Vice President Mike Pence finds refuge on the road
WASHINGTON — In the aftermath of the Charlottesville, Va., racial violence, as President Trump struggled to condemn the white nationalists, Vice President Mike Pence was on a swing through South America.
When news broke that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had indicted 13 Russians, Pence was in Florida, meeting with the National Space Council. And over the past month, as the adult film actress Stormy Daniels has sent this town into a frenzy, Pence has been everywhere from Jordan to Texas.
Extensive domestic and international travel is expected of the modern vice president, but the refuge of the road has been especially beneficial to the 45th second-in-command. Ensconced in the relative luxury of Air Force Two, Pence has been able to ride out — or at least largely avoid — some of the rockiest patches of Trump’s tumultuous presidency.
Pence traveled to New Hampshire Thursday, his first time in the Granite State since the 2016 election, and he’s planning another stop in New England on April 10 for a fund-raiser in Boston. He’s spent at least 20 percent of his time in office on the road during the first 14 months of the administration, according to a Globe review of his travel schedule, which puts him in a league with other vice presidential frequent fliers like Joe Biden.
But there are signs Pence is boosting his travel even more in advance of the 2018 mid-term elections: The vice president is expected to attend up to 40 political events in the first 90 days of this year, according to a person familiar with his travel.
The numbers show how Pence is one of few Republicans to benefit from Trump’s unconventional leadership style. While Trump has shirked many of the traditional party-building responsibilities of a president, including schmoozing with donors and stumping for candidates, it has left a leadership vacuum that Pence is more than happy to fill.
The vice president’s schedule includes touring small businesses and hosting listening sessions, but there’s a good amount of fund-raising for local congressional candidates and a host of national political committees.
“Part of the advantage of doing all this party work is that Pence makes friends, he collects due bills, and he wins the appreciation of a lot of Republican activists and people who were part of his constituency: the religious right, the social conservatives, the Koch brothers, and so forth,” said Joel K. Goldstein, a professor at Saint Louis University and a scholar on vice presidential history. “So while he’s certainly helping Republican candidates, he’s also helping himself.”
Goldstein said the vice president’s tightrope act exemplifies the awkward position Trump has put him in. Pence is seemingly trying to build a national profile independent of Trump’s brand, while the political fortunes of both men remain intertwined.
“Pence, in a way, is caught between developing his future, but on the other hand, the success of him as vice president — and in many ways his future — demands he maintains a good relationship with President Trump,” Goldstein said.
Pence’s itinerary in New Hampshire Thursday included a fund-raiser for Republican Governor Chris Sununu and an event to promote the $1.5 trillion tax cut passed last year. The event was sponsored by America First Policies, a political nonprofit that’s linked to Trump’s main campaign super PAC.
It’s the seventh event Pence has participated in with America First so far this year; an eighth is planned in Georgia on Friday. The others have all been located in red states or politically important ones such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Ohio. Pence’s loyal participation in the America First Policies events signals to deep-pocketed donors that the affiliated super PAC is the blessed vehicle for their money.
Pence also travels to raise money for his own leadership political action committee. And he’s raising money for the Republican National Committee, plus the many party groups funding GOP House and Senate campaigns.
“It’s the traditional role of the vice president,” said Marc Lotter, a former Pence aide, who is still close with Pence and traveled with him Thursday to Manchester. “He’s been very active supporting candidates who support the president’s agenda.”
Lotter disputed that Pence has been able to avoid the Trump scandals via distance. “It doesn’t matter where he goes, the media is always with him,” Lotter said.
But Pence has certainly tried to use the distance to create some space between himself and the Washington swirl.
In February, as the Trump White House was bombarded with questions about a top aide with a security clearance stalled due to accusations of assaulting his two ex-wives, Pence used geography to duck questions.
“Well, let me say, we’re standing at Yokota Air Force Base in Japan,” Pence told reporters traveling with him through Asia. “And so we’ll comment on any issues affecting White House staff when we get back to Washington.”
But when Pence wants to weigh in from abroad he does — he spoke at length about the racial violence in Charlottesville despite the fact that it occurred during his tour of South America.
“We have no tolerance for hate and violence from white supremacists, neo Nazis, or the KKK,” Pence said on Aug. 13, the day after a protestor was killed, at a joint news conference held with President Juan Manuel Santos in Cartagena, Colombia. (He addressed the topic again on Aug. 16 when it came up in a news conference in Santiago, Chile. And then again on Aug. 22 from a rally in Phoenix.)
There’s some evidence that Pence’s strategy is working: While Pence’s and Trump’s favorability ratings each hover around 40 percent, the vice president has significantly lower unfavorable ratings, meaning he inspires less backlash among liberals and may be more palatable to GOP midterm candidates seeking an endorsement. In the latest polling average compiled by website Real Clear Politics, Trump’s disapproval rating was about 55 percent. Pence’s was 10 points better.
It’s been a while since the GOP had a vice president with larger ambitions; Dick Cheney always said he was not interested in the presidency. Pence, who is 58, still has plenty of time left on the national stage, particularly if he uses his time in office to forge alliances with state-level party leaders.
“Making headlines is not what the vice president wants to do, at least not in the first term,” said Ron Kaufman, a Republican National Committee member. “He’s doing the more traditional role, which is to help the party and help the candidates. It plays to his best interest long term, if he wants to do some other job at a higher level.”
There are practical reasons to send the vice president on the road often, particularly compared with the president — it’s a lot cheaper to move the vice president than the leader of the free world.
And with this president, there’s one other benefit.
“Pence is more of a conventional politician than Trump is,” said Goldstein, the professor at Saint Louis University. “And he’s someone who’s good at staying on message when the president doesn’t.”