Time to drop the disappearing act. Pence allies say the lame duck VP needs to stay in the public spotlight if he wants to be a viable 2024 presidential candidate.

Time to drop the disappearing act. Pence allies say the lame duck VP needs to stay in the public spotlight if he wants to be a viable 2024 presidential candidate.

November 18, 2020
  • Vice President Mike Pence will have to find a way to keep his name in the spotlight if he wants to win the Republican nomination for president in 2024, his friends and allies tell Insider.
  • Mike and Karen Pence have been meeting behind the scenes to plot out which advisers will keep jobs with their PAC and who will have to find other work. There's also talk of Pence running a conservative college like Liberty University or Hillsdale University.
  • For Pence, maintaining a public persona is a similar strategy to the one he used the last time he lost an election 30 years ago. 
  • "He needs to be visible and ever-present because of the others who will be in the mix," said an Indiana Republican close to vice president and his team.
  • Trump could continue overshadowing Pence even when they are both out of office. After all, advisors expect Trump could announce before the end of this year that he is running for president again in 2024.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Second Lady Karen Pence and her husband, Vice President Mike Pence, at the 2020 Republican National Convention.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The last time Vice President Mike Pence lost an election, back in 1990, he plotted a steady course that kept his name in the spotlight even as he insisted he was done with politics. That strategy paid big dividends, ultimately landing him by President Donald Trump's side in the White House almost 30 years later. 

Now, the lame-duck Pence and his closest advisers are plotting a similar course that keeps the staunch conservative politician smack in the middle of the public eye as they look ahead to a likely White House run in 2024, according to interviews with more than a dozen Republicans keeping tabs on the vice president. 

Things are getting real, and fast, too. Pence and Second Lady Karen Pence have been talking with advisers about who will stay on with the soon-to-be-former vice president after he leaves the White House. They're also deciding where some of their other allies will go too, including to campaign consulting firms, conservative think tanks or other Republican operations that can give them influential perches to help Pence in 2024, according to two Republicans familiar with their discussions. 

It's all bound to be a high-wire act thanks to a certain someone who currently sits in the Oval Office. The Pences are very much concerned in the current moment about angering Trump by implicitly acknowledging the president lost to Joe Biden, said the two Republicans. But Team Pence is also well aware it may need to fight to hold onto key support from various factions of conservative voters in an expansive field of likely 2024 GOP presidential candidates including former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and even Trump himself, they said. 

"He needs to be visible and ever-present because of the others who will be in the mix," said an Indiana Republican close to vice president and his team. "In this world if you're not ever-present, you're not present." 

Pence's oar in the water

After Pence lost his 1990 race for Congress, he told friends he was done with campaigning. He lost by almost 20 percentage points after running back-to-back negative races against an incumbent Democrat from central Indiana. Pence told friends and family afterward that he felt like he lost himself in that race after taking the advice of Washington Republicans who called for combative campaigns. 

In 1991, Pence began writing a book called "Confessions of a Negative Campaigner" but couldn't find a publisher. So instead he whittled the book idea down to an op-ed in which he promised not to launch personal attacks on his opponents again. 

One friend at the time told him that burying his old persona as an attack dog would help him keep his "oar in the water" for a future run for office. Pence didn't just keep his oar in the water. He paddled. And he used the opportunity to build his name recognition across the Hoosier State.

In the ensuing decade Pence ran a conservative think tank, expanded the conservative local radio program he hosted so it would reach far-flung towns throughout Indiana, launched a TV show, and kept his name out there in public despite not officially declaring a run for any office until 2000. 

The strategy worked. Pence won his next race for Congress. Then he won five more times, using it as a springboard to win a statewide campaign for governor in 2012. Pence wouldn't lose again until 2020. 

Team Pence tacks carefully

Pence's pivot to 2024 is starting out awkwardly.

Early in the morning on Wednesday, November 4, the still-unfolding results showed Trump holding a narrow lead in several key battleground states that suggested the president could indeed still win reelection.

In the White House's East Room, Pence joined Trump at a lectern situated in front of more than two dozen American flags. There, the president exclaimed he had won the election and would go to the Supreme Court to stop vote-counting. 

Pence spoke after Trump. But while the vice president in his remarks approached the same line Trump had just drawn, he also notably wouldn't cross it. 

"While the votes continue to be counted, we're going to remain vigilant, as the president said," Pence said. "The right to vote has been at the center of our democracy since the founding of this nation and we're going to protect the integrity of the vote."

Republicans noticed the strangeness of the moment.

"He's in a difficult spot," said Mike DuHaime, a former top adviser to Chris Christie and longtime Republican strategist. He explained that the vice president is now being forced to straddle the line "between undying loyalty to Trump and the reality that the election is lost and to say otherwise sounds foolish." 

"Can someone stay loyal and still speak the truth about the results? That's the question," DuHaime added.

Behind the scenes, Mike and Karen Pence are gaming out everything from where they will soon be living (they don't own a home) to how they will bide their time until the next presidential election campaign begins in earnest about two years from now, said Republicans familiar with their discussions.

Three Republicans said they could easily see Pence running a conservative college like Liberty University in rural Virginia or Hillsdale University in south central Michigan. Both schools are well known as training grounds for activists and aspiring political operatives on the right. They also said he could easily take over a prominent national think tank like the Heritage Foundation, and keep his name in the news without directly challenging Trump. 

Karen Pence in particular has taken on the job of deciding which advisers will stay on their payroll as they downsize from the vice president's office to a much slimmer campaign-in-waiting, said one Republican familiar with those discussions. 

Pence's chief political adviser Marty Obst is expected to take a job at Pence's super PAC and continue acting as the gatekeeper to Karen Pence, the single-most important political adviser in the vice president's orbit. And Pence's chief of staff and longtime adviser, Marc Short, is looking for work similar to the campaigning he did with the tea party group Americans for Prosperity.

A Pence aide said that it would be "inaccurate" to say the Pences and their advisers have been discussing next steps. The aide spoke without attribution to candidly discuss private deliberations.

In fact, there's a reason for that kind of denial. The Pences have been hypersensitive to alerting Trump of their ambitions. Republicans close to the Pences say they have been watching for when the vice president formally announces he is creating a new PAC that would serve as his de facto 2024 campaign operation, or simply renames his existing PAC to focus on 2024. 

"When he renames the PAC, it's the sign to Trump that he's not supporting his legal fight anymore," said a former advisor to Trump's 2016 campaign. 

The Pences have been even more guarded than usual since the election loss, Pence allies said. Multiple friends and former aides who check in with them regularly said they haven't spoken with them since the election.

Meanwhile, Pence himself has started to appear more in public, walking the same tightrope he has walked throughout his four years together with Trump. 

Pence stays a steady course

As Pence slowly re-emerged in public over the past week, he did many of the same campaign-style events familiar to anyone who has monitored his tenure in the White House. 

He regaled the conservative group the Council for National Policy, promising that they would have four more years in office. This past Sunday, he attended the first successful launch of SpaceX in Florida and penned an op-ed for Fox News championing the Trump administration's renewed focus on space exploration. The next day he led a meeting of the White House Coronavirus Task Force with the nation's governors.

But Pence has continued to avoid talking about the unfounded allegations of voter fraud that Trump still argues will overturn the election results.

Pence's longtime allies say he is making all the right moves given the circumstances. He's doing what he can to keep his name in the news while avoiding awkward questions from reporters that force him to break with Trump on the reality of their election loss.

That's a contrast from other likely 2024 Republican candidates who actively opposed Trump. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, for one, is already doing campaign-style events many GOP operatives see as a precursor to a White House bid. For Pence and the field of likely 2024 candidates who have been supporting Trump, the strategy for now is to stay back.

"Vice President Pence will be able to think about 2024 when President Trump acknowledges he lost in 2020," DuHaime said. 

By that time Trump may have already announced his own bid, advisers to the lame duck president told Insider. Indeed, Trump is expected to announce he is running again as soon as it is clear his legal challenges have completely failed. One Republican close to the president said he could make that announcement in the next two or three weeks. 

If that happens, Pence's allies said, then Trump's first-term vice president will just need to keep walking the same tightrope until Trump backs out of the race or accept that he can't win the White House in 2024.

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