One can’t handicap a horse race without knowing the track on which the race will be run, and that means understanding the fractures in today’s Republican Party. It’s easy to divide the GOP into pro- and anti-Trump factions, but that misses the complexities that lurk beneath the surface. Like any major party, Republicans differ significantly among themselves on issues and personality preferences. Pence is well-suited to appeal to some of these groups, but not others.
Religious, pro-Trump conservatives are one of the largest demographics, and they would also be the group Pence is likeliest to appeal to. He is a convert to evangelical Christianity and has made unwavering support for evangelical political goals a hallmark of his political career. The same personal modesty and social conservatism that enrage progressives endear him to this cohort. It’s no coincidence that Pence chose his first post-Trump foray to be with a host that caters to these voters.
Pence was also known for his fiscal conservatism during his time as a congressman. He voted against the George W. Bush administration’s Medicare Part D bill establishing a prescription drug benefit for seniors. As chairman of the House Republican Study Committee, he strongly backed efforts to create private accounts for Social Security in 2005. A man who once said, “I was tea party before it was cool” would surely delight supply-siders and fiscal conservatives looking for a leader they can count on.
Pence’s courage on Jan. 6, defying President Trump to oversee the certification of Joe Biden’s victory, also endears him to many anti-Trump Republicans. They tend to see him as a brake on the president’s worst tendencies in office and a man whose public slavish devotion masked a private undercover effort to keep Trump from doing more damage than he otherwise could have. Pence’s quiet, understated public presence would also be a plus for those who more than anything want to avoid another figure like Trump.
Securing the support of these groups would put Pence in a strong position for the GOP nomination. But he’s far from assured of doing that, and he might still lose even if he does.
The same personal qualities that might help him with anti-Trump Republicans could hurt him with the president’s most loyal fans. Republicans widely believe the election theft myth, and the most fervent true believers will surely recall that Pence stood against their man when it counted. They also tend to want an angry fighter — someone who wants to own the libs more than he wants to govern the country. Pence is the antithesis of an angry fighter, and if he will likely look foolish if he tries to be something he’s not.
This means he’s ripe for a challenge from his right, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) looks like he’s going to give him one. Cruz was the evangelical and fiscal conservatives’ choice in 2016, and he’s still working to build a national reputation as someone the right can trust. He’s also trying out a new, angrier persona, which he displayed at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. Eschewing a teleprompter, Cruz pranced about the stage holding a microphone, speaking in animated, confrontational tones and ending with a scream of “freedom” in emulation of William Wallace from the movie “Braveheart.” If appeals such as this catch on, Pence might look like conservatism’s boring uncle by the Iowa caucuses.
Movement conservatives also have a poor record of winning Republican nominations. George W. Bush was the only candidate since the Reagan era to take the nomination while also winning “very conservative” primary voters, and he got their support only after the race narrowed to a two-way contest with the more moderate John McCain. January’s YouGov-Ethics and Public Policy Center poll of Trump voters, which I helped craft, shows that such voters are split on the fiscal and religious issues and priorities that animate the very conservative voter. Every GOP nominee but Bush since 1992 has won with the support of moderate conservatives and those who say they are “somewhat conservatives” — even Donald Trump. Pence’s signature speech line — “I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order” — might not be what the party’s silent majority wants to hear.
Pence is a decent man to whom the country owes a debt of gratitude. If he hasn’t spruced up his persona, however, he might end up looking more like Ed Muskie than Richard M. Nixon.