Mike Pence filed paperwork on Monday to run for president, setting up an unprecedented contest between a former vice president and a former president of his own party for the nomination. His largest task will be attempting to win back Republicans who largely cast him aside following Donald Trump’s presidency.
Pence’s entry into the race comes after a sometimes tumultuous two years in the political wilderness following his actions on Jan. 6 to certify the 2020 election, resisting intense pressure from Trump. He has occasionally faced boos from the MAGA base at GOP confabs in places such as a Faith & Freedom Coalition conference in Florida in 2021 and even on his home turf at a National Rifle Association meeting in Indianapolis this year.
The former six-term congressman and one-term Indiana governor sees an opportunity in Iowa. There, his advisers are betting he can lavish attention and rebuild the coalition of evangelical voters that delivered caucus victories to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in 2016, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in 2012 and former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas in 2008. Pence hired the architect of Huckabee’s campaign, Chip Saltsman, to help him do just that.
“Iowa feels more like Indiana more than any other state in the nation,” Pence told voters in Des Moines late last month.
But there are doubts that he’ll ever be able to repair the breach he incurred among Trump’s most loyal supporters by refusing to overturn the 2020 election results on Jan. 6, 2021. Pence’s inner circle was divided about whether he should mount a presidential bid, with some encouraging him last year to run instead for Indiana’s open Senate seat in 2024. In public surveys, he has been polling in single digits — a distant third behind Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“At any other point in our politics, he would be built to succeed in the Iowa caucuses because of his approach to politics,” said Dave Kochel, the veteran Iowa Republican strategist. “But post-Trump, a lot of that’s different because he’s going to be viewed or judged through the lens of Trump.”
Pence, who flirted with possible presidential runs in both 2012 and 2016, has spent the last year in shadow campaign mode. He set up Advancing American Freedom, raising $7.7 million in 2021, and his 501(c)(3) arm has $35 million to spend. He’s devoted much of that time hawking his political memoir So Help Me God, at events around the country, where the devout Hoosier brandishes his Midwestern Christianity as a way to connect with potential supporters. His second book — this one focusing on his faith journey — is expected to come out later this year.
Pence, who wrote in his memoir about a six-year battle to conceive with his wife Karen, has been the most clarion voice in the GOP field on the matter of abortion, calling for a total national ban. Advancing American Freedom filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court arguing in support of Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban last summer, in the case that ultimately overturned Roe v. Wade.
Focusing his jabs on Trump and DeSantis, Pence has largely punched up in recent months, though he rarely mentions Trump by name. At the Gridiron Club Dinner earlier this year, Pence said that Trump was “wrong” on Jan. 6 and that “history will hold Donald Trump accountable.”
Pence’s run is also unique in that he occupies the unprecedented perch of having testified against Trump in front of a grand jury for nearly seven hours earlier this year.
The policy contrasts he’s made with his competitors largely focus on matters of foreign policy and traditional economic conservatism. On the former, he criticized DeSantis’ claim that Russia’s conflict with Ukraine was a “territorial dispute,” telling a group of Iowa Republicans recently that “it is a Russian invasion.” On DeSantis’ war with Disney, Pence said it was “beyond the scope of what I as a conservative, limited-government Republican would be prepared to do.”
Pence’s bid has often come across as a last-ditch mission to rescue the kind of conservatism that defined much of his congressional and gubernatorial career, as he has often urged his audiences to resist the “lure of populism unmoored to timeless conservative values.”
As his campaign unfolds, Pence is expected to lean not only on his vice presidential term, where he cut the figure of a Trump supplicant who refused to break with his boss in public, but also his time in Congress and as governor. “I’m well known, but I’m not known well,” he told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this year.
Pence is likely to campaign as a sunny, Reaganesque throwback — “I’m a conservative, but I’m not in a bad mood about it,” he often says, identifying himself as a “Christian, conservative and Republican — in that order.”
“I think people in the country want to get back to what the Trump-Pence administration was advancing,” he told POLITICO in an interview last year. “While I sense that there is a hunger for a different style of leadership in the country every bit as principled, but maybe leadership that finds a way to find common ground” between Republicans and Democrats.
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