Hey, who's that guy at the Ukrainian border?

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Last summer I would have set the odds that we’d see a competitive Republican primary in 2024 at verrrry slim. No one would bother to challenge Trump. It’s a fool’s errand, with no chance of winning and a significant chance of wrecking one’s support among MAGA fans in future electoral cycles.

Nine months later, I’d place the odds of a competitive primary north of 50 percent. It remains unlikely that anyone can beat Trump but certain developments this year might cause us to revisit that assessment.

Trump vs. DeSantis would be the interesting match-up, one which the calendar might force on us. If DeSantis skips 2024, he’ll be out of office by the time of the 2028 cycle and viewed as old news. But even if DeSantis passes on the race, all indications lately are that Mike Pence is moving ahead and plans to challenge his former boss for the nomination.

Really.

New evidence this morning:

Pence will insist there were no political implications to his trip, that it was a simple humanitarian gesture as part of a Christian relief effort. But that’s nonsense. In addition to recently calling Trump “un-American” for believing that he should have blocked Biden’s victory in 2021, remember that Pence declared last week, “There is no room in this party for apologists for Putin.” That was another obvious jab at you-know-who.

His strategic logic is plain as day: He’s been grasping to find an issue or issues on which he not only differs from Trump but on which the Republican base strongly favors Pence’s position. And suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, he’s got one. Overwhelmingly, Republican voters prefer a hawkish posture towards Putin and Russia following the invasion of Ukraine to a Trumpier dovish one. Pence is a traditional hawk, having made his name politically in the pre-Trump GOP, and now he’s sensing a turn back towards that tradition among the post-Trump GOP.

So he’s trying to capitalize:

Could Republicans’ anti-Russian pivot turn some voters against Trump, giving Pence a fighting chance in 2024? A “Matteo Salvini effect,” we might call it?

Why, no.

First, voters don’t care much about foreign policy as a rule, especially primary voters. Unless this spirals into a world war, God forbid, it won’t be on Republicans’ radar in 2024.

Second, Pence has been fatally wounded by his “betrayal” on January 6. In primary polls that exclude Trump, he trails DeSantis badly. He’s never going to lead the “Hang Mike Pence” party. His realistic best-case scenario in 2024 is token opposition to Trump in which he proves that something like 20-25 percent of the party is sick of the former guy and willing to cast a protest vote on Pence’s behalf in a primary. But what does Pence gain from that? If you want a token anti-Trumper to make Trump’s life more difficult, run Liz Cheney instead. Unlike Pence, she’ll take the gloves off.

Third, Trump is wily and opportunistic by nature and his approach to war is no different. He can read the polls as well as Pence can so he’s begun to pivot to a pro-Ukraine stance, describing Russia’s attack as a “holocaust” and sending prayers to the Ukrainian people. (As is customary, he stays away from criticizing Putin personally.) If the war goes sideways and Republican support for Ukraine begins to fade for whatever reason, rest assured that he’ll pivot appropriately then too. He did it with the Iraq war, after all. The point is, Pence won’t be able to draw as strong a contrast with Trump on Russia and NATO as he hopes. In fact, if circumstances require it, by 2024 Trump will have convinced most of his fans that no one ever hated Putin as much as he has.

Finally, Trump’s preoccupation with strength in all things is an enormous asset to his political brand, one that paradoxically makes it difficult to out-hawk him no matter how many times he slobbers over Putin publicly. He’s reckless, belligerent to his critics, and consumed with asserting dominance over his enemies, the very model of a political “tough guy.” He could criticize NATO until he’s blue in the face and we’d still see polling results like this when people are asked whether Putin would have invaded Ukraine with Trump in the White House. Asked to compare the blustering, boastful alpha male Trump to the placid, soft-spoken Pence, the average American voter will say Trump is tougher every time regardless of their actual positions or Pence’s display of personal courage on January 6.

So, no, Pence 2024 isn’t going anywhere. But his campaign could still be consequential.

Specifically, if Trump, Pence, and DeSantis run in 2024, Pence could end up as a spoiler. My guess is he’d pull more votes from DeSantis than he would from Trump, tapping the well of Republican voters who want a shift away from Trumpy populism. Without Pence in the race, those voters might opt for DeSantis, a populist but one less Trumpy than Trump himself. With Pence in the race, those people might cast protest votes for the former VP, depriving DeSantis of support that might otherwise put him over the top. In fact, by signaling early that he intends to run in 2024, Pence might make DeSantis think twice about jumping in himself. Let’s hope he reconsiders.

I’ll leave you with this. Here’s what Trump’s doing while Pence is busy with relief for Ukraine.