What Does The Future Hold For Mike Pence?
At some point on or before January 20, Inauguration Day, moving trucks will roll up outside Number One Observatory Circle, a 9,150-square-foot Queen Anne–style house in Northwest Washington, D.C., where Pence and his wife, Karen, have lived the last four years. Movers will pack up all their earthly belongings. Then the trucks will likely head west back to Indiana, where political allies say Pence will regroup and plot out his next four years in a territory not all that unfamiliar to him: the political wilderness.
“He’s always said Indiana’s home, right?” says David McIntosh, the president of The Club For Growth, a former Indiana congressman, and one of Pence’s closest friends and political confidants. “Grew up in Columbus. That was his reason, part of his reason, for running for governor: He wanted to be back in Indiana. And I just haven’t seen anything that would change that. The state is a really great, dynamic place. It’d be a great base, and in the middle of the country. You can go East and West, if he’s traveling, to give speeches. And Washington right now is kind of dead.”
What’s less certain is what Pence does next once he settles back here. Pence allies have confirmed his interest in running for president in 2024, though he may never escape the long shadow of Donald Trump, who is also said to be considering a presidential run. “It puts Pence in a little bit of an awkward position I think,” says Joel Goldstein, professor emeritus at Saint Louis University School of Law and the nation’s preeminent scholar on the vice presidency.
First, though, the Pences will likely pray on things before they make any big moves. “I think Mike and Karen’s first response will be to spend some time, probably try to get away, and just spend it in prayer,” McIntosh says. “They really try to feel in each case in public life, to do what they believe God is calling them to do. People can say that and then go on and decide what they want to do. What I know about Mike and Karen is they very sincerely do spend time to really seek and feel that calling. And I’ve seen them decline things. Like people wanted him to run for president in 2016 and also in 2012. And in both cases, he declined to do that because he just didn’t feel led spiritually to run.”
The Lord moves in mysterious ways. And Pence running for president in 2024 isn’t a foregone conclusion. Here, a look at five potential post–vice presidential paths that Pence could chart.
Jump on the lecture circuit and write a book
Before he plots his long game, Pence has to think about his short game. Once ensconced in an administration stocked with millionaires, Pence has often joked that he hails from the “Jos. A. Bank wing of the West Wing,” a nod to the budget men’s clothing store. But the joke isn’t far from reality. Pence’s personal financial disclosures filed during his time in office show that he may be the least wealthy modern vice president, even though he raked in a salary of $230,700 as veep. He owns no property, having lived in taxpayer-funded housing for the last eight years, and borrowed between $95,000 and $280,000 to pay for his three children’s post-secondary education. He has between $516,000 and $1 million in retirement accounts.
So, allies say, his first order of business is to raise cash. “He’s got to go out and make money for his family,” says Mike Murphy, a former Indiana Republican state lawmaker and a longtime Pence friend. “He definitely doesn’t have [Dick] Cheney money.” A short-term cash infusion could come in the form of making paid speeches and or landing a book advance.
“Paid speaking is obvious,” says Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist based in Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C. “He could easily go out and make $50,000, $75,000, maybe $100,000 a speech. You do maybe 20 of those a year, and you’ve made more than you’ve made in five or 10 years, combined.”
Pence could also sign a book contract. But allies say not to expect a tell-all, which means he may not attract the kind of advance the Trump-era treason-and-tells books have.
“He’s obviously going to be more careful,” Mackowiak says, citing other insider accounts from political figures. “And he’s not going to be as big a name: Trump would sell far more copies. But I do think there’s an opportunity for that, particularly for him to set the record straight on some things, probably where he felt like he probably couldn’t when he was number two. That doesn’t mean necessarily distancing himself from Trump. But it might just be sort of trying to present his own perspective.”
“He could go and get a nice advance from Simon & Schuster, and write up a book,” Murphy says. “I hope it’s not a post-mortem. I hope it’s visionary and talks about the future.”
Pence could use the book, for example, to lay out a post-Trump vision for the party.
Redeemer of Reaganism and federalism
This isn’t Mike Pence’s first brush with the political wilderness. After a scorched-earth congressional campaign against former Indiana Congressman Phil Sharp in 1990, Pencefound himself rudderless. Chuck Quilhot, who helmed the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, a conservative think tank that was part of the state-by-state network of the Reagan-era Heritage Foundation, offered him a job as its president, essentially taking on the task of fundraising. It was there that Pence enjoyed something of a graduate school in the conservative movement.
Now, another post at a think tank such as the Heritage Foundation—either as president or fellow—could prove to be a prudent landing pad for Pence to ride out the next few years. Pence could use his perch at a think tank to espouse a MAGA-friendly version of free-market, traditional conservatism by imbuing it with just enough Trumpian nationalism and protectionism to make it palatable to the party’s reformers.
After all, Pence’s own personal political beliefs on everything from trade to immigration were 180 degrees different in 2016 than what they are now. And Pence often championed the idea of federalism, which was more or less rejected for a top-down approach in the Trump era. As a congressman, he even battled with George W. Bush on federal mandates such as No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D. It was a far cry from the authoritarian vision of Republicanism Pence adopted as vice president. “Make no mistake about it,” Pence said in one White House Coronavirus Task Force press conference last April. “In the long history of this country, the authority of the president of the United States during national emergencies is unquestionably plenary.” In a 2014 speech to the Federalist Society in Indianapolis, Pence called federalism “Reagan’s unfinished work.”
At a think tank, Pence could articulate something of a middle road—a “new federalism,” perhaps. Or, his relationship with a Heritage Foundation could be somewhat more informal. Former Vice President and fellow Hoosier Dan Quayle, for example, became an Honorary Trustee Emeritus of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. “He might affiliate with one,” McIntosh says. “But I think he’ll want to have his own operation on communicating ideas and putting out policy papers and so on. So they’ll have to think through a lot of different options. And I think at first it will be more focused on policy and what they think is good and important for the country, not politics.”
Remain the loyal Trump hype man
More than any other 2024 Republican presidential candidate not in Trump’s bloodline, Pence is tied to Trump and Trump’s legacy. Which potentially makes him an excellent surrogate for the former president, whether that’s on the campaign trail or cable news.
Don’t forget: During other interludes between political campaigns in his life, Pence also retreated to the airwaves. Pence hosted a syndicated talk radio show, The Mike Pence Show, and a weekly television public-affairs program in Indiana, calling himself “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” Should Trump purchase or start his own media empire, land his own show, it’s not hard to imagine Pence having a regular gig. Think “Tucker Carlson on quaaludes.”
Or, like former Pennsylvania Senator and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, Pence could become a paid contributor for a cable news outlet, most likely Fox News. “He’s a great communicator, does well on television, and could continue to be a leader in the Republican party through those media outlets,” McIntosh says.
Pence could take his act on the road, too. In 2022, during the midterm election, his presence as a surrogate on the campaign trail could be valuable to Republicans up and down the ballot. “I think for 2022, there’s a pretty good chance he’s going to be in as high demand as anyone,” Mackowiak, the GOP strategist, says. “Because there’s this very little baggage, at least among Republicans, attached to him.”
Pence already has the political infrastructure in place to be a force in Republican politics. He raised eyebrows when, in 2017, only months into his vice presidency, he launched his own political action committee, “Great America Committee,” which could be a vehicle for his 2024 ambitions. “No vice president in modern history had their own PAC less than six month into the president’s first term,” Roger Stone, the now-pardoned Trump consigliere, noted at the time. Pence is expected to retain his chief of staff, Marc Short, and top political adviser and Indianapolis resident, Marty Obst, as political advisers under the auspices of Great America.
Whatever the case in this scenario, Pence will remain second fiddle to the entertainer-in-chief.
“The president’s saying if he’s not reelected that he’s going to stay in politics,” McIntosh says. “Mike will continue to be very supportive of him.”
Keeper of the evangelical flame
Near the end of Trump’s presidency, an interesting window of opportunity opened. After instances of sexual and perhaps financial impropriety surfaced, one of the president’s key surrogates among evangelicals—Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr.—resigned his position from the evangelical Christian institution in Lynchburg, Virginia. The vacancy, and Trump’s loss, got some talking heads and Pence allies wondering: Could Pence replace him?
As a fellow evangelical, Pence is dialed into the culture of the place—as well as a nationwide network of religiously and politically like-minded donors. A spokesperson from the university didn’t respond to IM’s request for comments about whether Pence was on their list of potential recruits.
And Liberty isn’t the only place Pence could land. He also has a relationship with Hillsdale College in Michigan, the conservative political power center where he delivered the commencement address in May of 2018, and received an honorary doctor-of-public-service degree as well.
“There is a history of that: When [Woodrow] Wilson was in between different positions and before he became president, he was president of Princeton University,” McIntosh says. “Mike could do a great job of leading an institution like that.”
Retire and join corporate boards
For the first time in his life, Pence could decide to make money. After graduating law school at Robert H. McKinney School of Law at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis in 1986, Pence started out as a private-practice lawyer in Indianapolis, but friends and acquaintances say bringing in new clients and climbing the ladder never seemed to really excite him.
But, having built a business-friendly background as Indiana governor, Pence could land a corporate board seat, complete with stock options. Following his vice presidency, Quayle served as a director on a number of corporate boards, including Central Newspapers, Inc., and Carvana Co.
“I think he should pursue some corporate boards,” Mackowiak says. “I don’t know what the limitations will be given the backlash to Trump, but I do think there’ll be some opportunities. And you know, you’d be crazy not to have a former vice president of the United States on your board. It could be something regional, state, or something in a single industry, where you got a lot of knowledge and expertise.”
Surveying the long run
Whatever course Pence chooses, Goldstein, the vice presidential scholar, says he’s playing somewhat of a historically weak hand. Though his immediate future remains unclear, history doesn’t bode well for him in the long run: None of the other Republican Hoosier veeps—Dan Quayle, Charles Fairbanks, and Schuyler Colfax—held another public office after their one-and-done terms as vice president. Thomas Marshall, a Democrat who served alongside Woodrow Wilson, is the only Hoosier to serve two terms as vice president. Apropos of Indiana’s status as the cradle of vice presidents, Marshall once observed: Indiana “furnished as many first-class second-class men as any state in the Union.”
A broader look at history of one-term vice presidents coming back to win their party’s nomination is also bleak: Only Walter Mondale went on to do so, and he was defeated by Ronald Reagan in a landslide in 1984.
And then there’s overcoming his actual record in office, tied at the hip with the most unpopular president in modern history. That’s not to mention his tenure as chair of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which by nearly every accounting, bungled the government’s response to the pandemic. Pence himself declared that the coronavirus would “largely” be “behind us” by Memorial Day—last year. And in a widely panned Wall Street Journal editorial last summer, he declared that there was no second wave of COVID shortly before a second wave of the deadly virus.
Pence’s slim policy portfolio under Trump doesn’t serve him well, either. In addition to overseeing the federal government’s coronavirus response, his responsibilities included presiding over a historically troubled presidential transition and the revitalization of the nation’s space program, including launching the Space Force. Thus, when it comes to his ranking among other modern vice presidents, “I think Pence is closer to the bottom than to the top both in terms of his influence and in terms of his success,” says Goldstein. “And I think, part of it is a reflection of the president he served.”
McIntosh agrees that Pence will be forever linked—and perhaps subservient to—Trump. And Pence’s future is entirely dependent on what Trump does next. Last November, a poll of Republican voters asking them about their 2024 candidate preference by Morning Consult found that 54 percent would support another Trump bid. Second to Trump was Pence, pulling a modest 12 percent and beating Trump’s own son, Donald Trump Jr., who carried 8 percent.
“I think, if the president’s running, Mike would be supporting him,” McIntosh says. “And if Trump’s not running, then Mike is most likely in the lead.”