Sixteen months after the US Capitol was sacked by a pro-Trump mob chanting “hang Mike Pence,” the target of its fury is making nice with the Republican right—and hinting at a bid to rival his old boss for the 2024 presidential nomination.
The former vice president has begun setting aside years of unswervingly loyalty to Donald Trump and is showing a newly defiant, independent side as he looks increasingly likely to mount a challenge for the White House.
It has been a torrid sabbatical for the 62-year-old evangelical Christian, who became a pariah in Trumpworld after rejecting the Republican leader’s demands that he overturn the 2020 election in his role as president of the Senate.
Berated constantly by Trump after Joe Biden’s victory—and even heckled with chants of “traitor!” at a conservative conference in Florida—Pence continued to praise his assailant in public.
But more recently he has begun to push back, saying Trump was “wrong” to insist vice presidents could overturn elections and emphasizing his differences with Trump on issues ranging from the handling of Russian leader Vladimir Putin to abortion rights.
On Monday, Pence made his most emphatic break yet with the ex-president when he headlined a rally for Trump foe Brian Kemp on the eve of the Georgia governor’s landslide victory over a Trump-backed primary challenger.
“In a little more than a year—think about it—the Biden-Harris administration has unleashed a tidal wave of left-wing policies,” Pence told the crowd, sounding distinctly like a man looking toward the next election.
“It has eroded our standing in the world and stifled the American economy. You know, frankly, Democrats have moved so fast, sometimes I don’t think the left hand knows what the far-left hand is doing.”
Pence’s swing from deference to defiance is uncharacteristically bold given Trump’s record of swatting away fellow Republicans with memorable sobriquets that often stick.
Just ask his 2016 primary opponents “Lyin'” Ted Cruz, “Low Energy” Jeb Bush or “Liddle Marco” Rubio. Trump has refrained from nicknaming his erstwhile deputy — but expect that to change.
Ahead of the Kemp rally, Trump unleashed his spokesman Taylor Budowich to tell The New York Times that Pence was “desperate to chase his lost relevance” and had been heading for obscurity “before he was plucked up and his political career was salvaged” in 2016.
Whether Pence can successfully distance himself from Trump while peeling off the ex-president’s loyal base remains to be seen.
But the runes were not encouraging in Georgia, where followers of the former commander-in-chief were picketing the Kemp rally to promote Trump’s fictions of a stolen 2020 election and show their distaste for Pence’s apostasy.
“He didn’t stand up for Trump when the time came,” said Helen Allen, 50, from the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, dismissing the prospect of a President Pence.
“Good luck with that,” scoffed another local Trumpist, 66-year-old Jan Sheffield. “I just hope he can stay out of jail… he’s a traitor because he should have stopped the elections.”
‘Christian, conservative, Republican’
Pence hasn’t actually thrown his hat in the ring yet and wouldn’t likely do so for months, even if he decided to take the plunge.
But more than once he has declined to rule out running in 2024, even if Trump is in the race, telling reporters he and wife Karen are praying on the issue and “will go where we’re called.”
And he has spent much of the last year touring early-nominating states such as Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire to reinforce his political vision as a “Christian, conservative, Republican — in that order.”
Trump, of course, has not yet committed to running again either. And even if he declined a third tilt at the presidency, this would not clear Pence’s path to the Oval Office.
A May 9 YouGov poll on potential Republican nominees for 2024 had Trump way out in front with 55 percent, as the surveys usually do.
But Florida Governor Ron De Santis came in second with 26 percent, while Pence trailed a distant third with seven percent.
One possibility the world can rule out for sure is another Trump-Pence ticket in 2024, as the former president has already drawn a line under the partnership.
“I don’t think the people would accept it,” Trump told the Washington Examiner in March.
“Mike and I had a great relationship except for the very important factor that took place at the end. We had a very good relationship,” Trump added.
“I haven’t spoken to him in a long time.”