In a race defined by Trump, Mike Pence defines himself

Spencer Platt
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Mike Pence’s 2024 campaign is sputtering. But becoming president was only one of the points of running for president.

Even though he’s among the most recognizable names in the Republican presidential primary after serving four years as vice president, Pence’s campaign has also been about reintroducing himself to voters — and perhaps to history — on his own terms, not only as Donald Trump’s No. 2.

He has defended his traditional view of conservatism against the populist strain now dominating the Republican Party. He’s staked out strong claims inside the GOP primary by supporting federal legislation to limit abortion, increase military aid to Ukraine and reform Social Security to reduce the national debt — and by criticizing other Republicans who take the other side on those issues. And he has preached about the importance of fidelity to the Constitution, even when Trump was pressuring him to go beyond his defined role as vice president to subvert the 2020 election.

Stepping out of public life after that would have meant ending a two-decade career in politics by certifying Trump’s loss on Jan. 6, 2021, when an angry mob called for Pence to be hung and Trump criticized him publicly. The risk that Pence’s legacy would be defined by the man who asked him to go against the Constitution grew as Trump took charge of the 2024 Republican primary.

Now, Pence’s campaign is nearly out of money. His support has slowly eroded to the low to mid single digits throughout 2023, according to public polling averages. His campaign’s performance is serving as an up-close study of how Republican voters have deserted a man whose convention speeches and campaign appearances for Trump once drew cheers.

But at least he’s getting the last word on himself — and his party.

“I don’t view it as a legacy,” said former Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Texan who served alongside Pence in Congress and now co-chairs Pence’s super PAC. Like others interviewed for this article, Hensarling spoke before Pence dropped out of the 2024 race on Saturday. “What I do view it as is the ability of Mike Pence to finally be Mike Pence, and to introduce that Mike Pence to the Republican primary and caucus voters who have only known him as a loyal vice president to Donald Trump, who went their separate ways after Jan. 6.”

Campaign spokesperson Devin O’Malley said voters often come away from meeting Pence at campaign events with a “new sense of who Mike Pence is as a person” — and that is the point.

“Mike Pence existed within the conservative movement and was a leader within the conservative movement well before Donald Trump asked him to be his vice president,” O’Malley added.

More broadly, one of the big moments of Pence’s campaign was a speech that was partly about how Trump has led the GOP astray from what Pence sees as its ideological roots — something O’Malley described as “a rallying cry that he’d be saying irrespective of if he were running for president or not.”

While drawing a distinction between himself and his former running mate, Pence still touts his pride in the record of what he calls the “Trump-Pence administration.”

It’s something 69-year-old voter John Marx, a Republican from Decorah, Iowa, appreciated when he attended one of Pence’s meet-and-greets in September. Marx, who backed Trump in the past but is undecided in the 2024 caucuses, said he “liked what Trump and Pence did” when they were in the White House.

“And the way Pence sounds, he wants to continue a lot of Trump’s policies,” Marx said. “Trump had his idiosyncrasies, don’t misunderstand that. But his policies, you cannot argue with. They were good for this country.”

But Pence has also used the campaign to break with Trump more decisively than he had previously. The first fissure was over their differences on Pence’s constitutional authority on Jan. 6, which has led to everything from protesters with signs reading “Pence is a traitor” heckling him on the 2024 trail to voters thanking him for standing up for the Constitution.

“As I travel around the country, there’s not a day that goes by that someone from literally every walk of life doesn’t come up to me at an airport, or at a diner, at a pizza place and just thank me for what we did that day,” Pence said this month on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

But that appreciation does not always translate to votes.

Michael Simmons of Charleston, South Carolina, a 57-year-old independent, said he predicts history will be fair to Pence for doing “the right thing” on Jan. 6. But he is leaning toward supporting Nikki Haley in the primary.

“I just don’t think he can win. I mean, he’s not a fiery personality,” Simmons said. To him, it doesn’t seem like Pence has “it” — though Simmons admits he is not sure what “it” is.

In recent weeks, the former vice president has gone after Trump much more sharply. When campaigning, he specifically criticizes his former running mate on foreign policy — Trump’s “appeasement on the world stage,” Pence has called it. And on abortion, Pence said Trump is “shying away from the cause of life.”

Today, a populist movement is rising in the Republican Party,” Pence said at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College in September. “The growing faction would substitute our faith in limited government and traditional values with an agenda stitched together by little else than personal grievances and performative outrage.”

Free to be himself

Having stood by Trump for four years as his loyal vice president, Pence became widely known for serving in a role where, as Hensarling noted, he wasn’t always able to be himself. This led to some raised eyebrows when he gave a combative performance in the first GOP presidential primary debate in late August.

“Frankly, the Mike Pence I saw in that first debate, to me, that was Mike Pence being Mike Pence,” Hensarling said. “To me, four years in the Trump administration was, well, not exactly the Mike Pence I know, but it’s a different job description.”

It’s a job description Pence himself says he had a “very fixed view of.”

“When I was vice president of the United States, I prayed every day to be informed, to be prepared, to be of service, but not to be the story,” he said in an August speech in Indianapolis.

A former longtime aide to Pence said the vice president never shared the content of conversations he’d had with the president, “even with his closest advisers.”

“I cannot tell you the number of times when he would leave the Oval Office, come over to the vice president’s office, and it was never — he never, ever would discuss what was discussed or what was debated or what was considered,” the adviser said. “His message was always the exact same: ‘The president wants us to do X.’ And that’s what we went and did.”

That meant many voters — like 57-year-old fire chief and police officer Ray Reynolds of Nevada, Iowa — saw him as “the calm voice for Trump” and someone who “made Trump look good” during the administration.

“I feel like when he was vice president, he played his role. He took his second seat,” said Reynolds, who now says he plans to caucus for Pence after seeing him campaign.

“They know of him, but they don’t know him, and they don’t know his family,” said Jeff Cardwell, who has been friends with Pence for more than 30 years and served as an adviser when Pence was governor of Indiana.

Pence’s campaign stump speech often includes personal stories about his wife, three children and three granddaughters. He also peppers his audiences with a lot of jokes, to the surprise of some.

“I’m always struck by people being surprised that I have a sense of humor, but I get it,” Pence told Megyn Kelly on her SiriusXM radio show earlier this month.

Pence also frequently recounts on the trail what he did after the 2020 election. Following Trump’s loss and the end of his vice presidency, Pence moved home to Indiana with his wife, Karen.

“We bought 5 acres and a pond. We got a John Deere riding mower. We got a Ford Ranger pickup truck — candy apple red,” as he told voters in Corning, Iowa, on Oct. 7. “Life’s pretty good.”

He decided to run for president anyway.

“He got to be himself when he was a member of the House. He got to be himself as governor of Indiana,” Hensarling said. “And as vice president, he just, you know, he had to carry another agenda — mostly his, but not all his.”

Speaking to voters in Greenfield, Iowa, this month, Pence himself acknowledged the unlikely odds he has faced from the beginning.

“We didn’t run because I — because we felt like we saw some clear, eight-lane superhighway straight to the Oval Office,” Pence said.

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