Vice President Mike Pence stood in the East Room of the White House after his boss put him on the spot. He smiled. He nodded. But he never uttered one word: Yes.
The moment, prompted by a reporter’s question during a rowdy post-midterm press conference on Nov. 7, was an attempt by President Donald Trump to quiet speculation that he had begun to question Pence’s loyalty and was mulling other potential running mates for his 2020 re-election campaign.
“Well, I haven’t asked him, but I hope so. Where are you?” Trump said in response to the question, scanning the room before finding his No. 2 in the front row. “Mike, will you be my running mate? … Stand up, Mike, please. Raise your right hand. No, I’m only kidding. Will you? Thank you. OK, good.”
Pence followed orders and nodded with an awkward smile as the crowd of White House staffers applauded. “The answer is ‘yes,’ OK? … That was unexpected, but I feel very fine,” Trump said.
But a Roll Call reporter, seated a few feet from the vice president, noticed he never actually said anything. Pence was asked about his loyalty and the 2020 GOP ticket at the end of his recent Asia swing — and, again, according to a dispatch from his traveling press pool, he did not answer in the affirmative.
“I’m just tempted not to dignify it with a comment,” he said on Nov. 17. “The president and I have a very close,” Pence added, before correcting himself: “We’ve got a very strong relationship.”
“I’ve been honored to serve as his vice president. I was honored when he asked me to run with him,” Pence said, noting that he and Trump had discussed his loyalty and the 2020 speculation.
“It came up,” he said. “We had a good laugh.” But do they have a deal to again run together? With speculation of a possible change continuing, here are a few candidates who could replace the former Indiana governor and congressman if the president goes with another option.
“I don’t have anything set on where I’m going to go,” Nikki Haley told reporters in the Oval Office on Oct. 9 as she and Trump announced her departure at the end of the year from her post as ambassador to the United Nations. “I’m a believer in term limits.”
“For all of you who are going to ask about [a presidential bid in] 2020: No, I am not running for 2020. … I can promise you what I’ll be doing is campaigning for this one,” she continued, pointing to a smiling Trump.
Not running for president, but campaigning for the incumbent? Several political strategists and former congressional aides noted last week that those are two parts of the running mate’s job description.
G. William Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and longtime staff director of the Senate Budget Committee, called Haley the front-runner should Trump opt for a change.
A former senior House GOP aide also immediately identified the former South Carolina governor as Trump’s best option.
Trump has repeatedly praised Haley’s work at the U.N., and, sources said, she would appeal to female voters and bolster the ticket’s foreign policy chops.
Women of Congress
The same former GOP aide also said this: “The only thing that might help is picking a woman,” pointing to Haley and GOP Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who will become her state’s junior senator in January.
The president has recently praised both. On Nov. 20, as he prepared to pardon two South Dakota-bred turkeys, he congratulated Cheney on becoming House Republican Conference chair, saying: “They know what they’re doing in Congress, Liz.” And during an Oct. 1 rally in Tennessee, he called Blackburn “a true fighter.”
The Trump whisperer
Sen. Lindsey Graham has transformed himself from a leading, vociferous Trump critic into a close ally. The South Carolina Republican has said he is not interested in joining the president’s Cabinet, but a vice presidential bid could set him up for a 2024 White House run of his own.
At worst, should Trump win in 2020, Graham would be among the last to have the president’s ear before he makes policy decisions — including on issues important to the veteran senator, such as immigration and foreign policy.
“Graham seems to have some special way of handling Trump,” said one GOP strategist who was granted anonymity to speak freely about members they might work with. “Some say he has abdicated all of his principles to support the president, but I don’t think that’s true. I think he’s playing a longer game.”
The long shots
Sure, Trump included departing GOP Rep. Mia Love of Utah in his post-midterm press conference list of Republican candidates who resisted his “embrace” and lost. “Mia Love gave me no love, and she lost,” Trump said. “Too bad. Sorry about that, Mia.”
But two sources noted that Love, a 42-year-old African-American with three children, could help Trump more in 2020 than Pence. The midterms showed suburban, college-educated women overwhelmingly voted for Democratic candidates, helping that party take control of the House. Love likely would appeal to women and could target minority voters in key swing states.
But the chances of a Trump-Love ticket grew slimmer still Monday after the Utah Republican slammed the president in her concession speech, accusing him of having “no real relationships, just convenient transactions.”
Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, who once clashed harshly with Trump but has since warmed to him, would be an “interesting long shot — to firm up the electoral vote in Texas,” Hoagland said. Some analysts see the Lone Star State’s demographics steadily changing, but it is not clear it will become a swing state by Election Day 2020.
“She would help the president with women voters and on foreign policy, two places where he’s weak. And, frankly, she really needs to have a more prominent role in the Republican Party,” the strategist said.
The bottom line
Haley is the clear favorite Pence alternate. But, notably, no source contacted for this piece thinks Trump should dump Pence. “I still think Pence would be the top candidate,” Hoagland said. The former senior GOP House aide was more blunt with this initial reaction: “Gah! I think replacing Pence would be a terrible idea.”