One is the first woman of color on a major party ticket who, less than a year ago, publicly clashed with the man she’s now running alongside. The other is a white male whose signature political trait is unyielding fealty to his boss. Both have thought about one day being President.
Political and personal opposites, Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence now find themselves direct rivals at a moment when their differences encapsulate the current political moment’s undercurrents of race, gender and generational change.
Already, the candidates are looking ahead to what will likely be their sole face-to-face encounter, an October 7 debate in Utah.
“I’ll see you in Salt Lake City,” Pence told a cheering crowd of supporters in Arizona on Tuesday moments after Harris was announced as former Vice President Joe Biden’s running mate. Pence’s debate preparations were expected to begin this week. To help him prepare, the campaign has recruited South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a source familiar with the plans said.
Biden’s selection of Harris has placed renewed focus on the dependable vice president, who has spent the last five months leading the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Over the past several weeks, as Biden neared his final pick, President Donald Trump’s campaign and advisers concentrated more attention on Pence and the sharp contrast a female opponent would likely draw.
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Pence’s bullish confidence on Tuesday masked what nearly a dozen Republican advisers described as serious challenges ahead in defining Harris as a radical candidate while still attempting to win back moderate suburban women turned off by Trump’s divisive rhetoric.
So, too, is the campaign aware of the potential pitfalls Harris presents to Trump’s socially conservative running mate, who has weathered years of speculation over whether Trump would eventually replace him with a more exciting – and perhaps even female – running mate. Trump himself questioned those in his orbit about a potential switch as recently as last year, though advisers are now adamant that a change isn’t happening.
After spending much of his tenure as cheerleader-in-chief for Trump, Pence’s more recent role running the coronavirus task force seems to have finally solidified his standing as a reliable wingman, giving him a sizeable portfolio for the first time and raising his profile within the administration.
Still – as with all things Trump – the President has made it clear where Pence stands: behind him.
“I will say this, people don’t vote for the vice – you know, this is history. This isn’t necessarily me; this is history because we have a great vice president,” Trump told radio host Clay Travis in an interview Tuesday morning. “Mike Pence has been incredible, actually. He’s been a great vice president and a really, really good job in everything I’ve given him and, but people don’t vote for the vice president, they really don’t,” Trump said.
One campaign official conceded that Trump at one time may have questioned Pence and has even asked others what they thought about him, but ultimately Pence has proven his loyalty and Trump has lauded the job he’s done running the coronavirus response – though the US still has among the highest case counts in the world.
Never a natural pair – during his own vice presidential selection process, Trump joked to one friend that he couldn’t select Pence because he was so bad at golf – the odd-couple relationship between Pence and Trump has evolved over the years, sources say, with Pence always careful to show adequate deference to Trump, both in public and private settings. The two still regularly meet for their weekly lunch in the West Wing, a chance to discuss campaign strategy.
Pence is now viewed more than ever as a crucial asset to the ticket, whose reliability and calm demeanor are a welcome relief to Republicans navigating the unpredictable Trump orbit. Among staffers who work in the gleaming office building in Arlington, Virginia, that houses the Trump campaign headquarters, Pence has earned the nickname of “On-Message Mike,” a nod to his tendency to never veer off course and always deliver the agreed-upon talking points.
Where aides nervously wonder what the President might say or tweet, there are few surprises with Pence. He has become an important part of the campaign messaging strategy by concisely articulating the administration’s viewpoint without the added drama that often accompanies a statement by the President.
Pence is so focused on living up to his nickname that aides say after nearly every official event, the vice president reviews transcripts of his remarks, studying them in preparation of future remarks or questions.
“Any interview, any speech, any public appearance you never have to worry about him offering up anything other than a consistent message that will help re-elect the President,” said a senior campaign official. “You always know what he is going to say.”
Most importantly, Pence as well as anyone understands the cardinal rule in Trump world: Never outshine the boss.
“Mike Pence knows how to blend into the background and share no portion of the spotlight,” said Anthony Scaramucci the short-lived White House director of communications. “He has been able to show the President that he is (a) capable safe set of hands, while at the same time making sure Trump gets center stage.”
Pence vs. Harris
The prospect of facing Harris poses a fresh challenge to Pence. As a rigid social conservative, Pence has long called for the defunding of Planned Parenthood and has consistently been an opponent of abortion rights, views that will almost certainly come up during the debate in October.
Pence has long been criticized by women’s groups for telling The Hill newspaper in 2002 that he never dines alone with a woman without his wife or attend events that serve alcohol without his wife present.
“Mike Pence is a danger to women and to public health. He’s the architect of a years-long crusade against reproductive health care in this country and built his career attacking Planned Parenthood and LGTBTQ rights,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
In recent weeks, Trump has made more direct appeals to female voters as polls show him slipping among voting demographics he won in 2016. On Wednesday, the morning after Biden announced his selection of Harris, Trump insisted the country’s “suburban housewives” would back him after he reversed an Obama-era anti-segregation housing rule.
While Harris had trouble firing up voters on the stump in Iowa and New Hampshire, leading to an early exit from the Democratic primary, her debate performances were one of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing campaign.
Democrats are counting on her experience as a prosecutor to help her out-duel Pence, something even Republicans acknowledge is a possibility. One Trump adviser quelled expectations for the Pence-Harris matchup, predicting the vice president would perform only “OK”. The aide said the campaign is well aware that the biggest moment for Harris in the primary was landing a memorable punch in a debate against Biden.
“The optical contrasts are striking, but both are very good in this format,” said Liam Donovan, a former NRSC staffer who now works as a GOP lobbyist. “What strikes me most is that the undercard is going to be the crisp, textbook political debate you’d expect at the president level while the championship bout is going to be a war of rhetorical attrition.”
Pence amps up the attacks
As Trump’s campaign largely abandons the massive rallies that were the centerpiece of his 2016 bid for the White House, Pence has been undertaking a quieter effort that combines his coronavirus travels with more overly political engagements.
He’s drawn significant local media attention as he’s hopscotched from swing state to swing state in a mix of official and campaign visits, including on Wednesday in Arizona, where his photo and not Harris’ appeared on the front page of the Arizona Daily Star.
Pence travels with a much smaller entourage than the President, allowing him to pack in more events. He has made 19 trips since early June, including to eight different swing states. When news broke that Biden had picked Harris, Pence was in the midst of a busy day campaigning in Arizona. Ever predictable and on message, Pence delivered the campaign’s ready-made attack line against Biden’s new partner without missing a beat.
“As you all know, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have been overtaken by the Radical Left,” Pence told a crowd in Mesa. “So given their promises of higher taxes, open borders, socialized medicine, and abortion on demand, it’s no surprise that he chose Senator Harris.”
Recently, Pence’s role has begun to shift from peacemaker to attack dog, as he’s echoed Trump’s call for law and order and hammered Democrats for calling for the defunding and reform of police departments.
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“When Democrats call for defunding police, remember what’s at stake: law and order, safety and the peace of mind that you and your family and your children have every right to enjoy as citizens of the greatest nation on Earth,” Pence said ominously at an event in late July in Pennsylvania. “The truth is you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
While going on the attack isn’t necessarily Pence’s strongest suit, it is something the campaign plans on having him do more.
“It’s time for him to be on the attack,” said a senior administration official who predicted the vice president will be sharpening his attacks against Democrats as the Trump campaign aims to paint the party as radical leftists.
Pence has recently broadened his targets to include Chief Justice John Roberts, whom he singled out in a recent interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network.
“Look, we have great respect for the institution of the Supreme Court of the United States, but Chief Justice John Roberts has been a disappointment to conservatives, whether it be the Obamacare decision or whether it be a spate of recent decisions,” Pence said, before warning conservatives about what was at stake.
“We need President Donald Trump back in the White House for four more years so that we can build a more durable conservative majority on the Supreme Court and never see those kinds of decisions again,” he said.
2024 and beyond
Regardless of what happens in November, Pence’s heightened prominence on the campaign automatically puts him in the mix of any discussion of a potential field of 2024 Republican presidential hopefuls. GOP operatives attribute Pence’s careful balance of remaining loyal to Trump, but without the bombast and unpredictability, as a clear sign of his ambition in a post-Trump world.
“My nickname for the vice president when I worked with him was ’46’,” Scaramucci said, alluding to Pence’s future ambition. “I do think he is positioning himself, but the way he operates is just common sense. It is the way you have to conduct yourself in Trump’s world.”
Pence allies have long argued that his best shot of one day leading the Republican ticket himself is to help Trump win, both in office and in securing a second term. Some have characterized his unfailing loyalty as a function of his ambition; they say he knows his fate is inextricably linked to Trump’s.
Pence will have competition to carry on where Trump leaves off, no matter what happens in 2020. Potential candidates range from hawkish Trump loyalists like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to the calculating and pragmatic Florida Sen. Rick Scott, to the establishment favorite Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations.
But Trump loyalists seem to recognize that 2024 is not that far off and even if he may not be inspiring, Pence’s steady, methodical tack as Trump’s deputy may already have earned him the pole position.
“Look Mike Pence is terrific, and he’ll have four more years as vice president, and maybe move down the hall after that,” said Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller.
To do that, he’ll have to get past Kamala Harris first.