WASHINGTON — Days after arriving in Washington, D.C., in January 2001 as a newly minted congressman from Indiana, Mike Pence made it clear he would be a loyal soldier in the culture wars.
“I’m Mike Pence, I’m new to the Congress, but I’m not new to this cause. I’m pro-life, and I don’t apologize for it,” said Pence, speaking at the annual March for Life rally and telling the crowd assembled on the snow-covered National Mall that the 107th Congress had to do everything in its power to end abortion.
“Roe must go,” Pence declared. The crowd cheered.
Almost exactly 20 years later, on Jan. 6, 2021, a crowd whipped into a frenzy by his then-boss, President Donald Trump, would gather there, march to the US Capitol, display a gallows, and call for Pence’s head as part of a riotous effort to block him from presiding over the certification of Joe Biden as the next president.
Pence’s actions that day ruptured his relationship with the man responsible for elevating him to the national stage and whom Pence is now challenging for the Republican presidential nomination. But Pence, who announced his campaign at a rally in Iowa on Wednesday, still touted the accomplishments of the Trump administration even while acknowledging the unusual break.
“Given our record, it might be fair to ask why I’m challenging my former running mate,” Pence said, noting the insurrection, his role in certifying the 2020 election, and the dangerous situation the former president created for him and his family.
“The American people deserve to know on that day, President Trump also demanded that I choose between him and the Constitution. Now voters will be faced with the same choice,” Pence said. “I chose the Constitution and I always will.”
The path to the nomination for Pence, though, is unclear. He boasts a long track record of fighting for core conservative positions, before they were widely popular within the party, and dutifully laid the groundwork for this campaign long before announcing it.
But as much as Pence wants to run on his conservative credentials, it is his relationship to Trump that may decide his political fate. Polls show him lagging, and a significant chunk of Trump’s base resents him for breaking with their favorite president. And as the primary field grows, the possibility of consolidating an anti-Trump vote in a party becoming more extreme over time gets smaller.
Pence’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s clear what type of candidate he will be: a methodical operator willing to pursue conservative policies as far as he can. And while much of his campaign launch focused on issues geared toward a general election electorate, such as the economy and foreign threats, he has long leaned into social issues.
“In terms of Mike Pence changing — this sounds cliche-ish, I don’t mean it to be — but I just don’t see him changing as a person. And I attribute that to his underlying faith,” said Jim Atterholt, a former Pence chief of staff from his governorship, in an interview before the campaign launch.
Pence’s entry into the race was welcomed by old allies, who touted his record.
“I think that his running makes the whole process and the whole conversation better because he brings integrity to the debate among GOP hopefuls,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, who is on the advisory board to Pence’s conservative advocacy group, Advancing American Freedom. Dannenfelser, who said she tried to convince Pence to run for president when he was a member of Congress, cast him as a known quantity. Dannenfelser’s group has called for all GOP candidates to, at a minimum, back a national ban on abortion at 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Pence remains a staunch foe of abortion, and has made it clear he would be open to a national ban. And he has said mifepristone — part of a safe two-step drug regimen used to induce abortions, whose access has been threatened by a lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration — should be taken off the market.
Pence has sought to create distance between himself and Trump on some issues, including abortion. On Wednesday, he criticized the former president’s past comments blaming election losses on the Supreme Court overturning the federal right to an abortion.
“The sanctity of life has been our party’s calling for half a century — long before Donald Trump was a part of it,” Pence said. “Now he treats it as an inconvenience, even blaming our election losses in 2022 on overturning Roe v. Wade.”
Pence has often shown a willingness to insert himself into divisive issues on the national stage, such as in 2017 when he attended an NFL game at a time when many players kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. Pence stayed briefly, left as the anthem played, and in a statement expressed his disgust at the kneeling players. The incident was roundly mocked as a stunt, and his trip reportedly cost taxpayers upward of $300,000.
Pence has often taken anti-LGBTQ+ stances throughout his career and supported attempts to limit LGBTQ+ rights. In Congress, he supported an effort to amend the Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. “It was ordained by God, instituted in the law. It is the glue of the American family and the safest harbor to raise children,” Pence said from the House floor in a 2006 speech.
As Indiana governor in 2015, he signed the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics feared would allow discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community and created a political maelstrom for him to navigate as businesses, celebrities, and even the NCAA, which held its Final Four basketball tournament in the state, pilloried the decision.
“He has demonstrated time and time again not only during his years as governor but also during his time as vice president of the United States that he is very hostile to the LGBTQ community, that he is willing to place his personal beliefs above what is best for our country,” said Sarah Warbelow, the Human Rights Campaign’s legal director.
Pence has also embraced the recent raft of antitransgender sentiment, expressing support for efforts to curb gender-affirming care and other policies aimed at limiting the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.
But if Pence’s campaign launch focused on a vision for the country that he said he believes differs from Trump’s, it doesn’t stray far from where much of the Republican Party is today, because much of the party has caught up to where he has been all along.
Or as Pence put it on Wednesday: “I stood for religious liberty against the woke brigades before woke was even a thing.”
Lissandra Villa Huerta can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her @LissandraVilla. Jackie Kucinich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @JFKucinich and on Instagram at @JackieKucinich.