WASHINGTON – For Mike Pence, a second term for President Donald Trump would have been a 2024 ticket to Republican frontrunner status.
But with Trump's loss — after Pence spent the last four years as his most loyal soldier and the past year doggedly campaigning on his behalf — the vice president is contending with a far less certain future. The situation is made even more complicated by Trump's refusal to accept defeat and private flirtations with running again himself four years from now.
It’s a balancing act for Pence. He cannot risk alienating supporters of the president who want to see Trump —- and by extension the vice president -- keep on fighting. But Pence also risks damaging his own brand if he aligns himself too closely with baseless claims of voter fraud.
“Pence is trying to navigate between the land mines of a president who insists on total fealty and protecting his options for his own political future,” said Dan Eberhart, a prominent Republican donor and Trump backer.
“Any Republican who is thinking about running for office in the next four years is definitely looking at that and trying to figure out which way the political winds are going to blow," Eberhart said.
Pence has remained largely out of public view since early last Wednesday, when Trump took the stage at a White House election watch party and falsely claimed he had won. In remarks that lasted under a minute, Pence notably did not echo the president’s claim to victory, even as he pledged to “protect the integrity of the vote.”
“We are going to keep fighting until every legal vote is counted and until every illegal vote is thrown out,” Pence said Friday in a speech to conservative youth in Virginia, though he gave no evidence of illegal voting. “And whatever the outcome at the end of the process, I promise you: We will never stop fighting to make America great again.”
While other Trump allies have appeared at news conferences and done interviews in recent days trumpeting unsupported allegations of voter fraud, Pence has lain low, seen only at a wreath-laying ceremony on Veterans Day and at a closed-door Senate luncheon. He had planned to go on vacation in Florida but canceled, in part because of bad weather and in part because of the circumstances.
After Pence spent four years applauding Trump and turning TrumpSpeak into something more palatable, allies expect him to approach the next 10 turbulent weeks much the same way: with utmost caution and ensuring minimal daylight between himself and the president. It’s a familiar challenge, though the stakes may be higher than ever.
Pence is widely believed to harbor his own presidential ambitions, though he has always been guarded when asked publicly about his plans. Aides insist his full focus this year has been on 2020 alone. Indeed, there are few people — if any — who worked harder to try to secure Trump a second term.
Between Jan. 1 and Election Day, Pence made 107 trips on behalf of the president, including seven to Michigan, 11 each to Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and 13 to Florida. There were a dozen bus tours, appearances at Make America Great Again rallies, events with Women for Trump , Latinos for Trump, Evangelicals for Trump, Farmers & Ranchers for Trump and the Latter-day Saints Coalition. He sat down for a whopping 220 regional media interviews, including 40 in October alone.
More than any other member of the potential 2024 Republican field, Pence's future is tied to Trump's — and the president's flirtations with running could put him in an untenable spot if he is eventually forced to make the almost unthinkable decision to run against his former boss.
Even if Trump steps aside, questions remain about Pence’s appeal. Backers believe he combines a Trump stamp of approval with support among Evangelical and conservative voters who are influential in early voting states like Iowa. Others, however, see him as carrying all of Trump’s baggage without his charisma. Also, he will be 65 on Election Day 2024, and they wonder whether the party will want to nominate another white man in his 60s or 70s.
Still, “the perfect place to be in the Republican Party is to be for Trump’s polices without Trump’s personality. And that pretty much describes Mike Pence,” says Barry Bennett, a longtime Republican strategist who worked for Trump’s 2016 campaign.
As for Trump’s baggage, Bennett says, “it’s important to remember that Republicans will select their nominee. And there is no Trump baggage. They love him.”
Before the election, Pence aides had discussed a plan to build a political apparatus for the vice president should he decide to run in 2024. They envisioned him holding fundraisers, speaking at party dinners and supporting 2022 candidates. Then, around the 2022 election, he would decide whether to move forward.
Pence, his allies contend, has time to take a wait-and-see approach because he's already ahead of others in what is expected to be a crowded Republican field. Pence, they note, already has a political action committee, the Great America Committee, as well as a deep fundraising network and close friends who include many of the nation's governors.
“I think he’s got the blessing of time right now where he can go ahead and put together a small apparatus for a potential run,” said Jon Thompson, who served as Pence's spokesman on the campaign and previously worked for the Republican Governors Association. “So that gives him some time to really see what Trump and others do.”
Pence spent the four years before he joined the Trump ticket as the governor of Indiana, and six terms in Congress before that. He currently doesn't own a house. In the short term, he is expected by some to spend some time on money-making ventures, including paid speeches and potentially writing a book.
But for now, he appears willing to go along with Trump's efforts to cast doubt on the integrity of the election, even if he's not its public champion.
At a private Senate lunch Tuesday where Pence received a prolonged standing ovation, he told attendees he wanted to keep serving as Senate president and thought he would as U.S. vice president. He signaled the campaign planned to avail itself of all legal remedies to contest the election result, walking through legal strategy though providing no details about alleged irregularities. He also shed no further light on his personal political future, according to people familiar with the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity because the event was supposed to be private.
Pence could still end up being the face of the orderly transfer of power, if Trump himself, as is widely expected, continues to fume over his defeat, even as he prepares to leave office.
Later Friday he was expected to update conservative allies and look ahead to what can be done if the GOP retains its majority in the Senate, with larger minorities in the House and control of state legislatures.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram in Washington and Aamer Madhani in Chicago contributed to this report.