At a recent campaign stop in New Hampshire, accused of being a “traitor” by supporters of his former boss, Mike Pence broke from his smile-and-wave routine, spun around with his blazer slung over his shoulder, and confronted his MAGA hecklers.
“I upheld the Constitution,” said Pence, who pushed the point to the Trump fans as he continued to shake hands with families. “Read it!”
The moment distilled the fraught crossroads currently facing Pence’s longshot campaign for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
Suffering disappointing polling numbers and fighting hard just to make the first Republican debate, the former vice president appears to be ditching the straitlaced, mild-mannered, and comically deferential persona that defined his tenure as Trump’s second in command.
With Pence’s refusal to overturn the 2020 election—his alleged betrayal of Trump—stalking him on the campaign trail, the quintessentially cautious and pious politician has decided against turning the other cheek.
These days, Pence seems to garner the most headlines when he punches back at Trump voters, firmly but calmly debunks voters’ enduring conspiracies about his role on Jan. 6, and dismantles the arguments of lawyers defending his former boss against what will soon be four criminal indictments.
Recently, Pence issued his strongest repudiation yet of Trump after his criminal indictment over Jan. 6, tweeting that “anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be president of the United States.” His campaign has begun to sell merch branding him as “too honest,” the negative assessment Trump gave him in the final days of their administration. (Pence’s contemporaneous notes taken between the 2020 election and Jan. 6 are now evidence in Trump’s case.)
Call it “Dark Pence,” as some social media commenters have gleefully done, in a nod to the ironically villainous and hard-charging “Dark Brandon” alter ego embraced by President Joe Biden and his team.
The pivot may be raising some eyebrows, but those in Republican circles don’t believe it will rescue Pence’s increasingly quixotic campaign—or shift perception of what his ultimate legacy may be.
“It has turned into a frustrating vanity project,” an unaffiliated GOP strategist told The Daily Beast, arguing that it took Pence so long to qualify for the debate stage because “there is no appetite for him in this race.”
The strategist compared the Dark Pence persona to “a 70-year-old man who’s having to use Viagra for the first time and it’s still not working.”
“He’s taking a double dose of Viagra to try and get on the debate stage politically, and it’s still not working for him,” the strategist said of Pence. “It’s time to hang it up.”
Ultimately, the Dark Pence brand belies the unique bind in which he finds himself: his refusal to illegally subvert the 2020 election has turned many GOP primary voters zealously against him, but his second-fiddle persona may be so concrete that non-Trump voters may still see in him too much of an era they wish to leave behind.
A top adviser for Trump’s 2016 campaign—who noted they respect Pence—put it more simply. “It took so long because he can’t sell,” they said. “Running for office is sales.”
With his campaign struggling to remain viable, there is a very real chance the former second-ranking official in the U.S. government is at risk of being outlasted in the primary by the likes of Vivek Ramaswamy and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
Having polled no higher than 10 percent since March and no higher than 7 percent since June, Pence will need a breakout moment in the first debate on Aug. 24 to jumpstart his campaign.
Republican insiders have begun to wonder whether Pence knows his time is running out—and whether he is remaining in the race to make a point perhaps no other candidate can.
“People who are astute in politics know exactly why Mike Pence is running, and it’s not for President of the United States. It’s to show he does what’s right, and he has to stay relevant,” an early primary state GOP organizer who previously backed Trump told The Daily Beast, requesting anonymity to discuss private conversations with fellow Republicans about Pence.
“Will he do great on the debate stage? No,” the organizer said. “But he’s there to make a point about Donald Trump, and it’s a point that has to be made.”
The Pence campaign did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast.
In some instances, the Pence campaign is deploying levity to convey resilience. They’ve even leaned into a bit of gallows humor, quite literally, when it comes to Trump’s plans to skip the first debate.
“Hopefully, former President Trump has the courage to show up,” Pence communications adviser Devin O’Malley told USA Today, upon news that the candidate finally qualified. His words were a not-so-subtle nod to Trump’s infamous tweet unleashing the mob on his vice president, resulting in chants of “hang Mike Pence” in and around the U.S. Capitol.
At the same time, Pence himself has declined to challenge Jan. 6 revisionism and conspiracy theorizing in the most high-profile moments.
In an awkward and contentious interview with hard-right pundit Tucker Carlson in front of Iowa voters last month, Pence declined to call Jan. 6 an “insurrection,” calling it instead a “tragic day” and “a riot.” He also did not contest Carlson’s conspiracy-laced whitewashing of the events of that day.
There’s also the question of what Pence’s role is in going after Trump now that former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has entered the race, declared himself “the viable Trump alternative,” and has suggested his mission is not to win the nomination but to destroy Trump’s chances to ever return to politics.
Christie has paid a price for breaking with Trump following the 2020 election, along with his embrace of more moderate positions as the party has lurched rightward. But his more aggressive messaging and willingness to directly spar with Trump seems better placed to win over Trump-skeptical GOP voters than even Pence’s newer approach.
With just a few months to go until the Iowa caucuses, Republican operatives range from baffled to incredulous over how Pence will manage to keep his relatively cash strapped campaign going—much less how he’ll make the next debate, when more donors and better polls will be required to make the stage.
Pence might have been able to lean on his hardcore anti-abortion and culture-warrior bona fides to reach today’s GOP voters, particularly his fellow evangelical Christians. But those voters have largely deserted him in favor of Trump, even though Pence was selected as Trump’s running mate in 2016 largely because of his ability to bring along skeptical evangelicals.
“In some ways, Pence isn’t a great fit for your MAGA voter who rarely, if ever, goes to church,” Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, told The Daily Beast.
“But you think he’d be there, on paper at least, as someone who would inherit that part of the Trump base,” Scala said. “Under normal circumstances, that would be true, because under normal circumstances, Republican presidents who lose don’t run again and their vice president isn’t held responsible for their loss.”
Even if they don’t see his fortunes changing anytime soon, Pence’s admirers are happy to see him in the race, Dark Pence persona or not.
“Are there people saying Pence can’t get elected dogcatcher? Yeah, that’s probably true,” the early state GOP organizer said. “But when people see him, they acknowledge he’s a nice guy, and if they’re not a crazy Trumper, they’ll admit what he did was right.”