Report: Pence is thinking of primarying Trump

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Axios is a respected outlet but there’s no way this is happening. Fun to imagine, though!

Trump is keeping close tabs on his would-be rivals for the nomination — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former V.P. Mike Pence and former SecState Mike Pompeo in particular…

What we’re hearing: Trump’s most likely opponent is Pence, who — I’m told — has no plans to defer to his former boss…

Nikki Haley — the former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor, who’s often talked of as a potential 2024 candidate — has explicitly said she wouldn’t challenge Trump.

Pence has notably not made any such declaration.

And you know who’s noticed? Donald J. Trump.

A Pence run against Trump would have all the same problems as a Mike Pompeo run against Trump, plus an enormous additional problem. Granted, Pence is polling better than Pompeo is in hypothetical 2024 primaries, typically as well as or better than Ron DeSantis. (Both trail Trump by massive margins.) But that’s a function of name recognition. Every Republican voter has heard of Mike Pence after four years as VP, not every Republican voter has heard of DeSantis or Pompeo.

The insuperable obstacle for Pence that Pompeo doesn’t have to deal with is his role on January 6. He did the right thing and the only lawful thing he could have done in accepting Congress’s certification of the election but he’ll never be forgiven for it by Trumpists who can’t cope with the idea that Trump lost fair and square to Biden. As I’ve said before, Mike Pence won’t be the nominee of the “hang Mike Pence” party.

So why is Trump keeping an eye on him? And why has Pence thus far declined to rule out running if Trump does? On the first question, I think it’s mostly a matter of Trump noticing that Pence has kept his inner circle of advisors intact since leaving office. “Longtime advisers Marc Short and Marty Obst are still running his incredibly tight-knit political operation,” Vanity Fair reports, which means it’d be easy for Pence to pull a campaign together quickly. As for the second question, Vanity Fair has the answer to that too: Money. So long as Pence hasn’t ruled out running for president, Americans have some reason to continue paying attention to him. Especially well-heeled Americans willing to pay him fat fees to hear him speak, just in case Trump doesn’t run and Pence is suddenly a political player in 2024.

Beyond the cackles of the Twitterverse about the cognitive dissonance behind Pence’s comments, Pence advisers and allies see a clear strategy: He’s running for president and making a buck for once in his life, until he can’t anymore. “You should not underestimate Pence—he has broad support among the big donors and in Congress, beyond just evangelicals,” said one longtime friend. “He’s incredibly ambitious. He’s a person who sees himself as the president. In the meantime, he’s making real money for the first time in his life. Running for president is also a great way of making six-figure speeches.”…

“This is the first time they’ve had two pennies to rub together,” said one longtime Indiana Republican. The Pences now live among the gated abodes of Hamilton County, Indiana, one of the wealthiest enclaves in the state, near shopping mall tycoons the Simon sisters, who are Democratic mega-donors, and other national power players. Now that they’re earning real money, some Republicans say they should give up the running-for-president bit and embrace the passive cash flow available to former top-ranking officeholders.

Pence has had money troubles in the past but now has a lucrative book deal with Simon & Schuster and a $100,000 speaking fee, reportedly. He has every financial incentive to keep the public wondering if he’s running in the next cycle, whether Trump is running or not.

But no, of course he won’t run if Trump does. What would be the point? As a longtime member of Trump’s administration, he’d have difficulty disclaiming Trump’s policies and distinguishing his own. The GOP isn’t a party that cares much about policy anymore anyway so MAGA will favor whatever policy Trump wants. Pence could try to distinguish himself on character grounds but most Republicans seem comfortable enough with Trump’s character. If he’s thinking that his strong evangelical bona fides will rally religious Republicans to him and against Trump, I’d invite him to revisit this famous poll from October 2016 and reconsider:

“By a nearly 2-to-1 margin, white evangelicals are more likely than other Americans to say the terms ‘morally upstanding’ and ‘honest’ describe Trump at least ‘fairly well,'” NPR reported last March, citing a Pew poll. Trump needed Pence in 2016 to lend him some credibility with Christian conservatives. Since then, those same Christians have reshaped their beliefs to accommodate him such that character no longer matters very much and, to the extent that it does, Trump’s character is within the bounds of acceptability.

Trump is almost certainly more popular with white evangelicals at this point than Pence is. Think on that.

Pence wouldn’t even be an appealing protest vote for the GOP’s anti-Trump minority the way, say, Liz Cheney would. Never Trumpers would prefer him to Trump, obviously, if only because of the courage he showed on January 6. But apart from that single day, he was one of 45’s most loyal sycophants. If you’re hoping to see the Republican Party break with Trumpism, Trump’s VP isn’t the obvious choice to lead the charge.

There would be one great anti-Trump virtue to a Pence primary challenge that even Cheney couldn’t match, though. More from Vanity Fair:

Pence, said one of his friends, is still angry that Trump placed his and his family members’ lives in jeopardy. Which may explain why the two seem to be skirting each other. Republican power brokers have been hosting cattle calls of 2024 hopefuls throughout the year across the country, but Pence and Trump have never appeared side by side.

If Pence challenged Trump, Trump’s core line of attack on him would be his “disloyalty” on January 6. That would put Trump’s months-long campaign to overturn the election and the insurrection that followed it front and center throughout the GOP primaries. And that would remind non-MAGA voters in a powerful way of why handing Trump a second shot at power would be insanely reckless. Essentially, Pence’s campaign would bait Trump into reminding voters every day that he’s unfit for office.

But Pence would still the lose primary badly. And if he runs, he’s not going to run a la Cheney just to put up some symbolic resistance to another Trump coronation. He’d run to win. That’s why he was on Hannity’s show a few weeks ago complaining absurdly that the media focus on the Capitol riot “demeans” all Trump voters. That’s not the sort of thing you say if you’re planning a kamikaze campaign. It’s the sort of thing you say if you want to ingratiate yourself to Republicans just in case you-know-who doesn’t run in 2024.

I’ll leave you with this, a small bit of further evidence that Pence is keeping his options open. In-n-Out was in the news lately because one of its franchises in San Francisco refused to enforce the city’s vaccine passport rules. Lo and behold, here’s Mike Pence showing up there for lunch to wink at righty anti-vaxxers.