Only 72 hours after Presidential Politics for America wondered about a future conservative realignment behind Vice President Mike Pence, The New York Times proposed that Pence might be actively positioning himself in front of that realignment. Just a few hours after that, Pence rejected the idea as “disgusting and offensive,” presumably adding the article to an extensive and ongoing list of things and acts he would describe with those two words. Pundits have been contractually obligated to pick sides on this story, so PPFA is here to settle the debate. Will Mike Pence challenge Trump for the Republican nomination in 2020?
Before we throw some weights on the balance, we should first acknowledge such a challenge from the Vice President would be one of the five juiciest political developments in electoral history. (What else is on the list, you ask? That’s what footnotes are for!) A sitting VP has only once challenge a sitting President (see footnote), and that happened 217 years ago. It’s almost certainly not happening.
But it might.
Let’s first clarify that I’m allowing two major scenarios to qualify as a Pence challenge.
- Far more dramatic but far less likely: an open challenge that Trump tries to fight off.
- Relatively less dramatic but more likely: A behind-the-scenes coup that Trump can’t repel, deciding instead to “voluntarily” remain a one-term president. We might not know if this happens, but we’ll have our suspicions, especially if the White House is still leakier than its chef’s colander.
Okay, here we go:
Arguments in favor of the Pence challenge happening:
- We are through the looking glass. Things that seemed absurd two years ago ended up happening. The rules and traditions of politics have been thrown out the window. Up is down, left is right, black is orange, human sacrifices, dogs and cats living together…
- He created a political action committee. A PAC is essential to campaign fundraising and often marks an early official step in the process of becoming a candidate. It’s allowed Pence to host $5,000-a-person fundraising. The PAC is head by Jack Oliver, who ran the PAC that helped get George W. Bush elected. He’s a serious choice, and he quickly raised a million dollars.
- Do you know how many sitting vice-presidential candidates have created a PAC in their boss’s first term? Zero. Pence denies that its creation is for a presidential run… but of course he’d say that.
- At the end of June, the Vice President replaced his Chief of Staff with Nick Ayers. Ayers is seen as an aggressive political mind whose experience is in campaigns, not governing. He was a favorite to become the Republican National Committee Chairman.
- Guess who just did an event in Iowa, home of the first presidential primary caucus? Mike Pence.
- Guess who found time around his commencement speech at Notre Dame to make stops in two of the three most massive battleground states, Ohio and Pennsylvania? Mike Pence.
- And then guess who found time a month later to visit the third massive battleground state, Florida, where he suffered a rather embarrassing photo at NASA?
That’s right. Mike Pence.
In sum, there are, as one political strategist described it, “too many coincidences.”
Arguments against of the Pence challenge happening:
- Take a deep breath. Calm yourself. Slow your roll call. Whether President Trump wins or loses reelection, Pence is 39 months from being the prohibitive favorite for his party’s nomination in 2024. If he really wants the job, it’d be risky to roll the dice in such a dramatic fashion, whether publicly or privately, especially in contrast to the safer, patient route. He’d risk alienating the millions of passionate Trump supporters who he’d need to win his campaign.
- The purpose of his PAC is to help funnel money into Republican coffers for the 2018 midterms and 2020 elections. It also will allow him to travel with his own budget, rather than needing to siphon from the RNC. With Trump likely to have high negative numbers, Pence will be all the more critical when stumping for Congressional candidates. That means he needs to be easily mobile with his own funds.
- Trump blessed the PAC, which donated as much as it could to the President’s re-election campaign. Plus, at the PAC’s first major event, Ivanka introduced Pence to the guests. The President and Vice President are working in tandem here.
- At 34 years old, Ayers is an up-and-coming political operative whose skills are surely not limited to campaigning. Broadening a résumé is not unusual for someone in their mid-30s. Besides, the vice presidency is notoriously bereft of constitutional authority to govern anyway.
- Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida are all expected to be battleground states in 2020. The Trump/Pence team aims to win them all again. It should be no surprise that Pence is making visits to shore up potentially flagging support amid a rough stretch of polling.
- And that political strategist who stressed the number of “coincidences”? It was a Democrat, surely someone who would enjoy lighting some brush fires in the GOP.
So, nice try, New York Times. This is much ado about nothing. Will Mike Pence challenge Trump for the presidency in 2020? My answer is a confident, convinced, assured no.
- The only precedent to what Pence would be trying to accomplish: Vice President Thomas Jefferson challenging President John Adams in 1800. I don’t see how this could ever be topped, considering it’s not just any VP challenging his president, it’s Thomas Jefferson challenging John Adams. Unless you know of some election between George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, the top spot is safe.
- The Election of 1824. Andrew Jackson won the popular vote and the Electoral College, but thanks to a four-candidate field he did not earn a majority of electoral votes. As per the Constitution, the House decided the winner, but they sided with second-place John Quincy Adams — perhaps because Adams promised the Speaker of the House and fourth place finisher in the presidential election, Henry Clay, the position of Secretary of State, a job four straight presidents had held before their ascension. What a corrupt bargain.
- The Election of 1876. Democrat Samuel J. Tilden won 51 percent of the vote and 184 electoral votes to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes’s 48 percent and 165. No other major candidates were in the race. Congratulations President-elect Tilden, right? Wrong. The winner needed 185 electoral votes for a majority, leaving Hayes one vote short. The problem was that 20 electoral votes were not initially awarded on account of four states not having their acts together — Oregon, South Carolina, Louisiana, and, of course, Florida. (South Carolina, for example, reported 101 percent turnout rate from all eligible voters.) Eventually, in the Compromise of 1877, all 20 electoral votes were awarded to Hayes, and he won 185-184. Boy do I wish PPFA were around in the 1870s to cover all of that. Then again — cholera.
- Guys, remember 2000? That happened.
- The following happened across ten months: Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in October 1973, President Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, and the only president never to win a national election, Gerald Ford, was sworn in. I feel like that last part would be a bigger deal today, but they were cool with it, mostly because Ford was a good guy, and Nixon was not.
Only George H.W. Bush has set up a PAC as vice-president, and that was in President Reagan’s second term. The PAC was called the “Fund for America’s Future,” which we can assume has been tapped dry.