“You hear it here first, [he’s the] shadow front-runner,” texted one of Mike Pence’s longtime friends after the former vice president’s November appearance at the University of Iowa. Pence had just delivered a speech that may come to be seen as a pivotal moment should he cement what already seems obvious: He’s running for president, and doing so regardless of who his opponents might be.
Pence, who’s known as much for his anti-LGBTQ positions as his awkward stiffness, has been loosening up—an observation that, this side of New Year’s Day, mere months from midterm elections, has those close to him betting on a bid. As he worked the room of students in the critical early-voting state late last year, he came across as confident, at ease, even funny—albeit in a dry, Mike Pence-y way.
After delivering the equivalent of a stump speech touting his work in the White House, he moved on to a question-and-answer session with students, loosening his grip on the podium and engaging with them directly. He opened up about why he hadn’t joined the military like many in his family, telling a rare anecdote about his father. One student accused Pence of certifying Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump merely to further his own presidential ambitions: “My question is, what is the name of the person who told you to buck President Trump’s plan and certify the votes?”
“James Madison,” Pence replied, pausing for effect.
His performance barely registered amid the swirl of speculation over whether Trump and Biden will face off again in 2024. But allies and supporters saw a man coming out of his shell after close to two decades of testing the waters—someone who’s finally embracing his own style as a candidate. “I definitely have noticed a change where he’s more comfortable being himself,” said Alyssa Farah, Pence’s former spokeswoman. Added one longtime Indiana Republican, “He set his compass, and now [he] has a path to follow.”
Until now, following that path has been all but impossible. For Pence, whose office declined multiple requests for comment for this article, surviving Trump, literally and figuratively, meant keeping his head down and doing his job. For a long time, the conventional wisdom among Republicans has been that Trump ended Pence’s political career on January 6, convincing his die-hard base that Pence was the Benedict Arnold of their revolution.
Instead, Trump’s actions seem to have had the opposite effect, accidentally launching Pence’s quite feasible bid for the Republican nomination. “Pence’s political stock continues to rise every month while Trump relitigating his loss to Biden makes him look smaller in the rearview mirror,” said Scott Reed, a longtime Republican operative who ran Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign for president.
At the same time, Trump’s grip on the GOP has begun to soften. For most of the year, Beltway thinking was that the former president was all but guaranteed to run in 2024, but that assumption was seemingly upended by Glenn Youngkin’s surprise victory in the Virginia governor’s race. Pence, like many other Republicans, campaigned with Youngkin at private events, but Trump was kept away—and the lesson of his absence sunk in quickly. While a hardened segment of the base will likely never break with Trump, increasing numbers of Republicans say they want someone new, or at the very least want Trump to name a successor. GOP donors, meanwhile, have been quietly pushing others to run, according to a Republican strategist. To them, Youngkin’s win indicates there’s no appetite for an extremist in the White House (though if and when Trump does announce a bid, that outlook may be scrambled in as-yet-unpredictable ways).
What’s more, Trump’s emailed statements don’t drive the news in the same way his tweets once did. He’s been largely relegated to reaction, responding to the latest outrage and competing for attention with the likes of Madison Cawthorn and Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Meanwhile, Pence and others continue to draw attention that otherwise would have gone Trump’s direction. “I’m confident that our party and our movement will choose the right leaders and the right voices to make our country strong and great once again,” Pence said in an interview with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network. Not quite a declaration of candidacy, but also not a bow to the king of the GOP.
In response, Trump issued an attack on Pence in early December, saying in a statement that Pence was a “good man,” but that he made a “big mistake” in refusing to overturn the 2020 election results.
The two have always had a tepid relationship, more the function of Trump’s fear of a potential competitor than of Pence’s actions, which were obsequious to the point of parody. In office, Trump talked about dropping Pence from the ticket in 2020, Trump advisers told me at the time—an idea rumored to have been pushed by Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, but ultimately dismissed by Trump himself and almost every other Trump adviser. But they did isolate Pence’s political team, to the point that Pence’s top adviser once had to use a mole inside the Trump campaign to obtain internal poll numbers showing Pence to be more popular than Trump, as I reported in 2019.
Pence’s tight-knit team hoped Trump would win a second term, allowing Pence to run as heir apparent in 2024, according to my interviews with Pence advisers over the last five years. But of course, that changed when Trump lost reelection. Behind the scenes, Pence worked to understand his role in certifying the election results, while also ironing out more basic details, like where he would live after leaving the vice president’s residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory.
Trump and his advisers lobbied Pence at length to aid in their attempted coup. A little over an hour after Pence issued his letter declaring that no one man should decide who becomes president, Trump painted a large target on Pence’s back. Pence has tap-danced around the events of January 6 ever since, even while fallout from the insurrection has kept his name consistently in the news—a level of exposure invaluable to any politician looking to win the highest office in the land.
Aides in both camps say Trump and Pence maintain contact, even though Pence is still angry that Trump endangered his and his family’s lives. At least one of Pence’s Republican allies has been quietly pushing the former vice president to attack Trump directly, according to the longtime Indiana Republican. But Pence’s team has brushed back those suggestions for now, charting a more genteel course while waiting to see how the 2024 field shapes up. “Now’s not the right time,” said one Indiana Republican who expects to support Pence should he officially declare for 2024.
Days after his University of Iowa speech, Pence headlined the annual meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas—a gig that gave him facetime with prominent GOP donors, including Miriam Adelson, the widow of megadonor Sheldon Adelson and a massive emergent force in the money game, according to Politico.
Trump didn’t attend in person; instead, he taped a video for the group. His weekend was occupied by a gala for the Log Cabin Republicans hosted at Mar-a-Lago. At a separate event that week for the America First Policy Institute, a think tank that acts as a life raft for former Trump administration officials, who have largely been shunned across Washington, Trump made an unusually expansive comment. “They call it the party of Trump. Some people do. But it’s not the party of Trump. This is about all the people in this room, about America. And it will last long beyond Trump,” he said, according to an attendee.