Home LIFESTYLE Style News “Pence Is Not Stupid”: As Trump Sinks, G.O.P. Insiders See a Shadow Campaign Taking Shape

“Pence Is Not Stupid”: As Trump Sinks, G.O.P. Insiders See a Shadow Campaign Taking Shape

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“There is no shadow campaign,” a senior political adviser to Mike Pence told me Monday, pouring cold water on the persistent speculation that Donald Trump’s broad-shouldered vice president has been anything less than faithful to his volatile boss. “The president tasked the vice president with being the tip of the spear for the midterm elections. Our actions have the full support of the president’s re-election team,” the adviser explained, referring to Pence’s recent cross-country expeditions on behalf of Republican congressional candidates—an expansive political role that has put Pence in contact with some of the most prominent fund-raisers in states across the country. “If there was a shadow campaign,” the adviser continued, “we certainly wouldn’t ask for $5,000 contributions and disclose them publicly. It lacks credibility.”

Talk of a “shadow campaign” isn’t the sort of thing with which vice presidents typically contend when supporting their boss’s re-election efforts. But Trump isn’t a typical president, and Pence, G.O.P. strategists say, would be stupid not to be preparing various contingencies. “I don’t know how you could argue they are not preparing for every eventuality and doing so in a more overt manner than has been done in the past,” a veteran Republican political operative said, summarizing the views of many inside the party. “He isn’t just filling a need.”

Indeed, buzz about Pence’s political aspirations has become something of a parlor game in Washington. While Trump remains the alpha and omega of Republican politics, Pence has quietly taken the lead on virtually all the midterm drudgery usually overseen by the president—making endorsements, conferring with party power brokers, meeting with voters in battleground states. Those in Pence’s orbit cooly dismiss the notion that there is anything to see here beyond perfectly innocent fund-raisers and other voter turnout activities. Trump, after all, is not particularly interested in the machinery of Republican politics, which is now more diffuse than ever. There’s the president and his Twitter account, of course; a somewhat disengaged White House political shop; the Trump re-election campaign, already up and running; the so-called dark-money group America First Policies and an affiliated super PAC, which are the official outside groups promoting Trump’s agenda; and there’s the Republican National Committee. Dispatching the vice president is only logical.

Among those who suspect Pence has one eye on the throne, however, those maneuvers look like a tell. Pence’s parallel political operation now bypasses the president’s. Last May, he startled political observers by creating Great America Committee to raise resources for House and Senate Republicans, as well as to finance his travel on Air Force Two. (Unlike America First Policies, the standard PAC is constrained by federal fund-raising limits and has to reveal its donors.) This year, Pence formed a joint fund-raising committee with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, dubbed “Protect the House,” to raise money that flows directly to House Republicans and their campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“No question, it’s unusual,” a Republican insider and former leadership aide in Congress told me. “Most V.P. offices haven’t dreamed of having separate political operations from that of the president of the United States.” Nor would they think to hire Nick Ayers, the hyper-political campaign operative who now serves as Pence’s chief of staff. As one G.O.P. pollster told me, the move was as shocking as if Vice President George H.W. Bush had tapped Lee Atwater as his chief during the Reagan years. “Pence is not stupid,” a Republican consultant with Indiana ties said, reflecting on the vice president’s political rise from conservative radio host to politician-in-residence at No. 1 Observatory Circle. “Trump is very volatile, and Pence has never intentionally been volatile.” In other words: If anyone is looking three moves down the chess board, it’s Pence.

The caricature of Pence is that he’s like a Trump windup doll—turn the key in his back, and he’ll declaim Trumpian rhetoric with unflinching loyalty. It’s not a talent that has won him support in all corners of the party. Conservative columnist George F. Will recently sideswiped Pence as “the authentic voice of today’s lickspittle Republican Party,” whose fealty to the president has turned the midterms into a referendum on the merits of “groveling as governing.” But that derision, parroted less eloquently by critics left and right, also obscures an important point. Success in Trumpworld demands a certain amount of groveling. And Pence is a shrewd political operator who knows exactly who his boss is and what motivates him. Whenever he perceives that he might have overstepped his bounds—as he did when he tried to hire Jon Lerner, a closet Never-Trumper allied with Ayers and Nikki Haley—the former governor from copacetic Indiana makes sure to stroke his boss’s New York ego with effusive praise, even as he prepares for the potentiality, however remote, that Trump might not finish his term.

The matter is quite sensitive inside the Republican Party. Appearances being so central to the president, fans of both Trump and Pence worry about the impact whispers of President Pence might have on their political marriage. That could account for Trump loyalist Corey Lewandowski joining Pence’s political-action committee as an adviser—a sign, some have said, that Trump is asserting his dominance. Fox News reports that Lewandowski plans to travel with the vice president as he campaigns for Republicans on the November ballot.

But there are critical factors that led to Pence becoming the West Wing’s political go-to guy that can’t be fixed by personnel makeovers or blamed on Trump’s disinterest in party-building, as a few of the president’s biggest cheerleaders in Washington have repeatedly complained to me in recent months. Whatever White House Chief of Staff John Kelly brings to the table, political instincts or operational know-how aren’t part of his skill set. Second, the White House political shop, which would normally command all White House-related political activity, has never been fully empowered to fulfill this crucial role. Third, the Republican National Committee, which is usually influential in shaping a president’s political involvement, is perceived as ineffective beyond fund-raising.

What distinguishes the vice president’s robust operation is that it functions proficiently, free of the typical Trump melodrama. Have a question? Need help with a campaign? Does a major donor or valued activist need massaging? Want Pence to headline an event? You get a timely answer—and it’s probably the answer you were hoping for. And so Republican elected officials and seasoned operatives have come to rely on Pence. “He’s doing the Lord’s work,” emphasized one grateful G.O.P. strategist. “Somebody needs to be out there doing these events; tending to donors. If it’s not him, then who is doing it?” The risk for Pence, warned one of those Republicans concerned about appearances, is that sometimes his political organization moves so quickly, it creates the appearance that the vice president is purposely getting out in front of Trump. “It looks like he’s trying to outflank the president, but really he’s just steady and competent,” this Republican, a lobbyist, said. “It’s a dangerous thing for the vice president.”

The senior Pence political aide, and others close to the vice president, emphasized in interviews that everything he does has Trump’s express consent and endorsement. The president, after all, personally knighted Pence as his chief midterm election emissary, during a meeting at Camp David in January. Pence loyalists are also tired of pointing out that the vice president assumes in no uncertain terms that Trump is running for re-election in 2020. His only goal, they say, is facilitating a second four years in his current occupation, which necessarily begins with protecting the precarious G.O.P. majority in the House and preventing the impeachment proceedings that Republicans are sure would follow a Democratic takeover.

Yet questions continue to linger, and it’s not all the product of the Washington press corps’ active imagination. As I reported for the Washington Examiner in early February, Republican operatives took notice, and not in the way Pence would prefer, when his PAC, Great America Committee, donated only $172,000 of the $1.8 million it raised in 2017 to House Republicans, “and mostly to Republicans who will probably glide to re-election no matter how bad the midterm environment is for the G.O.P.” Endangered House Republicans eventually received their checks, but some party insiders were annoyed that safe members got the first crack at Pence PAC money.

Pence-watchers took note again when the vice president ended up making news in Arizona, earlier this month, for his over-the-top praise of Joe Arpaio, the controversial former sheriff running for Senate in the state’s closely watched Republican primary. The unexpected remarks scared G.O.P. insiders who worried that the vice president was picking sides in favor of the flawed Arpaio to ingratiate himself with Trump’s base—a base he would need to win a presidential primary and win a national contest. Arpaio is a close Trump ally who was pardoned by the president after he was convicted of ignoring a federal court order in a racial-profiling case.

The Pence team, in characteristically sly fashion, quickly devised a way to defuse the situation and reaffirm the vice president’s commitment to the party and his fidelity to Trump. Shortly afterward, a photograph of Pence and the Republican establishment’s unofficial favorite in that race, Rep. Martha McSally, was circulated on social media, to even the scales and correct any misconceptions about where Pence stood in the primary. Sensitive to appearances as always, an operative close to Pence made a point to mention that fact as I was reporting this story.

David M. Drucker is a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner and a CNN political analyst.

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