WASHINGTON — One night last week, a crowd of more than 100 Mike Pence loyalists — senators, congressmen, donors, aides, friends and family — gathered on the roof of a Pennsylvania Avenue office building to celebrate the D.C. opening of Advancing American Freedom, Pence’s new issue advocacy group, and watch the former vice president tape an episode of “Ruthless,” a conservative podcast.
The backdrop — blue fall skies, a pristine rooftop, views all the way to the Capitol — seemed designed to convey a new beginning for Pence as many in his orbit work to position him for a potential 2024 presidential bid, out from the shadow of former president Donald Trump.
Pence told the assembled well-wishers that one of the things he liked about Simon & Schuster, the publisher that signed him to a seven-figure, two-book deal, was that the publishing house told him, “You know, you weren’t born the day before Donald Trump called you to join the ticket.”
” ‘We’d kind of like to know how you became you,’ ” Pence continued, describing the pitch. “And they wanted to know about my upbringing in rural Indiana. They wanted to know about my coming to my faith in Christ. They wanted … to know about starting out in Democratic politics and being won over to the Reagan Revolution and all of that.”
Nine months after the Jan. 6 insurrection and his subsequent departure from the White House, Pence’s friends and advisers say he is likely to run for president — especially if Trump does not. He is taking all the traditional steps to position himself for a 2024 presidential bid — hopscotching the country giving six-figure speeches, sitting down for interviews with friendly conservative media outlets and hosting fundraisers for Republican candidates and causes.
Pence, 62, is being helped by a stable of fans — including many from his years as a stalwart evangelical figure — who say he can offer a path forward for the Republican Party rooted in the cultural and fiscal conservatism of its past, according to numerous allies and advisers, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. His potential candidacy serves as a stark test of whether there can be a political life after Trump for a Republican like Pence — who served four years as Trump’s loyal and subservient No. 2, only to be targeted by a pro-Trump mob and reviled as a traitor by Trump and millions of his followers for refusing to attempt to overturn the 2020 election.
Pence has in recent months played down the events of Jan. 6 and — as he did Monday in an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity — casts coverage of the aftermath as an attempt to “demean” Trump voters. It is part of a consistent balancing act for Pence — taking credit for what he sees as the good of the Trump administration while eliding the bad.
“It was a dark day at our Capitol building, but we moved past it, we finished the work,” Pence said at the podcast event. “And I can tell you honestly, my focus is entirely on the future. And I believe that future is bright.”
The overriding question is whether enough Republicans agree he is the right candidate to carry that message. For a contingent of hard-core Trump supporters, Pence is a turncoat — the coward who betrayed the former president when he refused to toss out the results of a free and fair election.
Lonna Black, 60, a stay-at-home mother from Gilbert, Ariz., who attended a rally in support of the Jan. 6 rioters in Phoenix last month, said she was not a Pence fan after he certified the election results in favor of Joe Biden.
“I think he only has like 1 percent support in the Republican Party, if I know right,” Black said, referring to surveys giving him low marks. “Most people look at him as a traitor.”
And from Bibi Harringston, 50, who works in design and sales in Glendale, when asked whether she would support Pence if he runs for president: “Oh gosh, please, no. We know that Trump carried him.”
Pence, she suggested, “can fade away with Biden.”
Tim Miller, a former Republican strategist and ardent Trump critic who works as a writer for the Bulwark website, said he recently observed two focus groups of solid Trump supporters in Georgia and Ohio for the Bulwark’s new podcast, “The Focus Group.” When Pence’s name came up, he said, the reaction was decidedly muted.
“He’ll get one or two thumbs up, a lot of thumbs down, a lot of mehs,” Miller said. “I just don’t see where he builds to.”
Pence aides and allies take a much rosier view.
They say the former vice president, who has returned full time to his home state of Indiana, embodies Trump’s policy record, which most Republicans like, without the mayhem and controversy. They expect him to focus more on his own role in the “Trump-Pence” administration rather than simply lionizing the former president, as he did during their four years in office.
They also say that Pence’s reputation was largely enhanced by the stance he took on Jan. 6 — what they describe as a moment of courage and leadership when it mattered most. Pence allies say that they regularly hear from Republican donors thanking him for his service and his adherence to the Constitution and that he is frequently stopped in the airport by Republicans — and even some Democrats — who say they appreciate the role he played that day.
And, Pence allies contend, even many stalwart Trump supporters who disagree with his certification of the election results approve of his overall fealty to Trump.
Much of the potential 2024 GOP field — from Pence to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem — is in a holding pattern as Trump ponders his next move. The former president, who remains wildly popular among Republicans, is content for now to run an unofficial reelection campaign of sorts, including political rallies such as one this coming weekend in Iowa.
In an Economist-YouGov poll in August, Pence’s image among Republicans was 68% favorable vs. 20% unfavorable, compared with 34% favorable and 48% unfavorable among citizens overall. The same poll put Trump’s favorability among Republicans at 88%.
Many Pence allies say it will be impossible for him to run if Trump is also in the field, though some of his political advisers maintain he could still enter, though with a more difficult path ahead.
Pence told the “Ruthless” podcast that he and the former president have spoken about a dozen times since Jan. 6. But a person familiar with the matter said that Pence has so far declined Trump’s entreaties to visit him at his private Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., or at his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J., and that the two men have not spoken in recent months.
Pence supporters hope to gain momentum for a potential 2024 bid with a strategy that focuses heavily on conservative evangelicals in states such as South Carolina, which he has visited twice since leaving the administration, and Iowa, where he is headed on Nov. 1 after a previous visit earlier this year.
Ralph Reed, a conservative Christian activist and founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said he was encouraged by Pence’s prospects after watching him do roundtables and hold meetings with faith leaders.
“Walking him into rooms with social conservative movers and shakers and influencers, there’s an enormous amount of respect and affection for him, and I don’t think that’s going to go away,” Reed said.
When Pence visited South Carolina earlier this year, he met with conservative donors and activists in the Upstate area and in Columbia before speaking to pastors and a religious group known for its positions against abortion and same-sex marriage. The former vice president built inroads in the state, party officials say, by making time to huddle at the airport with activists and donors when he would fly in on Air Force Two — a tactic he also deployed in other states.
Walter Whetsell, a South Carolina political consultant who has met several times with Pence, praised him, saying, “I’m telling you, he fits South Carolina — he just does.”
But Whetsell added it would be difficult for Pence to win a Republican primary in the state if Trump runs in 2024. “Until the Trump question gets answered, isn’t this all speculation?” he said.
Josh Kimbrell, a state senator who organized Pence’s trip, said that he believes Pence could win South Carolina — but that Trump would be the front-runner in the state if he ran again.
For now, Pence has busied himself with a rigorous political schedule. He has launched his own podcast, “American Freedom,” in partnership with the conservative Young America’s Foundation, where he holds the title of Ronald Reagan presidential scholar. And he is slated as the featured Saturday-night speaker at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual meeting in Las Vegas next month. He also traveled in September to Hungary for a conservative summit hosted by the country’s far-right prime minister, Viktor Orban.
Pence earlier this year headlined a fundraiser for Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., that raised more than $100,000. Bacon won his district by five points in 2020, even as Trump lost it by seven. “Pence would have done better on the top of the ticket” in his district, Bacon said.
“When I went door to door, it wasn’t the policies — it was the tone, the irascible behavior,” Bacon said. “People like center-right policies, but they don’t like the name-calling. In Nebraska, there is a lot about decency.”
The Trump enthusiasts and the more-traditional Republicans at the fundraiser, he said, were all receptive to Pence’s message, which was critical of the Biden administration on Afghanistan, the border and “rampant spending and inflation.”
“Even the guys who are big supporters of President Trump love Pence’s message,” Bacon said. “I do think he will have a better appeal with moderates and independents and suburban voters.”
The book Pence is currently writing will be a memoir, starting with his childhood but stretching through his time in the Trump administration. He will also address Jan. 6 and the weeks leading up to it, offering his most comprehensive description of the attacks, according to an adviser.
Advisers say Pence has struggled with exactly what to say about Trump. As when he was vice president, he regularly praises Trump, careful to never criticize the former president or allow too much distance between them. But now he also acknowledges their disagreements over Jan. 6, however tepidly.
During a half-hour private speech to Republican donors in Dana Point, Calif., earlier this year, Pence called serving under Trump “the greatest honor of my life.” He addressed the attack on the Capitol only near the end of his remarks, implicitly condemning Trump but training most of his fire on Democrats and the media — forecasting the message he sent with Hannity on Monday.
“President Trump and I have spoken many times since we left office. We probably won’t ever see eye to eye about my duties that day. But I will always be proud of what we accomplished together,” Pence said, according to audio obtained by The Washington Post. “I will not allow the Democrats and their allies in the media to use one tragic day to demean the aspirations of millions of Americans.”
Several longtime Pence allies say the former vice president is more ambitious and ruthless than many realize. Before he makes any final decision, one adviser said, Pence and his wife, Karen, will probably take time away and pray on the decision, asking whether God is calling on them to serve again.
One challenge for Pence, however, will be avoiding the wrath and derision of Trump, who is likely to get jealous if his former No. 2 rises in the polls, allies of both men say.
Sam Nunberg, a former Trump 2016 aide, said Trump is unlikely to tolerate anything short of total adulation from any Republican in the field.
“Should Donald Trump not run in 2024, the first candidate in the Republican primary to criticize him in any shape or form, he will squash like a bug,” Nunberg said. “If Mike Pence were to publicly criticize Trump for January 6, then I think Trump would look to sink him.”
For now, however, Pence seems to be enjoying himself.
“I saw him as vice president, and he used 3-by-5 cards, but this time he was very freewheeling,” Bacon said, referring to the more relaxed version of Pence he glimpsed at the fundraiser.
At the podcast event last week, Pence seemed looser than he had been in the White House. He arrived in a suit and pair of black New Balance sneakers, swapping them out for black dress shoes for the reception — but the dad jokes still flowed freely.
When the podcast hosts began by noting that Pence “had a distinguished radio career back in your day” in Indiana, the former vice president deadpanned: “I had a radio career. I was big in Bedford.”
Perhaps the surest sign Pence is considering a White House bid came when one of the hosts began a question by saying, “I’m not asking if you’re going to run for president, because I know you’re not going to answer that.”
“Well, I’ll keep you posted,” Pence shot back with a smile.
The Washington Post’s Jeremy Duda contributed to this report from Phoenix.