When former Vice President Mike Pence agreed to appear at a fundraiser for Derek Schmidt on Oct. 21, the Kansas Republican’s campaign was hoping for a positive response. But in the first 24 hours after invitations went out last week, the campaign raised nearly $100,000 — a figure that surprised Schmidt’s operation.
“My hair fell to the floor,” said an adviser to Schmidt, who is running against Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. “Now we have passed well. That’s pretty unheard of for the governor of Kansas.”
Kansas isn’t Pence’s only campaign stop in the final weeks before Election Day. He plans to challenge Republican candidates across the country, including Washington state, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia. CNN has also learned that Pence will join Gov. Brian Kemp on a bus tour of the crucial swing state of Georgia.
Throughout the cycle, Pence has proven to be an impressive petition stand-in and fundraiser for GOP candidates. To top members of his political team, Pence’s willingness to help candidates up and down the vote reflects his “servant attitude.” But as he looks ahead to his potential run for the White House in 2024, the latest Republican vice president is also honing his political brand.
Donors, lobbyists and other Republicans have taken notice.
“I think Pence has had a very impressive run over the last six months,” said Scott Reed, a veteran Republican strategist. “He has moved around the country in many of the constituencies he has targeted, collected money, and given a positive political message. And I think he has received a lot of political chits”.
While former President Donald Trump remains a dominant figure within the GOP and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has considerable attention and fundraising prowess, Republicans say Pence has been a reliable party presence on the campaign trail. And Pence wants to press that advantage after his term, releasing his memoir on Nov. 15, a week after Election Day, and embarking on a busy book tour. And his political team continues to grow, with about two dozen staffers occupying offices in Washington.
“He’s putting together the building blocks to see if he has what it takes to run after November,” Reed added.
Pence announced his intentions Wednesday at an event at Georgetown University when asked if he would endorse Trump as the Republican nominee in 2024.
“Well, there might be someone else I’d prefer more,” he said with a smile.
But Pence continues to insist that his priority is to elect more Republican majorities in Congress and more Republican governors.
To that end, the bus tour with Kemp will cap what has been a busy midterm cycle for the Indiana Republican, which has included visits to 32 states, primarily to support gubernatorial and US House candidates, but also some Senate hopefuls. According to a person close to Pence, he has raised more than $10 million for GOP candidates this cycle, including six-figure payouts for Kemp of Georgia and Lee Zeldin of New York. At a recent fundraiser to support California House candidate Scott Baugh, Pence helped raise half a million dollars in a top-target race.
And at a time when Republicans are divided on everything from policy emphasis to Trump’s role in the party’s future, Pence supports candidates from all sides of the spectrum. He has campaigned for everyone from MAGA-aligned Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters to California Rep. David Valadao, who voted to impeach Trump.
Republican campaigns that have brought him on board also told CNN that Pence is an aspiring and relatively drama-free replacement, especially compared to other big names in the party. They say Pence is willing to do whatever a candidate needs — rallies, small events, fundraising receptions — without asking much of the campaigns, which, in contested House races, are cash-strapped and have relatively inexperienced staffs.
“He’s been very low maintenance,” said consultant Schmidt. “When [Virginia Gov. Glenn] Youngkin and DeSantis came to town, it was their show. This is a little more deferential.’
That approach has helped Pence win and keep friendships across the party spectrum and cultivate a reputation as a party builder in the Biden administration. More than one Republican who spoke to CNN referred to Pence as a “bridge” not just across the party’s wings, but between the party’s Reaganite past and its more populist present.
“Unless you’re a supporter of President Trump who has bought into conspiracy theories about the election, I think Pence is a bridge to different elements of our party,” said one GOP operative working on House races this cycle.
The question is whether Republican primary voters are looking for older statesmen to build consensus on their 2024 presidential nominee, or whether the confrontational style of the current major candidates will prevail.
Polls so far suggest Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have the lead. A Siena College poll this month found Trump with 47 percent support among GOP primary voters, while DeSantis had 28 percent. Pence came in a distant third at 9%.
Underneath those numbers is the lingering and potentially permanent rift between Pence and his former running mate after January 6, 2021. Pence’s refusal to delay the electoral vote count has been a centerpiece of his political career, and the ambitious Republican has sought it out. Carefully managing his approach to the legal and political ramifications of his anti-Trump stance.
In his first months out of office, Pence refused to talk about Jan. 6 or his role in challenging Trump. In public statements, he would say that he did not “see” the achievements of the “Trump-Pence administration” – a formulation he continues to use – and Trump’s 2020 election.
That began to change last year, as Trump continued to make his own statements chastising Pence’s inaction. In June 2021, Pence called Trump’s plan to cancel the election “un-American”. And in April of this year, in a speech before a conservative legal organization in Florida, Pence declared that Trump was “wrong” to try to delay the count.
“Under the Constitution, I had no right to change the outcome of our election, and (Vice President) Kamala Harris will not have the right to overturn the election when we defeat her in 2024,” Pence said.
Those comments won Pence private accolades from Republican donors and elected officials, a sign that there is a hunger among the party’s leadership classes to go beyond Trump’s vision.
Pence’s resistance to Trump on this issue has also registered in his political activism, especially in a series of key primary battles earlier this year. He supported Kemp and campaigned in Georgia, for example, against Trump-backed former U.S. Sen. David Perdue. The former president opposed Kemp, who, like Pence, resisted Trump’s demands to cancel the 2020 presidential election. Pence also met with Kemp before the governor defeated Perdue in the May 24 primary.
But in other cases, Pence’s preferred candidate fell short. In Arizona, in particular, Pence supported Karrin Taylor Robson in the gubernatorial primary against Trump’s preference, Kari Lake. Lake, who based much of his campaign on false claims that the 2020 election in Arizona was stolen, won the primary against Taylor Robson, who was better funded and the GOP establishment favorite.
Many Republicans are skeptical that Pence’s popularity with the party’s leadership class is driving much interest among GOP voters.
“He takes out a camera at an event, he looks for his people to raise money. You give donors something for their investment. He’s the vice president,” said one GOP operative, when asked what Pence brings as a replacement. “I don’t think it’s much help in sending messages or carrying the base.”
Beyond trying to elect Republicans this fall, Pence has also sought to shape the GOP’s policy and ideological direction. His main vehicle has been Advancing American Freedom, a 501c(4) group that has developed a “Freedom Agenda” that advisers say they hope will lead to a Republican majority in the House and possibly the Senate.
The Freedom Agenda’s list of policy proposals, released by the group in March of this year and discussed by Pence earlier this week at a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation, is a synthesis of popular Reagan-era ideas of limited government, social conservatism and free enterprise with some of the more populist ideas that have energized GOP voters under Trump. such as ending the border wall and adopting a more aggressive trade policy to counter China.
But buried in Pence’s proto-presidential platform are some correctives to what traditional conservatives might consider the excesses or aberrations of MAGA populism. Chief among them is in foreign policy, where Pence has pushed back against opposition within some conservative spaces to American funding of Ukraine’s military in its war with Russia.
As House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested to Punchbowl News this week that a Republican majority could face a “blank check” to fund Ukraine, Pence urged the United States to stay on course.
“I believe that as we stand here today, as an arsenal of democracy, we must continue to provide Ukraine with the resources to defend itself,” Pence said in an Oct. 19 speech at Heritage.
As Pence added, “there can be no place in the conservative movement for Putin’s apology. There is only room in this movement for champions of freedom.”
Some in the traditional conservative wing of the party say there’s still a desire for that more familiar approach in the GOP, and that Pence is well-positioned to take on the mantle of a full-spectrum conservative.
“There are some conservatives and Republicans who think Ronald Reagan is in the past,” said Art Pope, a donor to Pence’s Advancing American Freedom group. “Vice President Pence wants to bridge that past, and he’s uniquely positioned to be the messenger.”