LAS VEGAS (AP) — Mike Pence has a resume most White House hopefuls would dream of. A congressman. A governor of a big Midwestern state. A one-time vice president.
In normal times, someone with such credentials would be well-positioned to win their party’s presidential nomination. But these are not normal times and Pence’s decision to end his campaign more than two months before the first contest in the Republican primary underscores the extent to which the party has been subsumed by former President Donald Trump and his lies about the 2020 election that he lost to Democrat Joe Biden.
Pence made his surprise announcement Saturday in Las Vegas, where he and other GOP presidential hopefuls spoke at a summit sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition. But in many ways, Pence’s campaign ended years before it officially began, in the days leading up to Jan. 6, 2021. That was when Trump, desperate to hang onto power, became convinced that Pence, as president of the Senate, could somehow reject the election results — a power the then-vice president did not possess.
After spending four years as Trump’s loyal defender, Pence was suddenly cast as a traitor, targeted by rioters who stormed the Capitol, some chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” Angry Trump supporters crossed his name off their “Trump-Pence” yard signs or shoved them deep into the ground to bury his name in the dirt. While the issue became less salient as the campaign went on, Pence was heckled and booed at times.
“From the very beginning, I think his supporters knew that the challenge was going to be some of the hardcore Trump supporters were never going to forgive him for upholding the Constitution on Jan 6,” said Art Pope, a GOP donor from North Carolina who supported Pence’s campaign. “On the other hand, there were a group of Americans who were never going to forgive him for being in the Trump administration to begin with.”
“He just could not overcome that,” Pope said.
Pence tried to thread what often seemed like an impossibly fine needle. He ran on the record of what he fondly referred to as the Trump-Pence administration while also criticizing his former boss. He accused Trump of abandoning conservative principles on issues such as abortion and of putting himself above the Constitution to stay in power. During his campaign launch event, Pence addressed Jan. 6 head-on, defending his actions and saying Trump disqualified himself during that period.
“Anyone that puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States, and anyone who asks someone else to put them over the Constitution should never be president of the United States again,” Pence said.
The Wi-Fi password for the media at the event — “KeptHisOath!” — underscored his message, as did the first ad run by a supportive super political action committee, which featured footage from the insurrection, contrasting both men’s actions that day.
Though it was never part of his stump speech, Pence’s approach to Jan. 6 reflected his advisers’ belief that, if he addressed the Capitol attack directly and spent time explaining his position, voters would come to respect his adherence to the Constitution and see it as a point of strength.
“People respect him for upholding his oath under enormous pressure,” Marc Short, a longtime senior adviser, said over the summer.
That never translated into support from conservative primary voters, who in polls and focus groups made clear they preferred other options. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research from August found 57% of Republicans still believe Biden was illegitimately elected president, while a plurality believed Trump did nothing wrong in the run-up to Jan. 6.
Even at Pence’s opening campaign event, many in attendance said they liked and respected him, but had yet to make a decision.
“Trump blew up Mike Pence on January 6th. Trump demonized Pence on that day, and he never recovered. But it’s more than that,” said longtime pollster and focus group moderator Frank Luntz. “The GOP of 2023 is not the same party that nominated Pence in 2016. The same people who gave him standing ovations in 2016 turned their back on him now.”
Devin O’Malley, Pence’s longtime spokesman, said his campaign “always knew there was going to be a large portion of the electorate that was not going to be with him on Jan. 6, but the only way he could tarnish his career and his legacy and reputation was to be untrue to himself,” he said. “Ultimately there was one person who could change how he’ll be perceived through history and that was Mike Pence. And he stayed true to himself and he comes out with his legacy intact.”
Pence spent much of his campaign advocating traditional conservative policies, including more U.S. support for Ukraine, even as those ideas have fallen out of favor in a Republican Party increasingly aligned with Trump’s populist and isolationist leanings.
All the while, Trump only grew stronger, building his support even as he confronted multiple criminal indictments, including cases in Georgia and Washington tied to his efforts to overturn the election.
Supporters and those close to Pence, some of whom were granted anonymity to describe the final weeks of his campaign, said they realized it was effectively over around the time of the second debate in September.
Several expected Pence would see a wave of momentum after the first debate, when he delivered an uncharacteristically pointed performance, tangling, in particular, with tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. But Pence saw no appreciable bump in the polls or fundraising. By the second debate, he was relegated to the far side of the stage.
Then came a campaign finance report that showed just how dire the situation had become. Pence had already racked up more than $600,000 in debt by the end of September and was burning through nearly as much cash as he was raising, despite an aggressive fundraising schedule.
While Pence staked his campaign on Iowa — where his super PAC had knocked on nearly 600,000 doors — making it to the January caucuses would have required him to go into the kind of debt that might have taken Pence, who is not independently wealthy, years to pay off.
Aides insisted he would qualify for the third debate if he tried, but his calendar became suspiciously empty. This past week, Pence began dialing top supporters to let them know that he decided to end the campaign.
“He never got much traction,” said Larry Post, a retired money manager from Beverly Hills, California, who was among the Republican donors gathered in Las Vegas.
Pence chose the Republican Jewish Coalition summit — before a friendly crowd that has long appreciated his support for Israel — in part so he could make his case one last time that the U.S. must maintain its leadership role on the world stage to prevent attacks such as the one by Hamas against Israel.
Post blamed Pence for his predicament. “He’s kind of stiff,” Post said. “So I don’t think he had a lot of charisma.” But Post also said Jan. 6 may have played a role in Pence’s struggle to gain momentum as a candidate, “when he decided, you know, to pick a fight with Trump over what was right and what was wrong and what he should do.”
Lawrence Platt, an OB/GYN from Los Angeles who was also attending the meeting of the influential Jewish group, said he was “not shocked but surprised,” when Pence announced he was ending his campaign.
He called Pence “a respectful man,” but said there were other strong candidates in the field beyond Trump.
Pence was only polling in the single digits, so his departure is unlikely to give a major boost to any of his rivals. But former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has been running as the most vocal Trump critic in the race, said it was a sign the field was finally winnowing — something anti-Trump Republicans have long argued must happen for anyone to have a shot at taking on Trump directly.
“In the end, it just means this race is narrowing as everyone said that it would,” Christie told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
Pope, who said Pence had reached out earlier this past week to let him know he had decided to end his campaign, said that was the right choice to drop out now.
“If there is not a path to victory then I think it was a prudent thing to withdraw from the race earlier rather than later and let the field consolidate,” he said, voicing belief that Trump can still be beaten.
Colvin reported from New York.