By Tal Axelrod
Former Vice President Mike Pence is facing strong resistance from members of his party’s pro-Trump base over his role in certifying the Electoral College results in the 2020 election.
Pence has stepped up his public appearances recently and is set to appear at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa next month alongside other high-profile Republicans. But his political future is complicated by his refusal in January to bow to pressure from then-President Trump to help deliver him a victory in the race against Joe Biden.
While garnering praise from Democrats and Republicans, that decision has led to howls from members of the party’s right flank — a swath of voters Pence will need should he launch a presidential campaign in three years. “He is, unfortunately, for having done the right thing by following the constitutional duties of his office, committed an unforgivable sin to Trump, and therefore to his most loyal supporters,” said Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and former communications director for the Republican National Committee.
Pence’s struggles with the Trump wing of the GOP were put into stark relief earlier this month when attendees at the Faith and Freedom Coalition summit booed and heckled him as a “traitor.”
While the heckles did not come from a majority of the attendees, the incident underscored the extent to which Trump’s unfounded claims that the election was “stolen” from him have seeped into the mindset of his most diehard supporters.
Polls have shown that concerns over the integrity of the November race have skyrocketed among the GOP. Sixty-one percent of Republican respondents in a Reuters-Ipsos poll from last month say they either strongly or somewhat believe that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.”
Pence responded last week to the criticism directed his way with some of his bluntest remarks on his decision, doubling down on his
insistence that he did the right thing.
“There is almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president,” Pence said. “And I will always be proud that we did our part on that tragic day to reconvene the Congress and fulfilled our duty under the Constitution.”
Despite the defense, Republicans almost unanimously concede that there will be some Republican voters who will permanently turn their backs on the former vice president over the certification on Jan. 6, which took place after Trump supporters ransacked the Capitol. Any drop-off in support among the party base could hurt the former vice president in what is anticipated to be a crowded 2024 primary field.
One aide to the former president went so far as to tell The Hill that Pence is done in Republican politics.
Surveys don’t paint as dire a picture for Pence, with some early GOP polls still showing him with a viable path to the party’s presidential nomination should he run. But he would also be running in a congested primary field with many contenders vying to appeal to Trump’s base.
“You have other people who are looking to run too … none of whom crossed Trump on the most fundamental loyalty test to Donald Trump, which was ultimately Jan. 6,” Heye said. “Pence having done that means that it’s an easy thing for the real Trump acolytes to go after. And those just happen to be the most demonstrative and loudest part of the party, quite often.”
Trump himself could also work to hurt Pence’s future political ambitions even if Trump doesn’t run for office again himself.
GOP donor Dan Eberhart told The Hill that Trump is the “biggest obstacle in Pence’s path to the presidency in 2024.”
“[Pence] has earned it,” he added, referring to Pence getting the Republican nomination, “but Trump is likely going to pour cold water
on his plans.”
Trump has already come out swinging against his former vice president since Jan. 6, saying that day that Pence “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done” and hinting in April that he’d consider Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) as a potential running mate in 2024.
Republicans say those remarks and the lingering concerns among a broad swath of Republicans leave a deep hole for Pence to dig himself out of with Trump’s backers.
“I don’t know that you can repair that,” Heye said. “Especially because whatever act of fealty he would have to do … to get back
into Trump’s good graces, he would look so publicly groveling and weak, that that would hurt him as well.”
Yet despite the headwinds, some Republicans insist it’s too early to declare Pence’s political future dead.
Former Trump White House officials and current Trump aides universally praise Pence for his loyalty, and many privately were upset by how he was treated in his final days in office after Jan. 6.
A source close to Pence argued the former vice president may be well-positioned as a 2024 contender if the party is likely looking for someone “who can straddle the fence between the party establishment and the Trump wing of the party,” assuming Trump doesn’t run himself.
The former vice president boasts an impressive résumé as a former congressman, Indiana governor and vice president and spent decades building up relationships with conservatives — including some Trump rubbed the wrong way.
“There’s a path for him to being a credible candidate for president in 2024,” said GOP strategist Bob Heckman. “I don’t think he can make it a nonissue, but every candidate has got a couple issues they have to deal with that cross-pressure the base or cross-pressure some part of the party. That doesn’t mean they’re not credible candidates.”
“He has a story to tell Trump supporters, and that is he carried the water for Donald Trump for four years. He was the most eloquent
spokesman out there for the things that the Trump administration was doing,” he added. “He played a substantial role in those things and that’s the story he needs to tell.”
There’s also plenty of time for Pence to make up ground with Trump’s supporters. A former Trump campaign official pointed to figures like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who were on the wrong side of the Trump base in 2016 and subsequently saw their profiles and popularity rise.
“Four years is a long time in politics. If you go back four years ago, people were still angry at ‘Lyin’ Ted Cruz,’ … were still dealing
with ‘Little Marco Rubio,’” the official said, referencing derogatory nicknames Trump used for them during the 2016 primary. “All of those things were true back in 2016, maybe the early parts of 2017. And now Sen. Rubio, Sen. Cruz are considered leaders.”
Still, some say the Electoral College certification is a particularly stinging problem for Pence that is neither comparable to headwinds for other would-be contenders nor easily forgivable for a segment of the party that remains steadfastly behind the former president.
Another Trump aide praised Pence as “an unbelievably loyal guy” but suggested his actions on Jan. 6 are seen as a betrayal and that he
will struggle to generate any enthusiasm among the Trump base moving forward.
“He’s never going to run for president and be successful,” the person said, “because no one will ever forgive him.”