When former Vice President Mike Pence agreed to appear at an October 21 fundraiser for Derek Schmidt, the Kansas Republican’s campaign expected a positive response. But in the first 24 hours after the invitations went out last week, the campaign raised nearly $100,000 – a figure that astounded Schmidt’s operation.
“It dropped my jaw to the floor,” said one adviser to Schmidt, who is running against incumbent Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. “We’re well over that now. That’s relatively unheard of for Kansas governor.”
Kansas is not the only campaign stop for Pence in the final weeks before Election Day. He plans to stump for Republican candidates across the country, including Washington state, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia. CNN has also learned Pence will join Gov. Brian Kemp on a bus tour across the crucial swing state of Georgia.
Throughout the cycle, Pence has proven to be an in-demand surrogate and impressive fundraising draw for GOP candidates. To top members of his political team, Pence’s willingness to help candidates up and down the ballot reflects his “servant’s attitude.” But with an eye toward a possible run for the White House in 2024, the most recent Republican vice president is also enhancing his own political brand.
Donors, operatives and other Republicans have noticed.
“I think Pence has had a very impressive run in the last six months,” said Scott Reed, a veteran Republican strategist. “He’s moved around the country in a lot of the targeted districts, raised money, delivered a positive political message. And I think he’s picked up a bunch of political chits.”
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While former President Donald Trump remains the dominant figure within the GOP and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis commands plenty of attention and fundraising prowess, Republicans say Pence has quietly been a reliable presence for the party on the campaign trail. And Pence intends to press this advantage after the midterms, publishing his memoir on November 15, a week after Election Day, and embarking on a busy book tour. And his political team continues to grow, with around two dozen staffers occupying office space in Washington.
“He’s putting together the building blocks to analyze if he has what it takes to run after November,” Reed added.
Pence hinted at his own ambitions on Wednesday, during an event at Georgetown University, when asked if he would support Trump as the Republican nominee in 2024.
“Well, there might be somebody else I’d prefer more,” he said with a smile.
But Pence continues to insist his first priority is electing Republican majorities in Congress and more Republican governors.
To that end, the bus tour with Kemp will cap off what has been a busy midterm cycle for the Indiana Republican, including visits to 32 states, primarily to support candidates for governor and the US House, but also a handful of Senate hopefuls. According to a person close to Pence, he’s raised more than $10 million for GOP candidates this cycle, including six-figure hauls each for Kemp in Georgia and Lee Zeldin, who is running for governor of New York. At a recent fundraiser to support California House candidate Scott Baugh, Pence helped rake in half a million dollars in a key targeted race.
And at a time when Republicans are divided on everything from policy emphasis to what role Trump should play in the party’s future, Pence has been broadly accepting of candidates from all sides of the divide. He has campaigned for everyone from the MAGA-aligned Senate candidate Blake Masters of Arizona to California Rep. David Valadao, who voted to impeach Trump.
Republican campaigns who have brought him in have also told CNN that Pence is a willing and relatively drama-free surrogate, especially when compared to other big-name figures in the party. They say Pence is willing to do whatever a candidate needs – rallies, smaller events, fundraising receptions – without asking for much from the campaigns, which, in competitive House races, are often strapped for cash and have relatively inexperienced staff.
“He has been very low maintenance,” said the Schmidt adviser. “When [Virginia Gov. Glenn] Youngkin and DeSantis came to town, it was their show. This is a bit more deferential.”
That approach has helped Pence win and maintain friendships across the spectrum of the party and cultivated for him a reputation as a party-builder during the Biden administration. More than one Republican who spoke to CNN referred to Pence as a “bridge” – not just across wings of the party but also between the party’s Reaganite past to its more populist present.
“Unless you’re a die-hard President Trump supporter that has accepted the conspiracy theories around the election, I think Pence is a bridge to the different elements of our party right now,” said one GOP operative working on House races this cycle.
The question remains whether Republican primary voters are seeking a consensus-building elder statesmen in their 2024 nominee for president – or whether the confrontational style of the current leading contenders for the nomination will prevail.
Polling so far suggests Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have the edge. A Siena College poll this month found Trump with 47% support among likely GOP primary voters, with DeSantis at 28%. Pence came in a distant third at 9%.
Underlying these numbers is the persistent and potentially permanent break between Pence and his former running mate in the aftermath of January 6, 2021. Pence’s refusal to delay the counting of electoral votes was a pivot point in his political career, and the ambitious Republican has sought to manage carefully his approach to the legal and political fallout of his stand against Trump.
For his first several months out of office, Pence declined to speak extensively about January 6 or his role in resisting Trump. In public remarks, he tended to tout the accomplishments of the “Trump-Pence administration” – a formulation he continues to use – and would only say that he Trump did not “see eye-to-eye” about the 2020 election.
That began to change last year, as Trump continued to make his own statements castigating Pence’s inaction. In June 2021, Pence called Trump’s scheme to overturn 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 counting.
“Under the Constitution, I had no right to change the outcome of our election, and (Vice President) Kamala Harris will have no right to overturn the election when we beat them in 2024,” Pence said.
Those comments won Pence the private plaudits of Republican donors and elected officials, a sign that among the party’s leadership class there is a hunger for moving beyond Trump’s focus.
Pence has also registered his resistance to Trump on this subject in his political activity, most notably in some key primary fights earlier this year. He supported and campaigned for Kemp in Georgia, for instance, against David Perdue, the former US senator backed by Trump. The former President was vocally opposed to Kemp, who, like Pence, defied Trump’s demands to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Pence even rallied with Kemp the day before the governor defeated Perdue overwhelmingly in the May 24 primary.
But in other instances, Pence’s preferred candidate fell short. In Arizona, most notably, Pence supported Karrin Taylor Robson in the gubernatorial primary against Trump’s preference, Kari Lake. Lake, based much of her campaign on her false claims the 2020 election was stolen in Arizona, won the primary over Taylor Robson, who was better funded and also the choice of the GOP establishment.
Many Republicans are skeptical Pence’s apparent popularity with the party’s leadership class translates to much interest among GOP voters themselves.
“He gets a camera out at an event, his people are all looking to raise money. You give the donors something for their investment. He’s a vice president,” said one GOP operative, when asked about what Pence brings as a surrogate. “I don’t think he’s a big help with messaging or turning out the base.”
Beyond trying to elect Republicans this fall, Pence has also sought to play a role in shaping policy and ideological direction of the GOP. His chief vehicle has been Advancing American Freedom, a 501c(4) group that has developed a “Freedom Agenda” that advisers say they hope will influence what they expect to be a Republican majority in the House and possibly the Senate.
The Freedom Agenda’s list of policy proposals, which the group released in March of this year and which Pence spoke about in an address at the conservative Heritage Foundation earlier this week, is a synthesis of familiar Reagan-era ideas embracing limited government, social conservatism and free enterprise with some of the more populist ideas that animated GOP voters during the Trump era – such as finishing the border wall and embracing a more aggressive trade policy to counter China.
But buried in Pence’s proto-presidential platform are some corrections to what traditional conservatives might consider the excesses or aberrations of MAGA populism. Chief among these is on foreign policy, where Pence has pushed back against opposition within some conservative spaces to the American funding of the Ukrainian military in the war with Russia.
This week, as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested to Punchbowl News that a Republican majority might resist a “blank check” to fund Ukraine, Pence called on the United States to stay the current course.
“I believe as we stand here today, as the arsenal of democracy, we must continue to provide Ukraine with the resources to defend themselves,” Pence said in his October 19 speech at Heritage.
Pence added that “there can be no room in the conservative movement for apologists to Putin. There is only room in this movement for champions of freedom.”
Some in the traditional conservative wing of the party say there remains a desire for that more familiar view within 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.”