'Put me in, coach': Second lady Karen Pence embraces bigger role on 2020 campaign trail

Maureen Groppe, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Karen Pence was a regular presence at her husband’s side during the 2016 campaign, whispering encouraging words into Mike Pence’s ear before he stepped on stage, leading the vice presidential team in prayer before big moments and always clasping her husband’s hand before joining him in the spotlight.

Though Pence’s support for her husband – with whom she has long been a full political partner – was clear, it was less certain how she felt about Donald Trump.

As the reelection campaign gears up, she’s not leaving any room for doubt.

Pence has expanded her presence on social media, is participating in “Women for Trump” events and is hitting the campaign trail solo – she headlined a fundraiser in September for Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds – in addition to traveling with her husband as she did on a recent Kentucky trip.

“I think now the campaign is starting to realize that I want to be part of the campaign. I want to go and do what I can and do my part. And so they’re sending things my way more and more,” she told USA TODAY. “And they are things that I’m like, 'I can go. I can go do this. Put me in, coach.' "

Interview: Karen Pence talks 2020, her views on Trump and her job at Christian school

Second lady Karen Pence says she's eager to pitch in on the 2020 campaign trail. "I want to go and do what I can and do my part," she told USA TODAY in the sun room of the vice president's residence.

Pence spoke in the sun room of the vice president’s residence as their Australian shepherd, Harley, tried to nose his way into the interview and their cat, Hazel, perched over her shoulder. Hung on the wall behind Pence was her watercolor rendition of the vice president’s Queen Anne-style house, their temporary home on the grounds of the Naval Observatory. The room’s dominant art is a painting of Indiana’s state flower, the peony, on loan from Indiana artist Douglas David who personally delivered it to the residence.

Since moving in, Pence has had to navigate the nonelected but public role of second lady in which her down-home image of a pet lover, mother of a Marine and fierce protector of her husband has sometimes clashed with criticism of her views on homosexuality and questions about her alliance with Trump.

A reluctant campaigner?

Pence was apoplectic after the release in 2016 of an "Access Hollywood" recording of Trump bragging about grabbing women’s genitals, according to the book "American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump" by Politico reporter Tim Alberta.

A former senior Pence aide who asked to remain anonymous disputed the narrative that Karen Pence was any less supportive than her husband of continuing with the campaign after Trump apologized for the recording.

recently published book on Mike Pence, suggests that Karen agreed to stick it out under the expectation that Trump would probably lose, setting up Pence for his own 2020 bid. When Trump won, Karen twice rebuffed her husband’s celebratory kiss on election night, according to “Piety & Power: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House" by Tom LoBianco, a reporter who covered Pence when he was governor of Indiana.

Karen Pence said she’s puzzled at how someone could have gotten that impression. She remembers the excitement of election night, as well as the exhaustion of the early morning hours when the race was called.

“So all I can figure is someone must have seen me make a face or something like 'I’m hungry’ or 'I’m tired’ or something and decided I was disappointed in the race,” Pence said. “I don’t know where that came from. I love being part of this ticket, part of this administration.”

The former senior Pence aide, who asked not to be identified to speak candidly, said Karen Pence can “absolutely” be valuable in helping the Trump campaign reinforce its message with women. She’s approachable, listens to people and is relatable as a teacher, a mom and an advocate for military families, the former aide said.

Pence has plenty of solo campaign experience from when her husband ran for governor and from his multiple campaigns for Congress. She downplays her heft on the national ticket, calling herself “kind of the low man on the totem pole.”

“Mike likes to say, 'If you want hundreds, you invite Mike Pence. If you want thousands, you invite Donald Trump,’ ” she said. “So for me, it’s maybe like 100 or 200.”

In Utah, where she’ll do a campaign event next week, as well as one in Nevada, Pence may receive a warmer welcome than Trump would have.

Though it's a conservative state, Utah has a disproportionate number of Republicans who are lukewarm on Trump, said Utah State University political science professor Damon Cann. The Pences represent the more traditional Republican brand. Having a person of faith state the case for Trump is helpful in the heavily Mormon state, he said.

“Mrs. Pence has some things in her background and characteristics that could make her a particularly effective advocate for Trump’s reelection in Utah,” Cann said.

Book: Trump's victory posed problems for Pence and his wife

In addition to her clout with Christian conservatives, Pence may be most needed to shore up Trump’s support with women.

Trump's chances of reelection may hinge on boosting his support with women voters, particularly in the suburbs where warning signs flashed for the president in the 2018 midterms and Tuesday's off-year elections.

“They’ve been uncomfortable with his language, the way he talks about women, the way he treats women,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “The 'Access Hollywood' tape obviously was an issue, not just for those women but for Karen Pence. She had a problem with it.”

Walsh said Pence is unlikely to be able to convert women who are upset with Trump’s rhetoric or policies. But she can motivate those already supportive to turn out to vote.

Second lady Karen Pence supports Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds at a fundraiser for Reynolds Sept. 21 in Des Moines.

When Pence joined Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara for a “Women for Trump” event in St. Paul, Minnesota, last month, she told the hundreds of women in the audience how Trump won her over in 2016 by the respect he showed for the Pences’ older daughter, Charlotte, 26.

During a trip to Bedminster, New Jersey, in 2016, when Mike Pence was auditioning for the role of Trump’s running mate, the GOP nominee insisted on Charlotte joining them for breakfast before the men went golfing.

“He really just focused on her,” Karen Pence recalled. “ 'Tell me what millennials are thinking. Tell me what young women are thinking. Let’s talk about what issues are important to you.’… It meant a lot to me as her mom.”

Economic pitch to women

Asked if she acts as a character witness for Trump, Pence said she could vouch for the president's love of country and talked up his record boosting military spending and strengthening the economy.

“I think there are people out there who feel like they know me so when they hear me say something, maybe it reassures them,” she said. “Because I see a president who cares about his country.”

Trump is "empowering" women, she argued, through the strong economy. 

“If you wanted someone to improve the job rate, he did. If you wanted someone to strengthen the military, he did,” she said. “The unemployment rate amongst women is lower than it’s ever been. And that’s what women care about.”

Second lady Karen Pence says President Trump empowers women through the economy.

When Pence attempted to go back to a paying job this year, she faced a firestorm of criticism.

The elementary school in Northern Virginia where Pence taught art when her husband served in Congress contacted her when its art teacher left.

“They said, 'You set up this curriculum. You know the room. You know everything. Any way you could fill in?’ ” she said. “That’s why I went back.”

Like her predecessor, Jill Biden, who taught at a community college, Pence said, she relished the opportunity to do something that was hers alone.

“I think there’s something about maybe being in this role … because of my spouse’s position that it’s very rewarding to keep that little piece of me,” she said. “That’s really my love, teaching art to elementary kids.”

Karen Pence signs one of her books for Claire and Julie Van de Hoef during a fundraiser for Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Sept. 21 in Des Moines.

Her part-time job drew scrutiny because of Immanuel Christian School’s policy of not allowing gay teachers or students.

"The Pences never seem to miss an opportunity to show their public service only extends to some," the Human Rights Campaign tweeted.

Critics of the Pences’ opposition to same-sex marriage leaped at other opportunities to protest.

When Karen and Charlotte published a children’s book about the family’s pet rabbit, comedian John Oliver put out a parody version about a gay bunny getting married.

When Karen Pence started using her position to bring attention to the art therapy profession, some art therapists said no thanks.

Controversy over school that bans gay teachers, students

Pence sees the criticism of her teaching at the school as an attack on her faith – and a violation of the religious liberty tenet on which she said the nation was founded.

Asked how she would respond to a gay person who felt attacked for who they are, Pence said, “I don’t make that connection.”

“I think that if you have someone who has a certain belief, that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily judging you,” she said. “For example, there are people who have certain dietary restrictions because of their faith. I don’t feel like they’re judging me if I eat that food.”

If someone feels judged by her, she said, that’s unfortunate.

“It certainly would never, ever, ever, be my intention for anyone to feel judged by me. Definitely not,” she said. “But I’m just a person who believes in the Bible, so it shouldn’t be right for someone to attack me for my beliefs.”

The argument of religious freedom is one her husband also makes to fend off criticisms over LGBTQ issues.

Critics of Mike Pence disagree that the issue is one of religious liberty.

Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay 2020 Democratic presidential candidate who talks frequently about faith on the campaign trail, said in April that most Christians understand that it's not OK to discriminate against gay people.

"It's time to move on to a more inclusive and more humane vision of faith than what this vice president represents," he said.

Buttigieg to Pence: If you have a problem with who I am, your quarrel is with my creator

After her many years in the public spotlight, Pence realizes scrutiny comes with the territory.

“And people have an opinion about everything,” she said. “I mean, people tell me all the time they like my hair long. And these are people who I’ve never met before. And I’m like, 'Oh, OK, Hi! I’m Karen.’ ”

(For those wondering, yes, her hair is longer and the bangs are gone. That’s because, she said, she still gets her hair cut in Indiana and that limits how often she can go.)

Pence said the lack of privacy is something she’ll probably never get used to, but the benefits of her position outweigh the negatives.

She mentions the work that she’s done to support military families, such as pushing states to make it easier for military spouses to transfer professional credentials.

She recounted a lunch she held at the vice president’s residence to bring together all the different players in the art therapy world.

“To know that there’s momentum behind one of the issues that I picked is humbling,” she said. “So if people say negative things about me about something they truly just misunderstand, I just have to let it roll off my back.”

At home: How Karen put her personal stamp on the vice presidential residence

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Karen Pence expands role campaigning for Donald Trump's 2020 relection