Politics

Pence’s Battleground Stops, PAC Raise Eyebrows Amid Trump Scandals

VP’s office calls talk ‘ludicrous’ — but others see ‘too many coincidences’

Vice President Mike Pence leaves a meeting in the Capitol Visitor Center last Thursday. Two days later, he stopped in two presidential battleground states, Pennsylvania and Ohio, en route to his native Indiana. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Vice President Mike Pence has quietly spent his weekends visiting key battleground states, raising eyebrows in political circles about just what the ambitious politician is up to as scandals threaten Donald Trump’s presidency.

Last weekend provides a glaring — and fascinating — example. The former Indiana congressman and governor returned to the Hoosier State to deliver the commencement address at Notre Dame. But his route back home included stops in two perennial presidential battlegrounds: Pennsylvania and Ohio.

And those stops — which followed other weekend travel through swing states and light red counties — came just days after Pence shocked the political set by establishing his own political action committee.

The Pennsylvania and Ohio appearances also came after a whirlwind week that featured bombshell after bombshell about the president allegedly interfering with a federal investigation into possible ties between his campaign and Russian officials. As Pence’s office finalized weekend travel plans, by midweek, talk of impeachment had quickly gone from extreme to mainstream.

White House officials on Friday were reportedly conducting research on just how the House would run impeachment proceedings. The next day, Pence flew first to Grove City, Pennsylvania, where he delivered remarks at a community college. From there, he took Air Force Two to Dayton, Ohio, where he addressed military personnel at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

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The travel schedule. The new PAC. Pence’s relative silence — and avoiding the controversies embracing Trump. The vice president’s camp last week “throwing the president of the United States under the bus,” as one political operative put it. It is all too much for politically attuned sources — Democrats and Republicans alike — to dismiss as a series of unrelated coincidences.

Marc Lotter, Pence’s press secretary, told Roll Call that any talk that Pence is testing the waters for anything other than a Trump-Pence 2020 ticket is “ludicrous.”

“The vice president is entirely focused on promoting and supporting the President’s agenda,” Lotter said in an email.

Michael Steel, a former senior adviser to Jeb Bush during the 2016 presidential campaign, called the vice president “a loyal team player,” adding that he merely could be “laying the groundwork for a Trump-Pence ticket running for re-election in 2020.”

Attracting notice

But Steel would not close the door on the possibility that Pence is preparing his own run, especially given Trump’s mounting legal issues. “At the same time, his travels could yield a more personal payoff if President Trump fails to finish his term, or doesn’t run for re-election,” he said.

Jerri Ann Henry, a GOP political strategist, acknowledged that Republican circles have noticed the vice president’s travel and other recent moves. Among themselves, she said, GOP political hands are asking questions like: “Is Pence traveling to these places because he’s really the softer side of Trump and he’s just rallying people on Trump’s behalf? Or is he preparing to run on his own?”

“There are definitely reasons to wonder about what might be happening,” Henry said. “The Rust Belt voters need to be reassured by this administration, so there are reasons for the vice president to stop there. … But the thing is this: When the White House wants to rally people, they send Donald Trump. That’s what he loves to do. … They don’t send Mike Pence.”

And Pence’s announcement of the PAC, which its director says was cleared with Trump, raised alarm bells among some close to the president. (Its director, according to reports, said setting it up was a legal necessity.)

“No Vice President in modern history had their own PAC less than 6 month into the president’s first term,” Roger Stone, a longtime Trump political adviser, tweeted Friday, adding not-so-coyly: “Hmmmm.”

Key trips

Before last weekend’s stops came a Feb. 4 trip to Pennsylvania’s largest city, Philadelphia, to address the Federal Society, an influential conservative and libertarian law group. On March 12, he jetted to Louisville, Kentucky, to blast the 2010 health care law and rally supporters for the initial version of a repeal and replace bill the House passed on May 4.

The next weekend, it was off to Florida — always a key to reaching the 270 Electoral College votes needed to secure the presidency — for two Saturday speeches.

The first stop, Jacksonville — where Pence told the audience “Obamacare has failed and Obamacare must go” — was an interesting choice. Jacksonville’s Duval County voted for the GOP’s presidential nominee Sen. John McCain in 2008 — but only by about 5,000 votes. Republican Mitt Romney won it by a larger margin, nearly 14,900 votes, four years later. But in November, the margin had shrunk, with Trump taking the northeast Florida county by around 6,000 votes.

Just last weekend, more of the same: A visit to a traditionally light red county. Pence’s Pennsylvania stop landed him in Grove City in Mercer County, which Trump won easily last fall. But Romney took it by just over 1,200 votes in 2012. And McCain won it four years earlier by just two votes.

Pence’s top spokesman said the vice president accepted the Grove City invitation “months ago,” and added a stop at the Ohio base because he “wanted to honor American servicemen and women on Armed Forces Day.”

“I’d also point out he praised the president in each of those addresses this weekend,” Lotter said. “He spent [Monday and Tuesday] on Capitol Hill, meeting with lawmakers about the budget, tax reform and health care,” he added, nothing Pence will talk about many of those issues — as well as jobs — Wednesday in Louisana.

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High stakes

Each issue ranks as a top Trump priority. But Pence has a stake in each one, too.

The administration’s fiscal 2018 budget plan features a number of conservative ideas; Trump’s tax plan proposes rate cuts, which are a core Republican tenet; and GOP congressional and presidential candidates for years have run on replacing Obama’s health care law with a Republican-crafted plan. Most candidates for national office promise to create jobs.

Though many of the states and counties Pence has visited since Jan. 20 increasingly look like smoke to political operatives, GOP strategist John Feehery said he does not detect any actual fire.

“Pence can’t win these states without Trump,” he said in an email, “so I assume that Pence is doing this on Trump’s behalf.”

But some Democratic political operatives disagree.

Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former aide to recently retired Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, told Roll Call the vice president’s travel schedule is “amazing” when viewed in the context of what happened last week.

He was referring to this quote from someone close to Pence given to NBC News about a “pattern” of Trump transition and White House officials leaving the vice president in the dark: “That’s an egregious error — and it has to be intentional. It’s either malpractice or intentional, and either are unacceptable.”

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. “sometimes undercut Barack Obama, but usually just by getting out in front of him,” Manley said. “But his staff? That never happened.”

“The charitable description is [Pence] is doing what any good vice president should do for the president,” he said. “And when he announced the PAC, I chalked it up to smart, aggressive baseball. … But now, there are just too many coincidences at a time this president is so weakened.”

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