Professional political survivor Mike Pence tests if there's any room left for him in a Trump Republican Party

  • Pence and his team are emerging to test whether the former vice president has a future in politics.
  • Pence headlines a fundraiser for a conservative Christian group Thursday.
  • During the past three decades, Pence has found ways to come back from crippling defeats.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Former Vice President Mike Pence’s political career should be toast.

Pence refused to derail Congress’ certification of now-President Joe Biden’s Electoral College votes. 

Insurrectionists, acting in the name of President Donald Trump, responded by hunting Pence in the halls of the US Capitol, to no avail.

And days later, on January 20, Pence committed what some Republicans consider the greatest betrayal of all: standing sentry on the Capitol stage as Biden, not Trump, took the presidential oath of office.

But if Pence and his team are winding down, they’re not showing it. 

Pence for weeks has been plotting a return to public prominence, employing a methodical approach that has been a hallmark of his career in public service. 

In February, he teased news he was joining a pair of top conservative organizations. And just three weeks ago, he scored an entire day of news coverage with his dual launch of a new political group and a book deal valued at up to $4 million.

Come Thursday, Pence makes his clearest move yet that he’s ready to reclaim his political future — and make the earliest of moves toward a 2024 presidential run — when he travels to South Carolina to headline a fundraiser for a conservative Christian organization. 

The imagery of Pence’s first public campaign-style stop since the 2020 election is impossible to miss to the trained political eye: He’s posting up in the backyard of a possible 2024 opponent, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, in a key typically early Republican primary state. He’s also playing to conservative evangelicals, a critical base of voters he hopes to keep squarely in his camp.

“He’s reminding everyone he’s returning from where he came, and honestly I think that’s going to be a pretty bold speech,” said one Pence advisor.

Read more: Pence allies say the lame-duck VP needs to stay in the public spotlight if he wants to be a viable 2024 presidential candidate

But don’t expect Pence to do something so bold as announce a presidential run, now or anytime soon, Pence advisors told Insider. 

Consider the speech Thursday an effort by Pence to carve a lane for himself in 2024 …  if Trump doesn’t run.

Pence is also girding for either of two potential futures within the GOP, said David McIntosh, president of the conservative campaign group Club for Growth and a longtime friend of Pence’s. 

“One is if Trump decides to run again, the best thing is for Pence to be a Trump supporter,” McIntosh said. “But if Trump doesn’t run again, it becomes a free-for-all among the Republicans.” 

And in that free-for-all, the former vice president stands a good chance of winning the nomination, said McIntosh, who also serves on the board of Pence’s newly-launched political group, Advancing American Freedom.

If nothing else, history is heartening for Pence. During the last four decades, only two former vice presidents have not gotten their party’s nomination after serving as the loyal second in command, and one of those two, Dick Cheney, didn’t want to run. 

A Pence spokesman declined comment for this story. But Insider this month spoke with more than a dozen Trump advisors, Pence advisors, Republicans, and others close to the former vice president, since Pence launched his campaign-style advocacy group.

Most envisioned Pence as a likely frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2024, if a number of things go right. 

But, they acknowledge, a single wrong move or stroke of bad luck could relegate Pence to becoming just one more “influential voice” on the right, falling well short of the White House.

And the worst political luck of all for Pence would be Trump himself running a third time for president in 2024.

Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough guides then-Vice President Mike Pence in the tallying of the 2020 electoral votes on January 6 on Capitol Hill. Pence would soon flee the chambers with congressional lawmakers when pro-Trump insurrectionists breached a Capitol security perimeter.Photo by Win McNamee/ Getty Images

Getting beyond January 6

Pro-Trump rioters came within seconds of finding Pence at the Capitol on January 6, as chants of “Hang Mike Pence” rang out through the marble halls. 

Trump effectively painted a target on Pence’s back, with his repeated insistence that his vice president could help to overturn the election results. 

Two weeks later, Trump and Pence left Washington separately, Trump doing so as the only president ever impeached twice. 

Not many people attended Trump’s send-off at Joint Base Andrews in suburban Washington. Not even Pence, who attended Biden’s inauguration instead.

In that moment, the political careers of both Trump and Pence appeared irredeemably diminished, even altogether over. Trump had incited an insurrection. Pence had infuriated Trump’s powerful base of voters.

Read more: Mike and Karen Pence are homeless and appear to be couch surfing their way through Indiana

But since then, moods inside the Republican Party have mellowed. Pence’s people say they believe the damage has healed to a point where Pence is a viable White House contender again. 

“It was a huge thing for all of us here in Washington, it was a riot around the Capitol,” McIntosh said. “But outside of Washington and the Beltway, it was a day in the news, and then a couple days longer, and then people went back to their lives,” 

The polling of the highly nascent, and incredibly expansive, field of potential 2024 Republican hopefuls, seems to bear out McIntosh’s point. 

A poll of Republican primary voters earlier this month by a former Trump campaign pollster, John McLaughlin, found Trump clearly dominating the field with more than 50 percent support and no one else except Pence registering more than single-digit support. 

But remove Trump from the field, and Pence becomes the front-runner, even edging out Trump’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., 19 percent to 15 percent. 

Only Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis registered double-digit support in the poll. The rest of the field, from Fox News talker Tucker Carlson to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, barely registered more than a few points each.

Former Vice President Dan Quayle (left) hailed from Indiana, like former Vice President Mike Pence.J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Another Dan Quayle?

There’s a long history of vice presidents successfully climbing that last rung of the political ladder to the pinnacle of power, from John Adams to Joe Biden. 

But the comparison Pence most often draws is to the last vice president from Indiana, Dan Quayle.

Quayle won a House seat in 1978, unseated a longtime Democratic senator in 1980, and finally beat a veteran Republican senator for a spot as George H.W. Bush’s running mate in 1988. 

But after the Republicans lost the White House in 1992, Quayle was one of many Republicans boxed out of his party’s presidential nomination by then-Sen. Bob Dole, who had dutifully “waited his turn” behind Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush.

In 1999, Quayle finally launched his bid for the presidency. But he was clobbered along with almost everyone else by then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the son of his former boss.

Quayle nearly rocketed to the top, but found his path to the presidency blocked, said Bill Kristol, Quayle’s vice presidential chief of staff.

Pence, however, is fighting in a world where seniority and insider status is often more of a detriment than help. 

“Things were just dealbreakers back then that aren’t now,” said one Pence advisor.

Pence also has a sturdier political operation and a stronger mindset than Quayle, developed over an occasionally bruising career. 

Over three decades, Pence has repeatedly suffered crippling setbacks, only to come back stronger. 

After his first losses for Congress in 1988 and 1990, Pence hopped off the campaign trail for almost a decade and built his name as a conservative think tank leader, radio host, and all-around Indiana pundit. It kept his name in the news long enough until a House seat opened up for him. 

He then launched a precipitous rise in Washington from promising freshman to a top-ranking member of then-House Minority Leader John Boehner’s leadership team. Along the way, conservative leaders began talking him up for a White House bid. 

Pence’s second big setback didn’t come until 25 years after his first, in March 2015. 

That March, Pence approved a new law allowing some Indiana businesses to refuse services to same-sex couples. Pence angrily defended the law as a protection of religious freedom in a fateful interview with George Stephanopoulos. But afterward, Pence effectively became the nationwide face of anti-gay bigotry. Washington operatives texted Pence’s aides asking if his career was over.

Later that year and into 2016, as Trump tore apart every other Republican White House hopeful, Pence kept his head low, focused on winning re-election as governor while encouraging chatter that he would be the perfect running mate for whoever won the GOP nomination. 

Trump agreed, introducing Pence as his running mate on July 15, 2016. 

All indications are that Pence is treating the end of his vice presidency just like his first two political setbacks: steadily and methodically, with his aim pointing toward the top.

Republicans who spoke with Insider for this story remain split on whether Pence can win the nomination, or whether his career is already over and he just doesn’t know it.

The comparison with Quayle is tempting, said Bill Kristol, Quayle’s chief of staff from 1989 to 1993, but Pence is in a better position than Quayle was in.

Quayle’s “biggest mistake was waiting as long as he did. Waiting eight years was just too long and then W was there. There was just no lane for Quayle,” Kristol said. “But it still remains a fact that being a vice president is still a pretty good predictor of winning the presidency.” 

However, one veteran Indiana Republican said Pence and his team don’t realize he’s already lost. 

“When you’ve pissed off the president, he’s thrown you under the bus and continues to run you over. Why would you think those people (Trump supporters), who like him at 47 percent or whatever, what makes you think they’re going to change their mind?” the longtime Indiana Republican said of Pence’s chances. “What is Pence going to say, how does Pence go out and trumpet the Trump administration? I just dont think they’ve gotten the memo yet.” 

But a few minutes later in the interview, the same Indiana Republican added that even if it looks like his career is already over, Pence still has to take the chance.

“You can’t take the risk of sitting it out, because (the opportunity) may never come back again,” the Indiana Republican said. “They might catch lightning in a bottle or they may go make a lot of money.” 

Kellyanne Conway is working with Mike Pence in 2021.REUTERS/Mike Theiler

Health and safety scares — and a new team

In a very literal sense, Pence has survived two scary ordeals this year.

Having escaped a violent mob on January 6, Pence had a pacemaker implanted last week, to treat a “slow heart rate”, according to his office. Pence is just 61 years old, about the same age as his father when he died of a heart attack in the middle of Pence’s very first race for Congress in 1988. 

On a more positive note, Pence also welcomed the birth of his first grandchild last month. 

All the while, Pence has tuned up his political team, keeping a tight operation led by longtime adviser Marc Short and lead fundraiser Marty Obst. Veteran pollster and advisor Kellyanne Conway is notably working for Pence, too. 

He also added presidential campaign veteran Chip Saltsman to his team, a big move for a politician who rarely shakes up his team.

“He needs to stay out there,” said one former advisor to the Trump-Pence ticket in 2016. The advisor said the same of Trump, politicians with their eyes set on the White House can’t fall out of the public eye for a minute, no matter who they are.

One Trump advisor recounted seeing internal Republican campaign polling this month which tested the favorability ratings of Trump and Pence among Republicans. 

The survey found Pence’s favorability almost tied with Trump’s at upward of 90 percent. But the number of diehard supporters (who deemed Trump or Pence “strongly favorable”) was almost double for Trump what it was for Pence.

“That has to tell you that Mike has a lot of work to do with the base,” the Trump advisor said.

Then-President Donald Trump, left, and Vice President Mike Pence, right, on November 2, 2020.Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty

The best of frenemies

And that is why Pence is surviving by hanging on to Trump, which has been a strange dance, indeed.

Trump and Pence have spoken semi-regularly since January 6. Trump rarely gets angry at Pence anymore for not helping him overturn the election results, said one Trump advisor.

But Trump has never apologized to Pence, and it’s unclear if Pence himself is still angry at Trump at placing him — and his wife and daughter — in danger on January 6.

And nobody from Pence’s team or Trump’s team expects the two men will join forces again, should Trump run in 2024.

When Pence launched his group, Trump said it was great. But in a semi-private Republican donor meeting a few days later, Trump continued to accuse Pence of failing him by not helping him overturn the election. 

In that version of the story, Pence still plays the Judas to Trump, turning on him at the last minute. But Pence’s comeback-filled career indicates he may yet live on politically, even to win the 2024 nomination.

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