INDIANAPOLIS — Mike Pence posed the most important question of his lengthy career to conservatives and Republicans from beneath the deep shadow of Donald J. Trump while campaigning in New Hampshire earlier this week.
“Republican voters face an important choice next year,” the former vice president and Indiana governor said. “It will determine both the fate of our party and the course of our nation. Will we be the party of conservatism, or will we follow the siren song of populism unmoored to conservative principles? The divide between these two factions is unbridgeable.”
He was conspicuous in naming Trump, his former presidential boss, while speaking at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester on Wednesday. “The truth is the Republican Party did not begin on a golden escalator in 2015,” Pence said of Trump’s campaign kickoff at his Manhattan skyscraper. “He promised to govern as a conservative, and together we did. But it’s important for Republicans to know that he and his imitators in this Republican primary make no such promise today.”
Pence connected Trump to current and distant progressive populists — Vermont Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, thrice-defeated Democrat presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, and the late Louisiana strongman governor and senator Huey Long — saying they were “fellow travelers on the same road to ruin. Donald Trump, along with his imitators, often sound like an echo of the progressive they would replace in the White House.”
Pence, who is expected to testify against Trump in future trials that will determine the former president’s fate after 91 criminal indictments in four jurisdictions, said that Republican populists would “erode our constitutional norms.” Trump faces a federal indictment, alleged to have tried to persuade Pence to break with the Constitution over the counting of Electoral College ballots, leading to the Jan. 6 insurrection.
He then cited “a leading candidate last year” (Trump) who called for the “termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution, while his imitators have demonstrated willingness to brandish government power to silence critics. Republican populists would have us trade in our time-honored principles for passing public opinion,” Pence said. “That isn’t a trade I am willing to make.
“But a populist movement is now rising in the Republican Party,” Pence warned. “This growing faction would substitute our faith in limited government and traditional values for an agenda stitched together by personal grievances and performative outrage. Should the new populism of the right seize and guide our party, the Republican Party as we have long known it will cease to exist. And the fate of American freedom would be in doubt.”
This is a Republican Party that has lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections, including twice by Trump. President George W. Bush was the only Republican to carry the popular vote in his 2004 reelection bid since 1992.
Pence cited the nation’s “brilliant system of checks and balances, divisions of authority, coequal branches of government and sovereign state governments. Conservatives understand that to advance an agenda. We must work through this system.”
Are Hoosier Republicans willing to follow Pence into this historic GOP battle?
U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, the Republican U.S. Senate frontrunner in 2024, tweeted the jail mugshot of Trump following his Georgia indictment and arrest, saying, “There can be no other candidate in 2024.” It was an incredible departure from American political norms where an indicted candidate in the past fades and folds.
Gov. Eric Holcomb, House Speaker Todd Huston and U.S. Reps. Greg Pence and Larry Bucshon have endorsed Pence’s presidential bid. Holcomb told me in late June that the coming campaign sequence will be defining. “We’ll be in a different place in September than we are today,” he said.
There are signs that the Trump fever is breaking here in Indiana. Beyond Banks, the Republican congressional delegation is mostly uncommitted.
U.S. Sen. Todd Young urged Republicans to nominate a candidate who can win, saying Trump can’t. U.S. Sen. Mike Braun told reporters he is undecided, while expressing interest in Vivek Ramaswamy.
U.S. Rep. Rudy Yakym told me earlier this that he is “confident we will have a Republican president. At this point, I have not endorsed, or am backing, anyone.”
In late August, Buchson told the Evansville Courier & Press, “I think a lot of people who are still supporting President Trump, the support is soft, and you’re hearing that when you actually talk to people. I don’t think he’s going to drop out; I just think people are going to overtake him and win the nomination because of all the things around him.”
U.S. Rep. Erin Houchin told me on Aug. 24, “I am not backing anybody as yet in the presidential race. I’ve made my support known for Trump-era policies in the past. I think we’re better off with a Republican in the White House. I think primaries are good for the party. I think it will vet out who our party wants the nominee to be. It looks like it could be Donald Trump. We shall see.”
Republican U.S. Reps. Jim Baird and Victoria Spartz — who is Mike Pence’s congresswoman — have not announced who they are supporting.
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