WASHINGTON – Vice presidents often face unique problems when they seek the presidency, but no one in political history has been quite like former Vice President Mike Pence.
No ex-veep has engaged in contested primaries against the president who picked him, but Pence could wind up running against Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
No vice president-turned-possible-presidential-candidate has faced such harsh attacks from a former president and his allies of the same party as Pence does, in his case over his refusal to carry out Trump's demands that he throw out the electoral votes that elected Joe Biden.
If he indeed runs for president, Pence would be caught between two worlds, analysts said: the Trumpers who hate him for alleged "disloyalty" and the anti-Trumpers who dislike him because of his fealty to Trump over the long haul.
Pence aides said that while the former vice president has not made any final decisions about 2024, they believe he would appeal to a wide swath of Republicans who belong to neither side of Trump, ones who appreciate his long years of fighting for conservative causes.
"The vast majority of Republican voters like constitutional conservatives, and people who are true to their oaths," said Pence adviser Marc Short.
All in all, an unprecedented challenge.
"Pence is clearly in an unusual position," said Joel Goldstein, a law professor at Saint Louis University who specializes in the history of the vice presidency. "It's certainly unprecedented given the circumstances – Jan. 6 was unprecedented."
Walking a fine line
As he contemplates his future, Pence is doing the kinds of things that prospective presidential candidates do: flying around the country giving speeches, endorsing candidates in the midterm elections and writing a memoir set to be published Nov. 15.
He has also walked a fine line with respect to Trump.
Pence has said Trump was "wrong" to claim that the vice president had the legal authority to throw out electoral votes. Pence also has criticized the storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters – some of them threatening Pence's life – and called it a "dark day" in the nation's history.
At the same time, Pence has refrained from directly attacking Trump over Jan. 6 or much else – never mind reports that Trump spoke approvingly of calls to "hang Mike Pence," according to witnesses' testimony to the special House committee investigating the Capitol riot. Instead, Pence prefers to play up the economic and foreign policies of the "Trump-Pence administration."
Testimony before the Jan. 6 committee has not appreciably changed Pence's approach.
Pence and Trump have engaged in proxy battles in GOP primaries, and Pence has done well. During a May primary in Georgia, Pence backed incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, who easily defeated Trump-backed challenger David Perdue.
Pence and Trump have another go-round next week in Arizona. Trump supports hard-line conservative Kari Lake in the GOP gubernatorial primary; Pence backs a more traditional Republican, Karrin Taylor Robson.
The former Republican running mates are also backing different gubernatorial candidates in Wisconsin.
On the campaign trail, Pence has occasionally knocked Trump for continuing to protest the 2020 election. Pence said Republicans should be looking at candidates – i.e. him – who talk about the future.
During his travels, Pence has been greeted with condemnation from some Trump supporters.
Wendy Rogers, a notably outspoken state senator in Arizona, tweeted that "Pence let Biden steal the election and then went to the fraudulent inauguration." She also said that Pence "is not welcome in free Arizona!!! We don’t want the swamp!!!!"
In an appearance Tuesday before the Young America's Foundation, Pence played down any divisions with Trump when an audience member asked him about it.
"I don't know that the president and I differ on issues, but we may differ on focus," Pence said. "I truly do believe that elections are about the future."
The questioner – Andrew Breschard, a senior at Gettysburg College – said he thought Pence might be more critical of Trump. But he said he understands the difficult political position Pence is in, given Trump's popularity among Republicans.
A political science and public policy major, Breschard said he personally believes that Trump's time has passed and that Republicans should look for another presidential candidate. Though Pence is "definitely an underdog," he said, the former vice president is a true conservative whose case should be heard by voters.
"I think he made the right decision on Jan. 6," Breschard said.
The history: The vice presidency is problematic
When the United States was born, the vice presidency was the ultimate stepping stone to the presidency.
Under the initial rules of the Electoral College, the candidate who received the second-highest number of electoral votes automatically became vice president, regardless of whether he was allied with the presidential winner.
That's how John Adams became George Washington's vice president – and how political rival Thomas Jefferson became vice president to Adams when the latter won the presidency in 1796.
The complexities of the Electoral College are also why Jefferson and Aaron Burr, his ostensible running mate, tied in the presidential vote in 1800. Burr refused to make way for Jefferson, and the House of Representatives had to resolve the election by voting to install Jefferson as president.
Congress and the states responded by passing the 12th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, changing the rules of the Electoral College. It required electors to cast two separate votes for the offices of president and vice president.
'I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead'
Over the early years, the vice presidency became a secondary position, and office holders had little more to do than preside over the U.S. Senate and cast an occasional tiebreaking vote. Vice presidents moved into the White House only if the occupant died.
In 1848, Sen. Daniel Webster turned down the chance to be vice president by reportedly saying "I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin," according to the White House Historical Association.
Vice President Martin Van Buren did win the presidential election of 1836 – but that did not happen again until George Herbert Walker Bush in 1988.
The closest parallel to a Pence-Trump race would be in 1940, when Vice President John Nance Garner – who once described the vice presidential job as "not worth a pitcher of warm piss" – announced he was willing to be a candidate for president.
But that was before incumbent President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made it known he was willing to seek a third term. Once that happened, FDR swamped Garner and other candidates at that year's Democratic convention.
"For a long part of our history, the vice presidency wasn't a presidential springboard," said Goldstein, the vice presidential historian and author of "The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden."
The vice presidency became more prestigious in the decades after World War II, in part because presidents began giving their running mates more responsibility and in part because of increased media attention.
Another candidate who served as vice president, the senior George Bush, went all the way to the White House in 1988. So did former Vice President Joe Biden, winning the 2020 election that Trump tried to reverse, an effort that ensnared Pence in what has become an unprecedented political predicament in 2024.
Pence the underdog
Though Trump supporters probably will attack Pence if he runs, there is little sign many other Republicans will back him either. Early 2024 polls put the former vice president in single digits, well behind Trump and another possible challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Rich Galen, a former Republican political strategist who left the party after Trump's nomination in 2016, said that "vice presidents have a tough way to go," especially Pence. "I'm not sure how much independent support he's had," Galen said.
Lara Brown, director and professor at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, said Pence's basic problem is that "Trump supporters who believe the 2020 election was stolen remain angry with him" – while "the conservatives who have long rejected Trump remain angry with Pence over his four-and-a-half 4½ years of enabling Trump."
"This leaves Pence in no man's land when it comes to building a solid base of conservatives who would support his presidential run," she said.
Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, said Pence's decision to uphold the law and refuse to interfere in the electoral vote count may well work against him in Republican primaries.
"Pence's chances aren't good," he said. "At one key moment, he put country over party. For most Republican voters, that's a liability."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mike Pence presidential run could face Trump-sized problems