Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the book “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
With his man prevailing over Donald Trump’s chosen candidate, Mike Pence may well mark Tuesday’s Georgia gubernatorial primary as the moment when his 2024 presidential bid got real.
Pence’s ex-boss, the former president who once was seen as a kingmaker in GOP politics, gave his full-throated support to former US Sen. David Perdue, who was humiliated in a blowout loss to incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.
Pence meanwhile, in a rare act of open defiance against Trump, burnished his political resume and showed the first hints of an independent streak by backing the winner, who now goes on to vie against Democratic nominee Stacy Abrams.
Posing as a kind of anti-Trump, Pence appears to be edging closer to a showdown with the former president over the GOP’s 2024 White House nomination. Along the way, he seems to have settled into a now-familiar role as the Republican contender who, in his own words, has described himself as “conservative, but not angry about it.”
Pence, who actively campaigned with Kemp, put his neck out in endorsing him after Trump’s outspoken opposition to the Georgia incumbent governor and the former president’s recruitment of Perdue to enter the race.
Other than the high-profile election contest in Georgia, Pence has avoided direct my-candidate-versus-yours showdowns with Trump – while inching away from the former president and toward the traditional GOP establishment.
As vice president, Pence was Trump’s notably obsequious wingman, heaping praise on his boss and stepping far from the spotlight whenever the president was in the same space. By 2019, he had become the man that vice presidential scholar Joel K. Goldstein once called “the sycophant-in-chief.”
It was only on January 6, 2021, when a Trump-inspired mob attacked the Capitol that Pence defied the president and refused to block certification of Joe Biden’s election. He later said however that he agreed with Trump’s false claim of voting irregularities – a stance which made it possible to see him as both the principled guy who stood up to the January 6 attackers, and at the same time, a loyal Trumpist.
Now as he steps out from Trump’s shadow, Pence is playing the “nice” card with the skill of someone who has used it for many years.
At a rally in Georgia in the closing days of the campaign, he did not speak critically of Trump or Perdue. He stressed that the 2022 election was about “the future” even though “there are those who want to make this election about the past.”
Of course, the main figure dwelling on the political past is Trump, who remains fixated on his fallacious claim that he was cheated in 2020 out of being re-elected president. The irony, of course, is that it was Trump who made Pence relevant when he made him his surprise running mate pick in 2016. At the time, Pence was a first-term governor of Indiana facing a tough re-election campaign. Trump gave him the chance to leave that all behind.
In exchange, the straight-laced Midwesterner helped Trump win over the conservative Christians and right-wing culture warriors who have long been his people. During his White House years as Trump’s top lieutenant, Pence demonstrated such unwavering loyalty to the president that it’s hard to cast him now as an enemy of the Make America Great Again crowd.
Coming out of Georgia, the Pence-for-president plan seems on track. It began in earnest back in 2017, when then-vice president Pence launched a fundraising political action committee five months after he took office.
However, he’ll have to go a long way to match Trump, whose war chest currently stands at $124 million. Last September, Pence had said he hoped to raise $18 million in the coming year. The difference is notable, but Pence has many months to close the gap.
And by contrasting himself with Trump without even saying his former boss’s name, Pence is presenting himself as a kind of off-ramp for Republicans who think the Trump phenomenon has run its course — even as the former president continues to demand loyalty. As one Georgia voter told Reuters the day before this week’s vote, “Having Pence here is a step in the right direction for the Republican Party to step away from the Trump train.”
If his own reaction is any measure, and it generally is, Trump believes Pence is for real. Before the primary, he told an interviewer that he was “very disappointed” in Pence because he refused to aid the former president’s effort to overturn the 2020 election. On the same day, Trump’s spokesman said Pence is “desperate to chase his lost relevance.”
Pence has built a network of high-level supporters cultivated over a two-decade career. The former vice president has been quietly traveling to key states, courting voters and party leaders. Earlier this month, he pressed two of his favorite issues – advocating school choice in Michigan and urging the crowd while on the stump in South Carolina to pray for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling which established abortion rights.
Schools and abortion are hot button issues for religiously-motivated Republicans and it’s hard to imagine a presidential candidate who could appeal to them more than Pence. In 2018, Richard Land of the Southern Evangelical Seminary told the Atlantic, “Mike Pence is the 24-karat-gold model of what we want in an evangelical politician.”
Pence’s faith would also suggest that as he mounts a campaign, he believes that he has support for the most significant ally of all, the creator himself.
As vice president, he posted a Bible verse which has hung over his mantle for many years. “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”
The verse suggests that if Pence gains traction, it will be God’s will. What could anyone, including Trump, do against that?