Former Vice President Mike Pence has spent the past week outmaneuvering Donald Trump, his old boss and potential 2024 primary opponent.
Shortly after the plane Trump was flying on last weekend was forced to land due to an engine failure, Pence flew to Israel on the private jet of the GOP’s most prized donor, Miriam Adelson. And while Trump was avoiding criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin in a call-in interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity, Pence and his wife, Karen, flew to the border between Ukraine and Poland to distribute relief aid to refugees.
In perhaps the most telling indication that the political dynamic between the two men has shifted, Pence implicitly hit Trump at a Republican National Committee speech last Friday, saying the GOP should not include any “apologists for Putin.”
“Welcome to the front end of the Pence boomlet,” said veteran Republican pollster Michael Cohen, who has no relation to the former Trump lawyer. “Who had a better week or past few weeks than Pence? I mean, it’s not even close.”
When Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, he not only resolidified the old Western alliances formed in the wake of World War II, he also shook up the Republican Party’s power dynamics, at least temporarily.
The longtime center of power on the right, Trump has been struggling to garner attention for himself after six years of almost unilaterally controlling the national stage. And Pence, who’s best known for being stiff, boring and deferential to the former president, has walked into the center of the vacuum created by Trump's absence.
Pence has even grabbed prime slots on Fox News, making news in an interview with one of Trump’s favorite hosts, Maria Bartiromo. Bartiromo pressed Pence repeatedly on his plans for 2024, and whether he would run against Trump if the former president enters the race. But Pence played coy, brushing away the questions.
“I’m confident the Republican Party will nominate a candidate who will be the next president of the United States of America, and at the right time, my family and I will reflect and consider how we might participate in that process,” Pence said.
The burst of attention for Pence comes after more than a year of laying groundwork behind the scenes, making campaign-style trips to early-voting states like New Hampshire and Iowa and courting Republican donors who have bankrolled successful White House bids.
Trump remains the leader in early polls for the 2024 party nomination, but despite his popularity with the Republican grassroots, a number of GOP lawmakers are mulling runs of their own. All are trying to develop their own unique brands, whether through Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s culture-war broadsides or Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s appeal to unite the pre- and post-Trump wings of the GOP.
Yet despite his very public falling out with Trump, Pence's backers see him as a figure uniquely suited to bring together the warring factions within the GOP. An evangelical Christian originally elected to Congress in 2000, he steadily climbed the ranks of the House Republican caucus. In 2012, Indiana voters elected him governor, a position he left to become Trump’s running mate and shore up the erstwhile TV host’s conservative bona fides.
Since the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection, in which Trump-backed rioters threatened to hang Pence for not helping the then president overturn the 2020 election results, Pence has been slowly and steadily hitting the campaign trail — even though he has yet to announce his intentions for 2024. A Pence spokesman did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.
But the real break in the dam seemed to come almost immediately after Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine. Trump and his backers, who just days earlier had been touting Putin’s “genius,” suddenly looked outdated and perhaps out of touch with the GOP.
“The McCain wing of the GOP is back and stronger than ever, truth-telling about Mr. KGB,” said longtime Republican strategist Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole’s campaign for president in 1996.
But Republican operatives, like the candidates they advise, are still trying to game out whether the turn from Trump-style populism, at least in matters of foreign policy, is permanent or merely a passing fluke.
“It’s too soon to tell, but I still think Americans don’t want U.S. troops over there, and a lot don’t want to even send money there,” said former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. “This could be an issue in the midterms.”
Pence, meanwhile, is doing what he has always done, plodding forward steadily and waiting for his moments to grab the spotlight.