(By Philip Wegmann, RealClear Wire) With his blessing, close friends and longtime allies of former Vice President Mike Pence are standing up a super PAC to support his expected bid for the presidency. And while he has not formally declared his candidacy, the new organization is the clearest sign yet that Pence intends to challenge his old boss, Donald Trump, for the 2024 Republican nomination.
It also reflects how they will do it. The new PAC, called “Committed to America,” has hired staff from the establishment machine that bucked Trump in Georgia, and they are preparing to put Trump on the defensive while reintroducing Pence to primary voters, “not as vice president,” but this time “as his own man.”
“People know Mike Pence,” said Scott Reed, a veteran of presidential politics who will serve as co-chair of the group along with former Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling. “They just don’t know him well.” The story they hope to tell includes his work as vice president but will also emphasize his deep connections to the right, particularly among social conservatives, from his time as chairman of the Republican Study Committee in the House to his term as governor of Indiana.
Because of that experience, they believe Pence already owns “the constitutional conservative lane.”
Up until the end, Pence never broke publicly with Trump or sought the spotlight at his expense, often working quietly behind the scenes to keep a chaotic administration on track while steering it in a more conservative direction. It wasn’t until he was out of office that Pence began codifying his divorce from Trump and encouraging others on the right to split with the populist ex-president.
Other candidates have flirted with a new emphasis on the Right that is more comfortable with expanding government and less beholden to established orthodoxy on fiscal and foreign policy. Not Pence.
He has called for a national abortion ban while others, such as Trump and former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, have retreated to more pragmatic ground. He says that the conflict in Ukraine “is not our war” but supports sending aid to Kyiv because “freedom is our fight.” He has warned his fellow conservatives against the temptation of going “beyond the scope” of limited-government principles to the point of criticizing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for using state power to settle political debates.
Those positions are why Pence’s allies argue that “there is no other classical conservative in this field.” But does the current GOP electorate, recently hopped-up on populism, have an appetite for the measured conservatism of a former talk-radio host who once described himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf,” or do they want an overly caffeinated brawler as their champion?
Pence smiled when RealClearPolitics put that question to him in Iowa last month. “I don’t know,” he said. “We may have to test that theory.”
Enter Bobby Saparow, who will serve as executive director for “Committed to America.”
He is the rare Republican operative with a win over Trump on his resume. Saparow ran Gov. Brian Kemp’s reelection campaign last year, successfully fending off a challenge from former Republican Sen. David Perdue, whom Trump hand-picked, bankrolled and championed in an attempt at retribution after Kemp refused to throw out Georgia’s 2020 election results. Kemp won by 50 percentage points.
“We have all the confidence in the world that the results that we were able to garner for Gov. Kemp we can duplicate for the vice president,” Saparow said. “There is a roadmap of success,” he said of that victory over Trump’s political machine, while also insisting the PAC could “replicate” that model for a national election.
“The loudest people in the room don’t always make up the majority,” a source familiar with the organization’s “methodical” plans said, explaining that “peeling off Trump voters has been done before” and adding it was possible again “if you do it correctly.”
That work will begin with a paid voter contact program in Iowa, a state that a source familiar with the organization’s efforts described as their “first and most important defining event.” Pence has made numerous trips there already, and allies believe that because of his Midwestern roots and social conservativism, the former Indiana governor has a shared sensibility and built-in advantage.
But for any advantages perceived by his team, Pence still trails Trump badly in the RealClearPolitics average. DeSantis, not the former vice president, is the front-runner’s closest competition, and DeSantis remains 30 points behind. While Trump defends that lead by making personal attacks and bestowing nicknames, the competition has been hesitant to fight back head-on for fear of alienating the Trump base.
Pence has been clear that principle drove his split with Trump when he refused to go along with the plan to throw out the 2020 election. He also wrote critically in “So Help Me God” – a recent memoir titled in reference to his constitutional oath of office – of the former president’s actions on Jan. 6, 2021, the day a mob broke into the U.S. Capitol, some of them hunting for the vice president and his family.
Democrats point to that riot as disqualifying Trump for the presidency. Republicans have not – yet.
“Within about 60 seconds, when one understands the constitutional aspects of what took place on Jan. 6, they’re going to know that there is no more committed constitutional conservative than Mike Pence. No one laid it on the line for the Constitution as the former vice president did,” said a source familiar with the organization’s plans when asked how they’ll contrast the two men.
“That case needs to be made,” the source explained. “I’m not sure a lot of primary voters have focused on that. And they will.”