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It took him a beat longer than a lot of folks, but former Vice President Mike Pence got there eventually—and, perhaps significantly, early enough to force his fellow Republicans to take a clear-eyed look at their party and its trajectory.
“It’s become clear to me: This is not my time,” Pence told donors in Las Vegas on Saturday. The audience, of course, gasped, a reaction similar to the one Mitt Romney drew in 2008 when he announced the end of his bid at CPAC. Pence suspended his campaign and took a not-so-veiled swipe at his former boss, ex-President Donald Trump: "I urge all my fellow Republicans here, give our country a Republican standard bearer that will, as Lincoln said, appeal to the better angels of our nature." He then added that the nominee should be someone who can lead the country with "civility."
Pence becomes the first major candidate to exit the GOP chase of the deeply uncivil Trump. Pressure is being applied behind the scenes for others to follow suit. When Ted Cruz was the last non-Trump Republican standing eight years ago, many held their nose and rallied behind him. By then, it was too late.
It might be too late now. Trump is faring better today than even when he was on the cusp of the nomination in 2016, when the highest he ever got was 49% support in the final CNN poll, released the first week of May 2016. Today, the former President has been consistently parked north of 50% since April. Even if everyone not named Trump joined forces like a super Transformer robot on Team Ron DeSantis, they still cannot overtake Trump.
Which presents a two-fold challenge for Pence, the committed conservative who has said Trump must “never” be allowed to return to power. Most immediately, his advisers say Pence is considering his options for an endorsement of a one-time rival. He is likely to pray on the decision and consider who is most plausible to block Trump from the nomination.
But in the most likely scenario, with that last-ditch effort failing and Trump becoming the GOP nominee for a third time, Pence will be faced with how to use his remaining political capital. Backing Trump would be viewed as a blatant betrayal of his longtime supporters not to mention his ideals, while stopping short—or the least likely scenario, endorsing Joe Biden—would seem to leave his relatively new fans in a lurch. While Pence was well known before 2016 among conservatives, he wasn’t exactly a household name more broadly. But he’s not exactly ready to shelve his ambition for one more promotion. And a last-ditch effort by Pence to stop Trump might actually animate the very forces he’s trying to short-circuit. The heart may be in the right mode but the technique may be slightly off.
For his part, Pence has been consistent in his measured critique of Trump, a larger-than-life figure inside the GOP and a dream Republican nominee inside some Democratic circles. During their arranged political marriage in 2016, Pence understood the tradeoffs incumbent on linking arms with someone whose own sense of right and wrong were anathema to Pence’s deep Christianity. If Trump was an archetype of pompous, Pence was the answer in piety.
As a running mate, Pence was reluctant to defend Trump. He focused his efforts during his lone 2016 debate to protect his own reputation in case Trump lost. When the famous Access Hollywood tape threatened to detonate the entire Trump-Pence ticket, Pence benched himself for a day to consider just how much of a role he wanted to play in putting Trump in control of all of America’s might.
Still, Trump seemed to forgive it all. “One of my great decisions in life was choosing Mike Pence to be my running mate,” Trump told TIME after his 2016 election. “He is truly a high-quality human being, first class in every respect. He is also a talented politician who loves people and wants to help them every step of the way.”
That view—like so many of Trump’s—quickly shifted when loyalty seemed to dry up.
Pence’s experience on Jan. 6, 2021, cemented his antipathy toward Trump and Trumpism. While Pence was pinned down at the Capitol as Congress tried to certify the Trump-Pence ticket’s defeat in 2020, his boss did little to quell a rabid mob that he had encouraged to march to Capitol Hill. Pence has been critical of various people’s actions that day, although not so much as to offend the party base he presumably thought he could win as converts. Pence picked targets smartly during last year’s midterms and collected chits that could have come in handy.
Ultimately, though, campaigns need cash and backers, and Pence came up in short supply on both. Trump’s chokehold on the GOP has proven more durable than even some of his supporters had expected. The NeverTrump lane of the primary has been dominated by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson; neither of them has ever broken into double-digits. Others who have been strategic in their criticism like Trump’s former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and tech investor Vivek Ramaswamy of Ohio have similarly struggled to make the move into the top tier. Haley has been the most viable to emerge as an alternative to DeSantis, and next week’s debate in Miami may afford her one of her last primetime chances to prove to the GOP it doesn’t actually have to stomach Trump or a MAGA clone.
Pence refused to engage in any of the shenanigans that help with money and polling. Having lost his first two bids for office after running, by his own admission, mean-spirited and bare-knuckled campaigns, he swore off negative campaigning. But since launching in June, Pence raised just $3.3 million; only Hutchinson has raised less. He ended September with $1.2 million banked, a debt of $620,000, and a $150,000 hole in his own checkbook for his self-financing—all with fewer than 100 days until Iowa, where even his advisers concede things were not going as planned as evangelicals seemed enthralled with a return to Trump. Looking downstream, deadlines are quickly approaching for getting on other states’ election calendars, and those filings are not cheap.
Attending the former VP’s events were like a flashback to another era, but not altogether in a bad way. His operations have always been polished, dating to his days as then-House Speaker John Boehner’s “conservative whisperer.” He counts some of the sharpest minds in the Republican Party as parts of his brain trust—and, unusual for Washington, he actually listened to their advice. Even among the K Street crowd that finds his Christian lens for governing a bit saccharine, they still take his call because they know he is coming through the door in good faith. He’s definitely from another era, but certainly not one in which staying seated when a woman walks into a room is acceptable.
A 12-year veteran of the House, a one-term Governor of Indiana, and Trump’s VP simply didn’t get him across the credibility threshold. As TIME’s Alex Altman wrote the day Trump selected Pence: “Pence is a foreign policy hawk with ironclad fiscal credentials, a squeaky-clean image, and extensive ties to the religious right. And while he’s more comfortable in the church pews than the C-suite, he’s also a favorite of super-rich GOP donors like the billionaire Koch brothers, who have so far refused to crack open their wallets for Trump.” Those, it turns out, are no longer sufficient qualities in a GOP that seems obsessed with celebrity, culture wars, and embracing incivility over inspiration. That, it has to be said, should be a warning gong for a party that may end up celebrating a soon-to-be-felon at its convention in Milwaukee this summer.
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Write to Philip Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org