Pence’s early exit offers a reminder of Trump’s grip on the GOP

Mike Pence has a resume most White House hopefuls would dream of. A congressman. A governor of a big Midwestern state. A one-time vice president.

In normal times, someone with such credentials would be well-positioned to win their party’s presidential nomination. But these are not normal times and Pence’s decision to end his campaign more than two months before the first contest in the Republican primary underscores the extent to which the party has been subsumed by former President Donald Trump and his lies about the 2020 election that he lost to Democrat Joe Biden.

Pence made his surprise announcement Saturday in Las Vegas, where he and other GOP presidential hopefuls spoke at a summit sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition. But in many ways, Pence’s campaign ended years before it officially began, in the days leading up to Jan. 6, 2021. That was when Trump, desperate to hang onto power, became convinced that Pence, as president of the Senate, could somehow reject the election results — a power the then-vice president did not possess.

After spending four years as Trump’s loyal defender, Pence was suddenly cast as a traitor, targeted by rioters who stormed the Capitol, some chanting “Hang Mike Pence!”Angry Trump supporters crossed his name off their “Trump-Pence” yard signs or shoved them deep into the ground to bury his name in the dirt. While the issue became less salient as the campaign went on, Pence was heckled and booed at times.

“From the very beginning, I think his supporters knew that the challenge was going to be that some of the hardcore Trump supporters were never going to forgive him for upholding the Constitution on Jan 6,” said Art Pope, a GOP donor from North Carolina who supported Pence’s campaign. “On the other hand, there were a group of Americans who were never going to forgive him for being in the Trump administration to begin with.”

“He just could not overcome that,” Pope said.

Pence tried to thread what often seemed like an impossibly fine needle. He ran on the record of what he fondly referred to as the Trump-Pence administration while also criticizing his former boss. He accused Trump of abandoning conservative principles on issues such as abortion and of putting himself above the Constitution to stay in power. During his campaign launch event, Pence addressed Jan. 6 head-on, defending his actions and saying Trump disqualified himself during that period.

“Anyone that puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States, and anyone who asks someone else to put them over the Constitution should never be president of the United States again,” Pence said.

The Wi-Fi password for the media at the event — “KeptHisOath!” — underscored his message, as did the first ad run by a supportive super political action committee, which featured footage from the insurrection, contrasting both men’s actions that day.

Though it was never part of his stump speech, Pence’s approach to Jan. 6 reflected his advisers’ belief that, if he addressed the Capitol attack directly and spent time explaining his position, voters would come to respect his adherence to the Constitution and see it as a point of strength.

“People respect him for upholding his oath under enormous pressure,” Marc Short, a longtime senior adviser, said over the summer.

That never translated into support from conservative primary voters, who in polls and focus groups made clear they preferred other options. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research from August found 57% of Republicans still believe Biden was illegitimately elected president, while a plurality believed Trump did nothing wrong in the run-up to Jan. 6.

Even at Pence’s opening campaign event, many in attendance said they liked and respected him, but had yet to make a decision.

“Trump blew up Mike Pence on January 6th. Trump demonized Pence on that day, and he never recovered. But it’s more than that,” said longtime pollster and focus group moderator Frank Luntz. “The GOP of 2023 is not the same party that nominated Pence in 2016. The same people who gave him standing ovations in 2016 turned their back on him now.”

Devin O’Malley, Pence’s longtime spokesman, said his campaign “always knew there was going to be a large portion of the electorate that was not going to be with him on Jan. 6, but the only way he could tarnish his career and his legacy and reputation was to be untrue to himself,” he said. “Ultimately there was one person who could change how he’ll be perceived through history and that was Mike Pence. And he stayed true to himself and he comes out with his legacy intact.”

Supporters and those close to Pence, some of whom were granted anonymity to describe the final weeks of his campaign, said they realized it was effectively over around the time of the second debate in September.

Several expected Pence would see a wave of momentum after the first debate, when he delivered an uncharacteristically pointed performance, tangling, in particular, with tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. But Pence saw no appreciable bump in the polls or fundraising. By the second debate, he was relegated to the far side of the stage.

Then came a campaign finance report that showed just how dire the situation had become. Pence had already racked up more than $600,000 in debt by the end of September and was burning through nearly as much cash as he was raising, despite an aggressive fundraising schedule.

While Pence staked his campaign on Iowa — where his super PAC had knocked on nearly 600,000 doors — making it to the January caucuses would have required him to go into the kind of debt that might have taken Pence, who is not independently wealthy, years to pay off.

Aides insisted he would qualify for the third debate if he tried, but his calendar became suspiciously empty. This past week, Pence began dialing top supporters to let them know that he decided to end the campaign.

“He never got much traction,” said Larry Post, a retired money manager from Beverly Hills, California, who was among the Republican donors gathered in Las Vegas.

Nikki Haley accuses Trump of pursuing ‘chaos, vendettas and drama’

Nikki Haley has criticized Donald Trump for praising foreign strongmen and warned that his style of “chaos, vendettas and drama” would be dangerous, making her sharpest critiques of the former president as the two GOP presidential candidates and their rivals addressed an influential group of Jewish Republicans.

“Eight years ago, it was good to have a leader who broke things,” Haley said of Trump. “But right now, we need to have a leader who also knows how to put things back together.”

Haley, a former United Nations ambassador, leaned into her foreign policy experience as she argued for longstanding Republican ideas on foreign policy at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual meeting in Las Vegas. Another GOP foreign policy traditionalist and periodic Trump critic, former Vice President Mike Pence, used his appearance to end his candidacy, the latest sign of the former president’s dominance in the primary.

Image courtesy of Grist

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