SPARTANBURG, S.C. ― In theory, Nate Leupp should be exactly the sort of political influencer Mike Pence can count on as he plots out a 2024 presidential run.
The Greenville director of a Christian music store has been a mainstay in the evangelical wing of the GOP in upstate South Carolina for 16 of his 42 years. He has admired Pence for decades. He watched as his bloc of similarly minded Republicans leading the Greenville County chapter was ousted for not being sufficiently loyal to Donald Trump.
And yet, should the 2024 South Carolina primary come down to a choice between the former president who tried to overthrow democracy to remain in power or the former vice president who saved it by refusing to go along, Leupp said he will probably go with Trump.
“For all the negatives of President Trump, I’d take him again,” he said.
So as Pence returned to South Carolina last week in his continuing pre-presidential campaign, such was the looming challenge: Figure out a path in the critical early-voting state without relying on two significant segments of eligible primary voters.
“His problem is: What part of the Republican Party does he see as his base?” wondered Winthrop University political science professor Scott Huffmon.
Fervent Trump supporters remain outraged that Pence did not use his authority on Jan. 6, 2021, to keep Trump in power, Huffmon said, while “Never Trumpers” will not forgive him for “kowtowing” to Trump for four years.
“This is an important tour for him to try to find a Mike Pence base in South Carolina after he’s potentially alienated both the pro-Trump and the never-Trump wings of the party,” Huffmon said.
One Pence adviser said the onetime congressman from and governor of Indiana’s analysis of the potential race is the same now as it was not long after he and Trump left office 16 months ago ― that views will change over time, and Trump’s dominance in the party, particularly as rivals start openly criticizing him, will wane.
What’s more, Pence has a natural constituency in South Carolina, the adviser said on condition of anonymity, citing the packed gala Pence headlined Thursday night for the Carolina Pregnancy Center in Spartanburg.
“When they sell out 2,000 tickets with Pence’s name on it within a couple of weeks, that says something,” he said.
A subdued victory lap over Roe v. Wade
Last week’s leak of a majority Supreme Court opinion that would overturn the 1973 decision recognizing a constitutional right to abortion gave Pence the opportunity to highlight his bona fides on that issue over the past decades.
At a National Day of Prayer appearance at a Baptist church in Rock Hill, Pence told the 250 or so congregants they should “especially pray that the five justices listed in the majority opinion leaked this week will have the courage of their convictions to right a historic wrong.” Dozens of them stood in line following his remarks to greet him and thank him.
To reporters afterward, he was careful to avoid entirely the question of whether a Republican congressional majority should, if it comes next year, pass a national ban on abortion, insisting that legislation on such critical issues as “the sanctity of life” should instead be decided exclusively by state legislatures.
A few hours later, Pence appeared at the annual spring fundraiser for a “crisis” pregnancy center that counsels woman against seeking abortions and encourages them to either raise the baby or put it up for adoption. There, while inaccurately claiming that his audience’s views represented the majority of the nation, Pence cast it more as a religious issue than a political one.
He described his own entry into the evangelical fold as a college student attending a revival meeting in Kentucky in 1978, and his subsequent decision to become active in the abortion debate because of his reading of the Bible.
“I knew in that moment that His cause must be my cause,” he said, and reminded his audience that if Roe was, in fact, reversed, that meant abortion opponents had to turn their attention to statehouses. “And though I do not know if I will be here to see it, I believe with all my heart that the day will come when the right to life is the law of the land in every state in America.”
Alexia Newman, the director of the pregnancy center and a member of the state Republican Party, said primary voters know that Pence is genuine about his convictions and is not just saying what they want to hear.
“His record has followed him,” she said. “He articulates the things that are dear to us South Carolinians.”
The Jan. 6 legacy
Of course, articulating things dear to evangelical Christians was a big part of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 strategy to win South Carolina and then use that to roll to victories in Southern states on Super Tuesday.
The plan failed, with Trump comfortably winning South Carolina with 33% of the vote, and Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio essentially tying for second 10 points behind ― that, despite Trump’s record as a recent registered Democrat, proponent of abortion rights and tabloid figure with a checkered personal history with women.
The Pence adviser said he was surprised by Trump’s South Carolina win in 2016, but later came to understand that many voters didn’t care that Trump was a combative jerk so long as he would be a combative jerk on their behalf. “We’ve tried the nice guy approach with George W. Bush and we got John Roberts,” he said, referring to the Supreme Court chief justice whom many conservatives believe has betrayed their cause. “We tried the nice guy approach with [2012 GOP nominee] Mitt Romney and look where that got us.”
Further complicating matters for Pence in South Carolina is the segment of Trump supporters who not only have no problem with his repeated lies about the election that ended up inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, but who also believe Pence turned his back on Trump and the country by not doing what Trump had demanded.
Jeff Davis is the chairman of what calls itself the “new” Greenville GOP, a group that was essentially excommunicated from the state party after it took over the local chapter. (This weekend it hosted longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone and election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell.) Davis said that while Pence has the support of some “far-right” evangelical Christians and “establishment” Republicans, Pence failed to do all he could to keep Trump in the White House.
“Mike Pence betrayed the people,” he said. “I don’t think he has much of a chance at all here in the state of South Carolina.”
“Vice President Pence helped set the policy in the Trump administration in a very fundamental way. What he needs to do is to tell that story.”
It’s not clear how large a slice of Republicans these “Never Pencers” represent, and where they might go should Trump wind up not running.
A far bigger problem for Pence is Republicans like Leupp, who once ran the Greenville County GOP before it was seized by Davis’ faction. Leupp said he was an admirer of Pence going to back to the early 2000s. “I love Mike Pence,” he said. “I wanted Mike Pence to run before anybody knew Mike Pence.”
In fact, the one action Trump took in 2016 that finally made Leupp a supporter was choosing Pence as his running mate. “That’s when he won me over.”
And after four years of watching Trump appoint conservative judges and enact conservative policies, Leupp said, he has become convinced that Trump, despite everything, would be the best for conservatives, even better than Pence.
Leupp added that he’s confident he’s not alone. “If Donald Trump runs to be the party’s nominee, Donald Trump will win the state of South Carolina,” he said.
Ironically, many of the traditional conservative goals that were accomplished under Trump happened not because he was personally driving them, but because his general lack of interest and short attention span allowed Pence and others to fill the vacuum.
Many of the regulatory rollbacks across executive branch agencies happened because Pence’s office was able to place officials into senior and midlevel positions, using his contacts in the business community and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity activist network.
More than 200 conservative federal judges, including three Supreme Court justices, were appointed thanks to the efforts of Leonard Leo’s Federalist Society and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, with Trump doing little more than signing the paperwork.
And the 2017 tax cuts that Republicans almost universally loved were primarily the work of then-House Speaker Paul Ryan, pushing a decadeslong priority of the party.
Josh Kimbrell, a South Carolina state senator and sponsor of three of Pence’s five trips to the state, said this history is already known to many primary voters, and it is incumbent on Pence to make sure it is known to all of them.
“Vice President Pence helped set the policy in the Trump administration in a very fundamental way,” Kimbrell said. “What he needs to do is to tell that story. You need to say: Here’s what I did. Not just what we did, here’s what I did. Because I think a lot of people know, but more people need to know.”
Huffmon remains skeptical that strategy would work, particularly with Trump loudly and repeatedly taking all the credit.
“It’s what the base believes,” Huffmon said, adding that the likely overturning of Roe v. Wade thanks to the three justices Trump named to the high court will provide him even more fodder. “Donald Trump will be able to claim credit for those appointees.”