When former President Donald Trump was asked to list those he considers the future leaders of the Republican Party, he quickly rattled off a list of names, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz. Conspicuously absent from the list: Mike Pence.
The former vice president is steadily reentering public life as he eyes a potential run for the White House in 2024.
He’s joining conservative organizations, writing op-eds, delivering speeches and launching an advocacy group that will focus on promoting the Trump administration’s accomplishments.
But Trump’s neglect in mentioning Pence during a podcast interview earlier this month signals the former vice president’s unique challenge.
For someone who built a reputation as one of Trump’s most steadfast supporters, Pence is now viewed with suspicion among many Republicans for observing his constitutional duty in January to facilitate a peaceful transfer of power to the Biden administration, a decision that still has Trump fuming.
To prevail in a Republican presidential primary, Pence may have to reinforce his loyalty to Trump while defending his decisions during the final days of the administration when the president falsely alleged widespread voter fraud, contributing to a deadly riot at the US Capitol. If anyone can achieve this awkward balance, some Republicans say, it’s Pence.
Anybody who can pull off an endorsement of Ted Cruz and become Donald Trump’s vice presidential nominee should not be counted out,” said Republican strategist Alice Stewart, who worked for Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign when Pence endorsed him. “He has a way of splitting hairs and threading the needle that has paid off in the past.”
Pence aides generally brush off talk of the next presidential election. They insist he is focused on his family and next year’s midterm elections, when Republicans are well positioned to regain at least one chamber of Congress. Allies argue that, over time, the anger will subside.
“I think 2024’s a long time away and if Mike Pence runs for president he will appeal to the Republican base in a way that will make him a strong contender,” said Republican Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee and has already endorsed a Pence 2024 run.
If and when Mike Pence steps back up to the plate, I think he will have strong appeal among Republicans nationwide.”
Pence declined to comment for this story. For their part, Trump aides warn against reading too much into the omission during the podcast interview.
“That was not an exclusive list,” said Trump adviser Jason Miller. Still, Trump continued to deride Pence in the interview, falsely claiming Pence had the authority to unilaterally overturn the results of the election, even though he did not.
Trump has not said whether he will seek the White House again in 2024. If he doesn’t, other Republicans are making clear they won’t cede the race to Pence. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for instance, is already visiting the critical primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Since leaving office in January, Pence, who served as Indiana’s governor and a member of Congress before being tapped as Trump’s running mate, has kept a lower profile.
He’s pieced together a portfolio aimed at maintaining influence, paying the bills and laying the groundwork for an expected presidential run.
He’s forged a partnerships with the conservative Heritage Foundation and has even been discussed as a potential president of the organization, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
He’s joined the Young America’s Foundation and a top speakers’ bureau, penned an op-ed for the Daily Signal in which he perpetuated falsehoods about the 2020 election, and recently toured a Christian relief organization in North Carolina.
He will make his first public speech since leaving office next month at the Palmetto Family Council’s annual fundraiser in South Carolina, another crucial primary state.
Pence has also discussed writing a book, according to aides, has been in continued conversation with his evangelical allies, and plans to spend much of the next two years helping Republican candidates as they try to reclaim House and Senate majorities in 2022.
He’s also planning to launch an advocacy organization that aides and allies say will give him a platform to defend the Trump administration’s record and push back on the current president’s policies as he tries to merge the traditional conservative movement with Trumpism.
“He’s doing what he needs to be doing to lay the groundwork in the event he wants to set up an exploratory committee,” Stewart said.
“You have to make money, lay the groundwork, gauge the support and then pull the trigger.”
Pence’s allies see him as the natural Trump heir, someone who can keep his base engaged while winning back suburban voters who left the party in droves during the Trump era.
“Obviously Mike Pence has a very different persona, a very different tone. That probably is an understatement,” said former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a longtime friend who now leads the Young America’s Foundation.
“As long as he can still talk about the things that Trump voters care about, but do so in a way that’s more reflective of kind of a Midwesterner, that I think … would be attractive to those voters.”
Skeptics, meanwhile, see another old, milquetoast white man saddled with Trump’s baggage, but without his charisma.