GOP hopefuls turn to Pence to broaden appeal before election

NEW YORK (AP) – In Donald Trump’s estimation, Mike Pence “committed political suicide” on Jan. 6, 2021.

By refusing to go along with the then-President’s unconstitutional push to overturn the results of the 2020 election, Pence became a leading target of Trump’s ire and a pariah in many Republican circles.

But the final weeks of this year’s intensely competitive midterm elections suggest the former vice president’s fortunes have changed as he lays the groundwork for his own potential White House campaign in 2024. The man who was touted last year at a conservative conference is now a sought-after draw for Republican candidates, including some who spent their primaries courting Trump’s support, in part by perpetuating his campaign lies.

Pence has traveled the country, holding events and raising millions for candidates and Republican groups, including signing party fundraisers.

For some campaigns in close races, Pence is seen as something of a neutralizing agent who can help broaden their appeal beyond Trump’s core base of support. That’s the case in Arizona, with a critical Senate race this year and where the 2024 presidential campaign will be hotly contested. Last week, Pence endorsed Senate nominee Blake Masters, who has struggled to swing from the primary and win over moderates in a state where a third of voters are registered independents.

“He’s taking a little bit of the edge off Masters with a lot of voters,” said veteran GOP strategist Scott Reed. “You know Masters is new to this first-time candidate, said some stupid things that he probably regrets during the campaign. But now it’s about undecided voters in Maricopa County. There’s not much more science behind this.”

The endorsements may seem jarring since Pence has spent much of the past year pushing back on Trump’s election lies, spurring the violent mob that descended on the Capitol on Jan. 6 as Pence tried to preside over the formal congressional certification of Joe Biden’s election victory . Pence and members of his family had to be rushed to safety and were held for hours in an underground loading dock while looters roamed the halls of the building. Some rioters shouted “Hang Mike Pence!” and erected a makeshift gallows outside.

Pence agreed to endorse Masters, even though during the primaries Masters flatly denied the results of the 2020 election. Masters recorded a video in which he said he believed Trump had won, and claimed on his website that “if we had had a free and fair election, President Trump would be sitting in the Oval Office today.” Trump endorsed Masters in June, saying in a statement: “Blake knows the ‘Crime of the Century’ took place, he will expose it and also never allow it to happen again.”

Pence did not mention it in Phoenix on Tuesday.

“What I came here to Arizona to say is not only that Blake Masters is the right choice for the United States Senate, the people of Arizona deserve to know that Blake Masters can be the difference between a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Republican majority in the Senate. The Senate,” Pence said.

The former vice president, along with Masters and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, took just three questions, two of them from conservative websites. When a television reporter noted that Masters has questioned the 2020 election, a spokesman for Masters cut him off before he could finish his question.

Masters is not the only pro-choice denier Pence has endorsed or assisted.

Two days after the Masters event, Pence was in Georgia hosting a fundraiser for Burt Jones, the lieutenant governor nominee. Jones didn’t just embrace Trump’s claims of widespread election fraud and called for a statewide investigation into the 2020 race, but he also signed on to be one of his state’s fake alternates — a scheme that is now under criminal investigation.

Last month, Pence was in New Hampshire for Senate nominee Don Bolduc, a retired Army general who also spent his primary campaign telling voters the race was stolen from Trump.

Marc Short, a longtime Pence adviser, declined to set a red line for candidates Pence would and would not support.

“It’s more about making sure he’s a team player where he needs to be,” Short said. “I think as many of these candidates are looking to strengthen the party behind them, Pence could be useful.”

There is no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines in the 2020 election, underscored by repeated audits, lawsuits and the conclusions of Trump’s own Justice Department. Yet support for fraudulent election claims runs deep among GOP candidates this year.

Notably, the Masters endorsement came just days after a debate in which he made headlines for apparently changing his mind from his most outrageous false election claims. Masters instead blamed Trump’s loss on “big tech,” “big media” and the FBI, acknowledging under repeated questioning that he had seen no evidence that the vote count or results were rigged, as Trump has claimed. (After the Pence visit, Masters told Fox News that he stood by what he had said on his now-amended website, adding: “I think if everybody followed the law, President Trump would be in the Oval Office.”)

Short said Pence was happy to support candidates who had moved past 2020, as the former vice president has urged the party to do.

“If people have kind of acknowledged a wrong position before, he’s definitely going to reward that,” Short said. “I think he’s going to help conservatives first and foremost, but if people who were elected now take a new stance on the events of January 6,” Short said, “then that’s positive.”

Jones and Bolduc have also tried to distance themselves from their previous statements.

In interviews, Jones has tried to downplay the fake electoral roll as a “procedural move” while noting that voters rarely mention the 2020 race.

“Look, he’s been consistent that he doesn’t think the 2020 election was rigged. He said Joe Biden is president,” said Jones campaign spokesman Stephen Lawson, who noted that Pence and Jones have a long-standing relationship and just like Masters shares former Pence staffers.

“For us, it was kind of a no-brainer because the vice president is still very well-liked in Georgia, very well-received. And we’re in the final stretch where any Republican who comes to raise money, support, is a value-add,” he said.

“I think it’s definitely a nod to more mainstream kind of moderate Republicans. I think that’s a fair assessment,” he said.

Bolduc claimed throughout the primary race that the 2020 election had been stolen. During a debate, he proclaimed that “Trump won the election and damn it, I’m standing by,” adding, “I’m not switching horses, honey.”

But right after the GOP primary — and a day after appearing with Pence — he told Fox News it was time to move on. “You know, we live and learn, right? And I’ve done a lot of research on this, and I’ve spent the last few weeks talking to Granite Staters all over the state from all parties. And I’ve come to the conclusion, and I will be final on this: The election was not stolen,” Bolduc said. He described Biden as “the legitimate president of this country.”

(Earlier this month, Bolduc changed his stance again, saying he wasn’t sure what happened to the election. “I can’t say whether it’s stolen or not. I don’t have enough information.”)

Reed, the party strategist, said he understood the rationale behind Pence’s endorsements.

“He’s a big picture party guy. And it doesn’t surprise me that he’s pushing as hard as he is for people who might not be 100% cool,” he said. “By doing these kinds of events,” he added, “will they look at him again if he decides to run.”

Pence’s political future is an open question. Trump, who is widely expected to run again, remains deeply popular among Republican primary voters and would almost certainly be an early front-runner for the 2024 nomination. Pence has said his own decision to run will not be influenced by Trump, although allies often express skepticism that Trump will ultimately end up on the ballot.

Beyond his endorsements, Pence has spent his time since leaving office performing a careful balancing act. He has distanced himself from Trump’s most caustic statements while promoting what he calls the Trump-Pence agenda. Pence, like generations of potential candidates, has used the primaries as an opportunity to forge new relationships and build goodwill, and continues to align himself with conservative causes. His travels often include visiting universities and speaking before anti-abortion groups.

Other potential 2024 candidates have campaigned for the Republican cause, including Texas Sen. Ted Cuz, who is on a month-long 17-state “Take Back America” ​​bus tour. Trump has held rallies and is finally beginning to use a small portion of his vast political fortune to help his preferred candidates.

“I think he and all these guys are really helping Republicans win back the House and win back the Senate. It’s an effort that everybody has to contribute to,” said David McIntosh, president of the influential Club for Growth, which has joined Pence at several events.

McIntosh, who has been at odds with Trump in recent months, said he believes voters will “move on” from 2020 “to what’s on the ballot this election.” He said candidates like Masters “want to show that they’ve got the support of all different types of Republicans, everybody that’s out there, so there’s a theme of unity.”

“It’s always been my view,” he added, “that leaders like that help themselves by helping.”

But being popular enough for candidates to want to campaign with you is very different from being popular enough to be competitive in a presidential race, and right now Pence is routinely polling in the single digits, well below Trump and the Florida governor Ron DeSantis.

“Around here, people are talking about DeSantis and Trump,” said Georgia GOP strategist Brian Robinson, adding that attention is largely focused on the Nov. 8 midterms.

Pence’s policy group recently held a Utah retreat in Montage Deer Valley, attended by GOP donors such as Matthew J. Bruderman, a New York investor who praised Pence’s election-year efforts.

“He has been extremely effective and deserves credit for continuing to help elect people he believes will help advance conservative principles,” Bruderman said by email, adding that he would “support him or any fiscal conservative of courage and character that wins the nomination” in 2024.

Art Pope, another donor who attended the retreat, said he “personally would love to see Vice President Pence run in 2024.”

“Yes, there are frictions and there are divisions” in the GOP, he said, but the party is uniting behind its nominees now that the primaries are over.

“Vice President Pence both benefits from that unity and helps lead that association,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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