Trump supporters from hyping the possibility that Pence might be MAGA’s deus ex machina. A delirious headline from Gateway Pundit, dated December 29, best summarized the mood at the time: “VP Mike Pence Can Place Himself Next to Thomas Jefferson in the History Books by Standing Up for the Rule of Law on January 6th.” When Pence fulfilled his constitutional duty, he became the far right’s Judas.

These days, MAGA’s estimation of Pence has softened from furor to mere saltiness, but it’s hard to imagine he will ever regain his full stature in their eyes. “Do I think he has much of a political future with this Republican base, in this Republican movement, right now? The answer is no,” said Alex Breusewitz, a political consultant who works primarily with MAGA candidates. Though he personally liked Pence and had no qualms with the former veep, Breusewitz noted that the America First constituency already has its favorites, should Trump not run: Ron DeSantis by a mile, then Kristi Noem, and Josh Hawley. And waiting in the wings are the movements’ rising superstars, such as Marjorie Taylor Green, Paul Gosar, Lauren Boebert, and Louie Gohmert. “[It’s] those types of quote-unquote fire breathing, firebrand conservatives that are leading our party into the future,” Breusewitz told me. “And Mike Pence is just a little too timid and too establishment for that.”

The numbers in this segment shake out, too: Pence received 1 percent in the informal CPAC straw poll of conservative activists, and 7 percent in a more formalized survey conducted by Trump’s pollster Tony Fabrizio, behind DeSantis. Trump himself seems entirely unworried by Pence, for now. “In my opinion, Trump doesn’t consider Pence a threat because Trump believes any nominee (if not himself) must have his blessing in order to gain Trump voters,” said the Trump advisor.

Pence may cloak himself in the sheen of a bygone America, but in one matter he is rather modern. Once upon a time, running for president really was all about trying to get the job. In the last generation, as politics grew more cynical and social media opened new financial horizons, many appeared to run for president in order to open up economic opportunities. So, sure, Pence may genuinely want to be president, but he also likely knows that “exploring” the possibility is his surest ticket to fortune, and he is certainly more ambitious than just marauding along the sidelines.

Can Pence have it both ways? It may come down to resuming a part he understands well. As the Trump advisor put it best: “Constitutional conservatives play a big role in the party these days … as long as they are sufficiently pro-Trump.”