Vice President Mike Pence speaks at fundraiser for Josh Hawley in Springfield on Monday
WASHINGTON â€“ After Josh Hawley decided to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen.Â Claire McCaskill in the 2018 midterm elections, he got plenty of campaign advice from a seasoned fellow Republican: Vice President Mike Pence.
The vice president talked to Hawley about messaging and pressed him on his plan for raising money to compete with McCaskill, a prolific fundraiser. It was Pence, in fact, who had helped convinceÂ Hawley to enter Missouri’s Senate race, what has become one of the most closely watched contests in Tuesdayâ€™s elections.
Penceâ€™s involvement in the midterm elections that will decide control of Congress has taken him to at least three dozen states over the past 10 months for rallies,Â fundraising events and to sell the GOP tax cuts. While predecessors such as Dick Cheney and Joe Biden also campaigned intensively during midterm elections, Pence, a former governor and six-term congressman who enjoys a good fight, has taken to the task with particular zeal, wooing donors, sending six-figure checks from his political action committee, to gubernatorial candidates,Â revving up the Christian conservative base and cutting commercials for Republican Senate candidates.
Heâ€™s been able to do so without drawing a lot of the attention â€“Â and scrutiny â€“Â that Trump has. Instead of the large rallies that Trump feeds off of with freewheeling remarks, Penceâ€™s has smaller, more traditional politicalÂ appearances where he refers to himself as â€œMikeâ€ from â€œwhat we call the Walmart Wing of the West Wingâ€ and sticks to the script. Â
â€œLet’s make sure thatÂ blue waveÂ hits a red wall right here,â€ Pence has said in various iterations in Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, Michigan, Oklahoma and elsewhere, pounding out the sentenceÂ with pauses in between the last four words.
Pence can comeÂ across as earnest but affable â€“Â if a little artificial â€“Â as he leans into his lectern, reassuring farmers in Iowa that Trumpâ€™s trade battles will work out well for them or drawing standing ovations when taking a victory lap on the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
While Trump revels in the â€œdid he just say that?â€ comments, even Penceâ€™s recent warning that the election is a â€œchoice between jobs or mobsâ€ sounds more likeÂ a rhetorical flourish than a battle cry.
If Trump dominates the headlines, Pence has amassed a different measure of impact. Heâ€™s raised more than $70Â million for fellow Republicans andÂ made more than 140Â candidate rallies or fundraising events, according to his political team.
â€œHeâ€™s been a secret weapon for so many members,â€ said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
But groups like Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign, which have organized protesters at some of his events and say opposition to Penceâ€™s record has helped them raise money and motivate their voters, are trying to prevent him from flying completely under the radar.
â€œHeâ€™s just sort of a blank slate in a lot of peopleâ€™s minds,â€ said Geoff Wetrosky, campaign director for the Human Rights Campaign. â€œSo weâ€™re trying to make sure that people understand his record. Because he is polarizing. People just donâ€™t know it.â€
The amount of Penceâ€™s political activity â€“Â and fact that his chief of staff is a political operative and Pence is the first vice president to create his own political action committee in his first term â€“Â stand out, said Joel Goldstein, a vice presidential expert at the Saint Louis University School of Law.
â€œMy sense is that Pence is spending relatively more of his time doing political thingsâ€ than did other recent vice presidents, Goldstein said.
But donâ€™t suggest â€“Â at least not to Pence â€“Â that he is doing it for any reason other than to help Trump.
Pence has gone out of his way to portray himself as loyal to the president, raising money and stumping for candidates to help Trump succeed and not to benefit his own political aspirations.
â€œWe understand these things donâ€™t hurt you,â€ said Marty Obst, Penceâ€™s senior political adviser. â€œBut the future is a long way away.â€
But if the future comes sooner than expected â€“Â such as through a report from special counsel Robert Mueller serious enough to make congressional Republicans wonder if they want to stick with Trump â€“Â the amount of time Pence has spent helping members of Congress will be remembered.
â€œItâ€™s a lot easier to break ranks and vote articles of impeachment if you feel that the person who will become president not only reflects your values and your policy positions, but is your friend,â€ said Elaine Kamarck, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who worked for Vice President Al Gore. Â â€œWho has friends among House members? It ainâ€™t Donald Trump. Itâ€™s Mike Pence.â€Â
Trump chose the then-Indiana governor and former House member as his running mate in 2016 in part for his ties to the GOP establishment and fundraising skills.
Both assets have deep roots.
As president of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation in the early 1990s, Pence made influential friends throughout the country through a network of conservative think tanks. When Pence was elected to the House in 2000, he received substantial support from the campaign arm of House Republicans, which sent the House speaker and other big names to campaign for him.
After winning his election, Pence overpaid his â€œduesâ€ to the National Republican Congressional Committee, raising more money than he was expected to and continuing throughout his career to contribute despite not having the committee assignments that make it easy to collect dollars, according to former NRCC chair Tom Davis.
â€œMike has always been grateful for what the party did for him,â€ said Davis, who called Pence’s current level of involvement “extraordinary.”Â
â€œThis is part of his DNA,â€ he said.
Likewise, as governor, Pence was a top fundraiser among fellow governors for his GOP colleagues in the 2014 midterms.
And when Pence joined Trump on the 2016 ticket, the Republican National Committee gave him a list of donors to work on.
â€œHe continues to be the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval to a lot of conservative donors,â€ Davis said. â€œHe can talk about the interest groups that make up the conservative coalition in a way that very few people can do.â€
As planning for the midterm elections got underway, Pence plottedÂ with McCarthy about going to California because of the number of vulnerable GOP incumbents there representing districts that Trump lost. The duo created a joint fundraising committee that collected $5 million in two days for multiple lawmakers â€“Â â€œmore than I thought they would get,â€ McCarthy said.
The strategy was quickly expanded to other states, providing crucial fundraising help for incumbents in a year when many were getting outraised by Democratic challengers.
On the Senate side, Penceâ€™s extensive help for Hawley, the Missouri Senate candidate, includedÂ serving as the main attraction at fundraisers in July and October, touting the GOP tax cuts with Hawley by his side in St. Louis, and praising Hawley as a man of faith and of principle at a rally in Springfield.
â€œI canâ€™t remember somebody else that has traveled as much as the vice president,â€ McCarthy said. â€œHe understands whatâ€™s needed in a campaign.â€
One reason Pence is campaigning so hard is he knows what itâ€™s like to be in the minority.
â€œI was in Congress the last time Nancy Pelosi was speaker of the House,â€ Pence said at recent rally for Nevada Rep. Cresent Hardy, one of dozen candidates he campaigned for over a four-day period. â€œAnd you donâ€™t want that to ever happen again.â€
Ron Klain, who worked for the last two Democratic vice presidents, said Penceâ€™s political activity does appear to be at the high end. But it also seems to be concentrated more at bridging the gap between traditional party groups and the Trump political apparatus rather than trying to reach out to swing voters, he said.
â€œClearly he is a lightning rod for some progressive groups in a way that really wasnâ€™t the case on the opposite side for either (Al) Gore or (Joe) Biden,â€ Klain said.
Planned Parenthood noticed that right after the presidential election when the group started receiving contributions in Penceâ€™s name â€“ about one-quarter of donations collected in the first month. Planned Parenthood still receives thousands of donations a month in â€œhonorâ€ of Pence. And in an election year in which women are driving much of the voter enthusiasm, the group has been highlighting Penceâ€™s strong anti-abortion record and efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.
“While he may not get as much attention as Trump,” said Erica Sackin, Planned Parenthoodâ€™s director of political communications, “he really embodies the same kind of anti-woman policy and sentiment that we’re seeing being pushed by the leadership of the Republican Party and that people are rebelling against.”
Democratic candidates have also tried to use Pence to their advantage. During a candidate debate, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenÂ of MassachusettsÂ attemptedÂ to tie Republican challenger Geoff Diehl to Penceâ€™s record on gay rights, including his backingÂ as governor a â€œreligious freedomâ€ law that critics said would allow businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
Applying political jujitsu, Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia, uses Penceâ€™s expansion of Medicaid in Indiana to argue that Georgia should do the same.
But Pence, who has already made severalÂ trips to Georgia, is squeezing in another trip Thursday to help turn out the vote for Abramsâ€™ opponent, Brian Kemp.
He was also planning to go to Indiana, Tennessee, Florida, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, staying on the road “almost continuously” and making multiple stops a day in the run-up toÂ the election.
â€œWin or lose the midterms,â€ Obst said, â€œPence will have left nothing on the table.â€
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