You may not have predicted that Mike Pence—a man who once praised Donald Trump 14 times in a span of three minutes—would ever publicly defy his former boss. But 2022, it seems, is a brave new world in Republican politics.
In the Arizona GOP primary for governor, Pence is, in essence, campaigning against Trump. The former vice president has endorsed Karrin Taylor Robson, a former developer and land-use consultant, whose main opponent is the “Stop the Steal” candidate Kari Lake. Yesterday, the two men both made appearances in the Grand Canyon State: Pence praised Robson at small-scale events in Tucson and the Phoenix suburbs; Trump headlined a rally alongside Lake in Prescott Valley, where he babbled about his usual array of political and personal grievances before thousands of devotees.
This race isn’t the first time that Pence has deviated from the Trump script, but it’s probably the most noteworthy one. Robson and Lake represent a larger battle within the GOP, between establishment types, like Pence, who want to preserve an ounce of sanity in their party, and Trump’s cabal of wild-eyed election-fraud fanatics. By endorsing Robson, Pence seems eager to show that today’s Republican Party can be a place for Americans who accept Trump but are not certifiable; a Robson win in Arizona would be a data point in support of that hypothesis.
Still, those efforts might be too little, too late. Even if Lake and other high-profile Trump endorsees lose—whether in primaries or in November—the party has been remade in Trump’s image. An overwhelming number of “Stop the Steal” candidates are running for state and local positions, and the Republican base is clamoring to elect pugnacious culture warriors, not country-club conservatives. No number of Robsons, or Pences, is going to change that. “You have to separate Trump the person and individual from Trump the phenomenon,” Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist and the publisher of the conservative news site The Bulwark, told me. “Trump the phenomenon has wholesale changed the Republican Party.”
Pence has been attempting to distance himself from Trump for a while now—subtly, and without taking on the former president directly. In February, Pence said that Trump was “wrong” to claim that Pence had any power as vice president to overturn the 2020 election results. Then, in May, Pence endorsed Brian Kemp for governor in the Georgia Republican primary, despite the fact that Trump had been railing against Kemp for a while, and had backed his opponent. (“Desperate to chase his lost relevance, Pence is parachuting into races, hoping someone is paying attention,” a Trump spokesperson told The New York Times.) Kemp ended up winning every single county in Georgia.
Now, in Arizona, Pence has waded into a more clear-cut proxy fight. The candidate he’s endorsed is a caricature of the establishment Republican: pretty boring, very rich, and deeply conservative. Robson, who comes from a political family, has been cautious about “Stop the Steal” rhetoric, saying that the 2020 elections “weren’t fair,” but she’s stopped short of calling for anything like decertification. Lake, meanwhile, can best be described as Trump in female form. (“Donald Trump showed us how to fight and I took a few notes!” she said at the rally last night.) She was an anchor on a Phoenix Fox affiliate for 27 years, and she has a certain star power that voters seem drawn to. Lake has centered her entire campaign on the lie that Trump, not Biden, won in 2020. “We had a fraudulent election, a corrupt election, and we have an illegitimate president sitting in the White House,” she said in an interview with Fox News last month.
So it might be tempting to view Pence’s endorsement of Lake’s opponent as rooted in a desire to protect democracy. But Pence’s motives seem more opportunistic. First, by endorsing Robson, Pence is hoping to show that he’s his own man, not just a Trump lackey—a signal that he’ll probably run for president again in 2024, despite the clear lack of voter appetite for him.
More than anything, though, Pence is attempting some serious political damage control. He’s trying to—carefully, methodically—carve out a different path for members of his party, one that keeps them separate from the bombast and election-denying that Trump represents. “Some people want this election to be about the past, but elections are always about the future,” Pence tweeted last night. “If the Republican Party allows itself to become consumed by yesterday’s grievances, we will lose.” It’s not about snubbing the former president, Barrett Marson, an Arizona Republican strategist, told me. Pence “isn’t backing Kari Lake because she’s fucking insane.”
Voters who once populated the fringe of the GOP are now front and center—and calling a lot of the shots. “There is alarm from many corners of the Republican old guard that they’re being overrun by cranks,” Longwell said. Those cranks can be a political liability. Lake is leading Robson in primary polls, but in a general election against the presumptive Democratic nominee, Katie Hobbs, Robson polls much better, according to the Arizona firm OH Predictive Insights. Other Trump-endorsed Republicans are in tight or losing races of their own, including Herschel Walker in Georgia, and Doug Mastriano and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. “There’s so many of these conspiratorial candidates [that] it’s imperiling Republicans” in what should be an otherwise favorable environment for them, Longwell said.
A Robson win would certainly bolster the narrative that Pence and his Trump-weary allies have regained control of the party. The problem is that such a narrative is, at this point, unconvincing. The GOP has already been thoroughly Trumpified: Even the high-profile establishment types who win their primary will be dwarfed by the sheer number of conspiracy-mongering, “Stop the Steal” Republicans on the ballot in November—many of whom will go on to win their elections in safe red districts. In Arizona, candidates like these for State House and Senate are expected to sweep into office, Chuck Coughlin, a GOP strategist there, told me.
The Overton window of acceptable Republican candidates has moved several steps Trump-ward. Even Robson—someone who is considered the establishment choice—has agreed that the 2020 election was unfair. The Republican base is demanding that its leaders repeat their chosen lies, entertain conspiracy theories, and above all else, be willing and eager to own the libs. These voters aren’t clamoring for composed, religious conservatives like Mike Pence, Longwell said, citing recent focus groups she’s conducted; they’re rooting for Trump acolytes like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem. “I don’t see an exhausted majority,” Longwell said. “I see an energized group of Trump voters who are determined to find their next brawler.”
Yesterday, Pence commended Robson’s steadfast conservatism before a crowd of 350 people at a tactical-gear manufacturer outside Phoenix. He spoke for 20 minutes, according to The Arizona Republic, in “characteristic low-key fashion.” But even as Pence was speaking, several miles north, thousands of Trump fans were assembling. They’d driven from nearby towns and far-away states, and waited in lines for most of the day—undeterred by the nearly 100-degree weather—to file into the Findlay Toyota Center. For hours, they listened to speeches from Lake and the rest of the Trump-endorsed Arizona slate, including U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters, who said he wants to investigate and prosecute Anthony Fauci; and secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem, who last night called for the decertification of the Arizona election and the arrest his political opponents.
When Trump finally walked on stage, he was met with thunderous applause. “I ran twice, I won twice, and did much better the second time,” he said early on in his remarks. “Now we may have to do it again.” The crowd went wild.