By Michael Warren, CNN
Former Vice President Mike Pence is making a hard play for social conservatives as he prepares for a potential run for president. And as some evangelical and conservative leaders express disenchantment with Pence’s old running mate, Donald Trump, this reliable bloc of Republican voters may be interested in finding a new champion in 2024.
A longtime social conservative and prominent evangelical Christian, Pence is laying the groundwork early to appeal to some of the religious right’s most influential pastors, activists and celebrities. This week, he will appear at First Baptist Church in Dallas for a conversation with its senior pastor, Robert Jeffress — previously one of Trump’s emissaries to the Christian right.
People close to Pence tell CNN the Hoosier Republican is looking to reintroduce himself as a staunch ally and true believer to GOP voters who care about issues like abortion and religious liberty. His work to woo the party’s social conservatives has not gone unnoticed by the movement’s leaders.
“I think what Pence is doing is exactly what he should be doing,” said Bob Vander Plaats, the Iowa-based social conservative activist who runs the Family Leader coalition.
The support of social conservatives is up for grabs, activists tell CNN, and while Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis continue to rank high as possible champions, Pence has built up years of goodwill with this part of the party’s base.
Further, Trump may be inadvertently helping his former ticket mate by antagonizing social conservatives. His recent comments blaming the party’s midterm election losses on anti-abortion extremism have provided Pence with an opportunity to present himself as a reliable alternative.
Pence recently retweeted a statement from the anti-abortion advocacy organization Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America responding to Trump’s remarks in which the group urged the former president and other potential candidates to articulate an “ambitious consensus pro-life position” and avoid an “Ostrich Strategy” on abortion.
“Well Said!” Pence tweeted.
Established social conservative and evangelical leaders say they’re reassured by Pence’s long track record. They say that from his time in the House of Representatives through his tenure as governor of Indiana and later vice president, Pence stood firm on the issues they say matter most — opposing federal funding for abortion or pushing back on liberal education standards and regulations.
“People like Mike Pence, they trust Mike Pence. DeSantis may be the hot commodity today, but if he stumbles, they’re going to go to somebody they trust,” said Vander Plaats, a kingmaker in Iowa’s Republican circles.
Following his meeting with Jeffress in Dallas on January 15, Pence will return to Texas on January 22 for a similar conversation with another politically active pastor, John Hagee of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio. Hagee, who also founded the group Christians United for Israel, has supported multiple GOP presidential nominees — including an early endorsement for George W. Bush in 2000.
The tour doesn’t stop there. Pence — who has been promoting his memoir, “So Help Me God,” to evangelical audiences — will continue to visit megachurches and “family values” forums across the country. And at this month’s March for Life in Washington, DC, Pence will meet with anti-abortion activists at the offices of his policy group Advancing American Freedom.
His efforts come as social conservative leaders say Trump is making a mistake in dismissing their voters, given that their support in 2016 and 2020 for the twice-divorced, formerly pro-choice Republican nominee was transactional and conditional — the better option, in social conservatives’ mind, than Democrats Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. But for the 2024 primary, the field of acceptable candidates is wide open.
“We had to take a chance on Trump,” said Kristi Hamrick, a spokeswoman for Students for Life of America, an anti-abortion organization. “We don’t have to now. We have options.”
Plenty of competition
But depending on who those options are, it’s unclear if Pence would be the top choice of social and religious conservatives looking for an alternative to Trump.
DeSantis is one obvious contender. The Florida governor has emerged in recent years as the party’s most notable culture warrior, including his forceful defense of a law he signed last year prohibiting some public-school instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity. Fresh off his second inauguration, the Republican promised to “enact more family-friendly policies” and may push to further restrict abortions in his state.
Other potential Republican presidential candidates, such as Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, have also taken conservative positions on abortion, education and religious liberty. Both Scott and Youngkin headlined SBA Pro-Life America’s annual gala last year. As governor, Youngkin praised the overturning of Roe v. Wade and has called for tighter restrictions on when abortion can be performed in Democratic-leaning Virginia.
Beyond the potential competition, Pence will also have to grapple with the break he made on January 6, 2021, with Trump over the former president’s effort to overturn the 2020 election results. While Pence himself has publicly emphasized their split as a “disagreement” and continues to tout the accomplishments of the “Trump-Pence administration,” social conservatives say Pence’s most important task is to create a political identity independent of his previous running mate.
“I think Mike Pence has to clearly demonstrate his own unique leadership style, and differentiate himself not only from Trump and the Trump administration, but outline the role he played in setting the public policies in the Trump administration,” said Dave Wilson, president of the Palmetto Family Council in South Carolina. “Mike Pence spearheaded a lot of the conservative policy directions of the Trump-Pence administration, and he needs to let people know about that.”
As in Iowa, South Carolina’s early primary contest may be determined by who social conservatives and religiously motivated voters rally behind. Pence’s first public remarks since leaving the White House were at the Palmetto Family Council’s gala in April 2021, and he has been invited (along with other likely White House hopefuls) to the group’s candidate forum in March. Since 2021, Pence has made eight visits to South Carolina, including two stops there last month. He has made six visits to Iowa in the same time period.
Activists say Pence’s maneuvering to win over the GOP’s social conservatives is just the beginning of a long and crowded race to the nomination.
“Mike Pence has done a great job of starting that conversation,” Wilson said.
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