Pence makes his final break from the Trumpism he once championed

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Hours after announcing he wouldn’t endorse Donald Trump for president, Mike Pence huddled privately in Dallas with Texas moneymen such as Ross Perot Jr. and the billionaire conservative Harlan Crow.

The former vice president had traveled there to warm up possible donors for his nonprofit policy shop aimed at advancing conservative ideals, according to a person familiar with his itinerary and granted anonymity to speak freely.

It was a return to form for a man who has long prized conservatism over the populism of Trump, even if he accommodated its rise.

“A lot of people like to think of him as the little sycophant in the corner, and the one example everybody still goes back to is when he watches Trump take a drink out of a water bottle and he does the same thing,” said Mike Murphy, Pence’s longtime friend and a former Republican member of the Indiana House of Representatives. “But there is a solid core to Pence that is inviolable, and he allows the edges to be kind of smoothed, but at the core there are certain lines he won’t allow to be crossed.”

Long before he became Trump’s hype man, Pence was an Indiana governor who sided with what he called “the Reagan agenda.” In April of 2016, the last time he opted not to endorse Trump, he backed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in Indiana’s decisive GOP May primary, mentioning Cruz's advocacy of “less government, less taxes, traditional values and a strong military.”

Eight years later, almost to the month, Pence again embraced Reaganism over Trumpism, spurning his former running mate — a move without precedent in American political history.

He and Trump, Pence would say, had “deep differences.” There was some historical symmetry at play, too: The issues he prioritized in 2016 when backing a different candidate proved to be the same ones driving him away from Trump in 2024.

Pence’s decision is now the stuff of Democratic and Never Trump fanfic-turned-reality. Both the Biden campaign and Republican Voters Against Trump are circulating digital ads featuring Pence’s words. For the next week, RVAT is splashing Pence’s non-endorsement across billboards in Atlanta.

But Pence’s move is also the latest sign that Trumpism is now permanently and irrevocably divorced from its initial marriage of convenience with the Reaganism he has long espoused, and that he promoted whenever possible during Trump’s first term in office. Pence provided the ideology to Trump’s id, and now the two are consciously uncoupling.

On Fox News on the day of his non-endorsement earlier this month, Pence executed a news dump that his aides had plotted for weeks, down to crafting a 318-word statement they had prepared.

“It should come as no surprise that I will not be endorsing Donald Trump this year,” Pence said.

The announcement barely registered in Trump world, with the former president saying “he couldn’t care less” and a Trump spokesperson blasting Pence in a statement to POLITICO as “irrelevant” for “refusing to back the leader of the most powerful political movement in American history.”

The relatively low-key reaction from Trump’s orbit is exactly what Pence’s team wanted.

“To drop this on a Friday afternoon, and check the box right after the matchup is known, seemed like a deliberate choice,” said Mike Ricci, who ran communications for the main super PAC supporting Pence. “He chose to do it proactively, and in our current environment, in an understated way. And I think that he's not trying to make this a centerpiece of his message right now. He really wants to focus on policies.”

It’s also telling of Pence’s carefully drawn path back toward relevancy as a guardian of the Reaganism he has long espoused: Last month, he announced a $20 million blueprint for his Advancing American Freedom nonprofit aimed at shaping a conservatism that “bigger than any one moment, election, or person.”

“What he wants to do is to keep the Reagan flame alive — keeping the main thing the main thing: true, traditional conservative principles that seem to be getting lost,” said Victor Smith, a Pence campaign donor, board member at AAF and his former Indiana state commerce secretary.

He recently installed Ed Feulner, a former Heritage Foundation president, on the board.

“I'm not really shocked that he said that he wasn't going to endorse because ultimately what he really cares about, Trump's not really there, so he has to fill a void,” said a Pence ally, granted anonymity because he was not authorized by Pence’s close circle of advisers to speak.

This isn’t the first time Pence sought refuge in a policy institution after losing a campaign. He led the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, a conservative think tank, after his first early failed congressional bids. Now, his new nonprofit shop is that same vehicle.

“He’s trying to push foreign aid and foreign policy, which is kind of different to that MAGA lane,” said a Pence ally granted anonymity to speak freely. “I get why he’s doing it. But he’s doing it in a very low-key Mike Pence way.”

After dropping out of the presidential primary in October at a Republican Jewish Coalition event in Nevada, Pence kept a relatively low profile and did not endorse any of his rivals.

The one who could have offered him a safe ideological harbor was Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador. But there was tension over support she received from the influential Koch network, after Pence spent years cultivating the group.

“I think there was some pretty deep hurt and anger from both Mike and Marc [Short, a Pence adviser],” towards Haley and the Koch network, said Tim Phillips, a Pence friend and longtime former president and public face of the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity. “So I’m not super surprised.”

A Pence spokesperson denied any hard feelings, pointing out the Koch endorsement came weeks after the candidate dropped out of the race. Pence surrogates had lobbied for the endorsement when he was still a candidate, however.

Short, who declined an interview request with POLITICO, was a former employee of the advocacy arm founded by the billionaire industrialists Charles G. Koch and the late David H. Koch, and Pence spent years courting its donor base and pushing tax cuts and other policies in line with its libertarian ideals.

It was not enough. “I know there was some frustration over the Koch network doing the endorsement even though the timing wouldn't have mattered,” Phillips added. “I think that was hurtful given all that Marc and Mike had done with and for the network.”

If Pence, in his non-endorsement of Trump, signaled a retreat from the politics of 2024, more careful choices lay ahead for him. Some in his circle are privately urging him to steer clear of the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee this summer, and they say he is unlikely to go.

“Mike Pence is not one of these guys who wants to go in and cause drama,” the second Pence ally said. “I can’t see him going in there and stirring things up.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misstated one of the people Pence met with in Texas: It was Ross Perot, Jr.