Former Vice President Mike Pence has spent his career in politics heeding the words of UCLA legend and famous Hoosier John Wooden: “When opportunity knocks, it’s too late to prepare.”
On Tuesday night, opportunity knocked for Pence with a strong defeat of former President Donald Trump’s handpicked candidates for Georgia governor and secretary of state — underscoring that while many Republicans still believe Trump’s lie claiming he won the presidential election in 2020, it’s not driving their decisions at the ballot box.
The results seemed to validate what Pence and his team have been counting on since leaving the White House — the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection is hardly an insurmountable obstacle, and most Republicans want to move on from the sweeping losses of 2020.
“Elections are about the future,” Pence tweeted Monday. “There are those who want to make this election about the past — Stacey Abrams & Joe Biden want Georgia to embrace the failed big government socialist policies that are stifling our economy & our liberties. But you know, the future belongs to FREEDOM.”
He pointedly left out any mention of Trump, Perdue or the unfounded 2020 election claims.
Georgia widened the path for Pence to the White House. And while a path to the nomination is far from guaranteed, veteran Republicans noted this week that his methodical, plain and steady Hoosier approach to politics is paying off, little by little.
“Pence does the best job at getting the HPS — headlines, pictures and story. He’s very disciplined,” said Scott Reed, a longtime Republican strategist and campaign manager for Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. “The way he handled supporting Kemp was elegant. It shows a level of experience and professionalism that seems to be head and shoulders above many others.”
Pence's 'steady' strategy
After Tuesday’s surprising results, Pence didn’t gloat or bask; he kept to his studious Midwestern approach of methodical campaigning.
He spent Tuesday night in North Carolina headlining a fundraiser for the state Republican Party with Trump-backed Senate candidate Ted Budd and veteran Christian right leader Ralph Reed.
On Thursday morning, Pence trekked to New Hampshire, just outside Manchester, to meet with the state’s Federation of Republican Women.
“Mike Pence had one of the best nights of his career Tuesday. He is coming into his own,” said Mike Murphy, a veteran Indiana Republican and friend of Pence’s. “His political calculus is consistent with his lifelong ‘steady as she goes’ strategy: Know who you are; make no unforced errors; let your faith and the Constitution be your guardrails.”
In the past few months, Pence’s allies and advisers have been preparing themselves for a possible campaign launch in the spring of 2023, according to people familiar with Pence’s operation. But they also offer the critical caveat that the former vice president and his wife, Karen, haven’t made up their minds yet.
Pence himself has brushed back that question, telling the New York Times in Iowa last month that he and his wife were still praying: “We’ll go where we’re called.”
On Wednesday night, no less than "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" imagined a showdown between Pence and Trump. It’s more than a joke, however.
Republican operatives have been seriously talking about the idea that 2024 might turn into a showdown between Trump and Pence if Trump runs and successfully pushes out other top-name contenders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Pence, whose political career dates back more than three decades to his first run for Congress in 1988, has dipped his toe in the waters many times before.
When he was a congressman, conservatives tried to recruit Pence to run for president in 2012. Hewing to his cautious, steady approach, he opted to run for governor of Indiana instead, with an eye toward using that as a launchpad for a 2016 bid.
Pence pursued big-dollar GOP donors throughout his time as governor, but facing strong headwinds and a very crowded 2016 field — even before Trump himself jumped in — he opted to run for reelection as governor.
But Pence may not have more time to delay a run, his supporters note.
If he waits another four years he could fall into the same trap as the last Hoosier vice president, Dan Quayle, who launched a presidential bid in 1999, long after leaving the White House.
Quayle’s bid lasted just a few months, and the lesson taken by savvy operatives was, don’t miss your window.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” Murphy said. “Lose with honor? Win without character? It would be an easy choice for Pence.”
Caveats abound for Pence
Caveats abound for Pence and any other mainstream Republican considering a bid, according to Republican strategists who spoke to Yahoo after Tuesday’s election in Georgia.
Trump is still the strongest force in Republican politics right now, even if his grip on the party and his own populist movement has weakened. And there’s a broad field of possible 2024 contenders who could easily outflank Pence on the top issues of the day, from DeSantis’s hard-driving culture wars to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s hawkish foreign policy stances.
But the supposed disqualifier for Pence — his role in upholding the 2020 election results on Jan. 6, 2021 — doesn’t seem to be one of them.
“I have not seen a single survey, Republican primary or general election survey, in which inflation and the cost of living has not been almost singularly the top issue,” said an official for Advancing American Freedom, a political group formed by Pence that pushes conservative policies, who spoke on background to detail the results of its latest polling.
Asked why the 2020 election lie hasn’t resonated with Republican voters, the official said, “Go back to your college psychology class and [remember] the hierarchy of needs. … When you are feeling economic pressure, personal financial pressure, it completely and entirely dominates the decisions and the choices you make.”
Yahoo News Senior Investigative Correspondent Michael Isikoff contributed to this report.