Mike Pence is a man who likes to stick to the plan.
The former vice president’s favorite Bible verse comes from Jeremiah 29:11, where God tells the Jewish people they will need to remain in exile for 70 years: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”
The scripture might as well be a metaphor for Pence’s long-awaited run for president, which he is making official with a launch in Iowa on Wednesday.
The mild-mannered, arch-conservative former congressman-turned-Indiana governor-turned-vice president-turned-MAGA pariah has been testing the waters of a presidential run for over a decade and he enters the primary with more of a national profile than perhaps any other candidate besides his former boss, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
But for all of Pence’s best laid plans, it’s still unclear—to voters, to aides, and perhaps even to himself—how he’ll address the question of Donald Trump.
Pence has a national political following because of Trump, and any campaign he runs can’t be based on torching his former boss so much that Trump loyalists could never get behind Pence.
At the same time, Pence also has to distinguish himself from Trump, explain their falling out, and emerge from a crowded field of Trump alternatives as the Trump alternative.
It’s a difficult political tightrope to walk—and it isn’t clear at all that Mike Pence knows how he’ll walk it.
After Pence spent his post-veep era stoking the presidential hype, there’s been an anticlimactic buildup to his showdown with Trump—a fight Pence has of course been anticipating, Republicans close to the former vice president told The Daily Beast.
“There’s one certainty with the Pence team: They have a plan,” a former Pence staffer said, requesting anonymity to discuss the candidate’s thinking.
“There are a number of steps, and each step allows you to say yes when the time comes,” they said. “If you don’t do these things, then you’re really stuck because either you can’t say yes, or you go into it very handicapped.”
After decades of trying to keep his options open across the landscape of national Republican politics, Pence enters the race with more than a few doors closed—or, at the very least, ones that Trump and his MAGA base are trying to slam in his face.
His fallout with Trump over his refusal to throw out their election loss on Jan. 6 left him with higher unfavorability ratings than any other candidate in the GOP primary. His fortunes increasingly depend on a shrinking core of evangelical Christian voters in Iowa.
Elsewhere, like in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire, top Republicans worry he wasted the past two years with minimal outreach to key players who could have boosted his run. A later launch for the campaign has not assuaged those worries.
Most pressing, though, is the question of whether Pence has the will or temperament to take on Trump, whom he dutifully stood behind throughout the chaos and tumult of his lone term in office. His continued reluctance to directly go after Trump in all but the most intimate settings—even after Trump incited a mob that wanted to murder Pence—has not exactly inspired confidence in his mettle for the campaign trail.
“I can tell you, people are not excited about Pence,” another senior New Hampshire Republican told The Daily Beast. “He’s a really nice guy, everyone enjoys him as a person, but he’s not someone who makes you feel like he’ll take charge. And let’s face it, after what Trump did to him, he got squished.”
When Pence took the job as Trump’s No. 2 in 2016 and continued to stick with him, the decision might have represented the patient politician’s best path to a national perch entirely his own. But now, the former president’s continued overshadowing of Pence—not to mention the entire 2024 primary—seems entirely predictable.
The former veep’s long odds have prompted some insiders to wonder what, exactly, he is trying to accomplish with a seemingly doomed campaign.
“It’s hard to tell if he wants to be president,” the first New Hampshire Republican said, “or just cement his legacy as the most decent guy in the race.”
The trouble for Pence might have begun when the future of the GOP seemed up for grabs—after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The insurrection tanked Trump’s standing and put the spotlight on Pence, who was credited for not violating the Constitution and certifying President Biden’s win in the 2020 election. At least with the voters who weren’t devoutly pro-Trump.
When Pence touched down in New Hampshire in May 2021, during the early stages of the shadow GOP primary, he had a head start on the competition. The power players on his political team were all in place for a carefully orchestrated rollout of his first public comments on the fateful day when pro-Trump rioters chanted their support to hang him.
Pence sought to “get it out of the way,” as one New Hampshire GOP operative phrased it at the time, an early reflection of the conflict-averse tone he would employ in talking about the conflict-loving 45th president.
“You know, President Trump and I have spoken many times since we left office, and I don’t know if we’ll ever see eye to eye on that day,” Pence said. “But I will always be proud of what we accomplished for the American people over the last four years.”
Since that day, the GOP base hasn’t bought Pence’s careful responses. His unfavorable numbers in the most recent polls from Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press are alarming; they generally indicate that around 40 percent of Republicans dislike him, while his active support hasn’t budged much from the low single digits.
With the worst net favorability rating of any other active or prospective candidates included in most polls on the GOP primary, Pence faces a unique disadvantage.
What’s more, Pence’s plan to catch fire in the primary—heavily courting Iowa’s evangelical voters, a natural base for him—is also a priority for other candidates’ path to primary relevance. Notably, DeSantis has invested heavily in Iowa organizing in hopes of upsetting Trump.
In New Hampshire, meanwhile, there’s little confidence among the state’s GOP intelligentsia that Pence has a shot at cracking the top five.
“Put him on a stage with Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, and then Trump?” a top New Hampshire Republican who has yet to endorse a candidate told The Daily Beast. “Best-case scenario, he’s gonna be the guy that doesn’t get asked any questions.”
Although Pence’s public persona may not exude a ruthless winning mentality, his loyal team of aides—forged over two brutal campaigns and a chaotic four years in office—are willing to go to bat for him, even in the most petty of circumstances.
Ahead of the 2020 debate against then-vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris in Utah, top Pence staffer Aaron Chang grew so irate that Harris got a few more square feet of space in her green room that he demanded a line of tape in that room to demarcate how much less space Pence got, according to a Republican familiar with the dustup. Chang ended up securing the Pence team a supplemental green room, according to another Republican familiar with the incident.
Yet for the Pence team’s attention to certain details, others have gone overlooked.
Both New Hampshire Republicans who spoke with The Daily Beast said they’ve been befuddled at how little outreach the Pence team has done in the state despite their head start, leading donors and key primary players to question whether Pence is in the race to win it or to settle a score with Trump.
The Pence campaign has also been mum about how they might attack Trump once the two are both in the race, which would seem like a strategic inevitability for a team that is hoping to play the long game. When asked if he would support Trump as the 2024 nominee in March, Pence declined, telling CBS News he’s “very confident we’ll have better choices come 2024.”
The former Pence staffer and another seasoned presidential primary operative said the former VP’s late announcement will help the campaign save money to fight deeper into the 2024 calendar, serving as a hedge against any diminished small donor appetites. “He didn’t need to announce his candidacy earlier for a platform. Being the former vice president is the platform,” the former Pence staffer said.
Still, the lack of an apparent plan in New Hampshire and a heavy dependence on the evangelical vote has left other Republicans skeptical over whether the Pence ‘24 operation is built to last.
“We’re not a Bible Belt state, and I think that’s even beginning to dwindle in Iowa,” the first New Hampshire GOP operative said. “I know a lot of people who are religious in Iowa, but there are fewer of them now. And in this land of diversity, I don’t think you can play the Christian card and become president.”
With Pence, of course, it always comes back to the plan. And he had been planning for a presidential run long before Trump controlled the party; he was courted to run in 2012 and 2016, but chose not to.
For the former Pence staffer, then, the Trump factor doesn’t entirely explain Pence’s motivations for entering the race—despite such a large portion of the party turning against him.
“One, I think he would genuinely feel like he’s being called to do this [by God],” the former staffer said. “And two, you can’t win if you don’t run.”
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