Vice President Mike Pence is embarking on a cross-country summer campaign tour amid rising fears that the GOP, reeling from a barrage of Trump-fueled controversies, is headed for a midterm election disaster.
Pence is mapping out a schedule that will take him through several Midwestern battlegrounds and to traditionally conservative southern states like Georgia, where an unexpectedly competitive June special election runoff is alarming party strategists. The vice president will also attend a series of Republican Party events that will draw major donors and power-brokers, where talk about 2018 is certain to be front-and-center.
The push comes at a time of growing consternation among senior Republicans who say the White House has given them little direction on midterm planning. Many complain that they do not even know who to contact about 2018 in an administration that has been consumed by chaos.
“He has an appetite to fight so he’s going to get out there and fight on the president’s behalf,” said Nick Ayers, a longtime Pence strategist.
At the same time, the vice president’s increased electoral activity has stoked speculation that Pence is positioning himself for a post-Trump future in the party, something his advisers strenuously deny.
Pence has already formed a political action committee, the Great America Committee, enabling him to raise money for candidates who need help in 2018, an unusual move for a sitting vice president. And his upcoming effort to strengthen ties to the party’s rank and file and connect with key donors is likely to fuel the perception that Pence wants to fortify his position atop the party independent of his relationship to President Donald Trump.
Vice presidents have often taken the lead on down ballot campaign travel: Dick Cheney was a Republican favorite at donor events, and ahead of the 2010 midterms, a catastrophic election for the Democratic Party, Joe Biden was a much relied-upon surrogate for House members.
But the early intensity of Pence’s tour underscores the sudden urgency confronting Republicans. With Trump’s campaign under federal investigation, his approval ratings at record lows, and his agenda badly stalled, once-despondent Democrats have been jolted back to life – and are waging a serious bid to seize control of the House.
Some Republicans view Pence’s activity as an effort to calm the waters.
“We are in for a turbulent campaign cycle, as nearly all parties in power face during a new president’s first midterm,” said Scott Jennings, who was deputy political director in the George W. Bush White House. “But the question is, do you shrink in the face of a tough cycle or do you fight like hell to hold on. And Pence is going to fight like hell, it seems, which will hopefully embolden every candidate out there.”
Pence confidantes maintain he is simply doing what he has always done: Putting his head down and playing the role of loyal foot soldier in a White House where the president – not the vice president – takes center stage. Pence, who spent more than a decade in Congress before serving as Indiana governor, has proven himself more than willing to spend his weekends at GOP summits and fundraising dinners. It’s the kind of grueling, behind-the-scenes fare that Trump, who remains uncomfortable with the Republican Party establishment, likes to avoid.
Pence’s low-key approach was on display this month at a gala hosted by Susan B. Anthony List, a prominent anti-abortion group that spends heavily in federal races. Many in the crowd expected the vice president to highlight his conservative credentials. Instead, he spent much of the appearance praising Trump and describing the president’s views on abortion.
“Everything that has been done has been done to advance the president’s policies,” Ayers said.
Next on tap: an early June trip to Iowa, where he will appear at a barbeque-themed event that will be attended by Sen. Joni Ernst and Gov. Kim Reynolds, the latter of whom is facing a 2018 contest. He is also likely to be Michigan, where high-profile races for governor and Senate will be on the ballot, and in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker is seeking reelection. The fellow Midwesterners are allies, having served on the Republican Governors Association together.
On June 9, Pence is slated to stump for Georgia Republican Karen Handel, who is embroiled in a surprisingly close special congressional election. Despite the district’s conservative leanings and millions of dollars in spending from Republican groups, the race has remained close – an indication of the treacherous environment confronting the party.
Later on, Pence is expected to attend a Republican National Committee summer conference in Chicago and an RGA meeting in Aspen, both of which will be major draws for party leaders and contributors.
Other summer visits could also be in the offing. And as the midterm season grows closer, Pence’s advisers say, his travel schedule will intensify. The vice president has been inundated with requests for appearances.
As Trump’s approval rating plummets, it has not been lost on some Republicans that the vice president has emerged as a safer surrogate. Some of them delved into polling data and found Pence’s favorability numbers in certain areas to be considerably higher than the president’s.
“I’m so thankful for all the work the vice president has done for our candidates so far this year, especially in these special elections,” said Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman. “As a former member of the House, he knows how important it is.”
Pence has begun testing out life on the trail, recently stumping for Republican congressional candidates in Montana and Georgia special elections. In the Georgia race, which pits Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff, neither candidate reached 50 percent of the vote during the first round of balloting this spring, forcing it to a June 20 runoff.
The vice president is also expected to spend time with donors who are being relied upon to bankroll the party’s midterm efforts. This month, he met in the Naval Observatory with investor Charles Schwab and businessman Doug Deason, both of whom are major GOP contributors. Pence did not make a specific ask for 2018 money, Deason said, though they did discuss how Trump was facing intensifying attacks from congressional Democrats who opposed his agenda.
Pence’s travel comes as many Republicans are expressing profound concern about the lack of a White House political operation. Unlike the Bush years, when Karl Rove took on an outsize role, the Trump White House lacks a singular figure directing the party’s political functions.
Some have begun to worry, for example, that the White House has failed to intervene in some critical races, missing opportunities to prevent potentially destructive GOP primaries. The party’s efforts to unseat vulnerable Senate Democrats in Missouri and West Virginia, some Republicans say, may be hamstrung because GOP battles are developing in both states.
Yet as the political environment grows more perilous, there is indication that the administration is recognizing the danger. This month, Trump had invited nine Republican Party chairs from swing states into the Oval Office. The group had expected to spend just a few minutes with the president. Instead, he asked them to sit down on couches and pressed them on how his policies – and the expanding federal probe into his campaign’s dealings with Russia – were playing with voters.
While Republicans hope that Pence fills what has been a frustrating political void, his advisers are contending with talk that the vice president is looking to build his own operation or angling for a future run – speculation that is bound to intensify with his trip next week to Iowa.
Nothing could be further from the truth, says the Pence team, insisting that his sole goal is to further the president’s agenda. While this story was being reported, one adviser reached out to say that the new Pence PAC’s first donation would be a $5,400 check to Trump’s reelection campaign.
That may be the case, Republicans concede. But there’s little question that Pence’s aggressive travel schedule will pay dividends down the road should he eventually seek the presidency.
“He will be one of the top tier surrogate requests from every campaign for the cycle,” said Jeff Roe, a prominent Republican strategist who was Ted Cruz’s campaign manager during the 2016 primaries. “All of this will help him build relationships nationally that he barely had the time to create while on the ticket for four months last fall.”