Georgia rally shows Pence cutting his own path, regardless of Trump

·4 min read

In his latest split from former President Donald Trump, Mike Pence will headline a rally for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican who has remained at odds with Trump since the 2020 presidential election.

Pence’s rally with Kemp on May 23 may be his sharpest rebuke yet of Trump. The former vice president has decided to throw his weight behind a bid to win a second term for one of the Republicans whom Trump has blamed in his attempts to overturn the 2020 election results. In addition, Pence’s longtime consigliere, Marc Short, has signed on as an adviser to Kemp.

“The Vice President's leadership was instrumental in creating the most prosperous economy in American history, including here in Georgia, and his commitment to building a safer, stronger America represents the highest ideals of our party,” tweeted Kemp, who appears likely to fend off a Trump-backed challenger in a little more than two weeks.

Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks at a fundraiser for Carolina Pregnancy Center on Thursday, May 5, 2022, in Spartanburg, S.C. Pence made his second trip to the state in less than a week to headline an event for the crisis pregnancy center in early-voting South Carolina as he continues to mull a possible 2024 presidential bid. (Meg Kinnard/AP Photo)
Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks at a fundraiser for the Carolina Pregnancy Center in Spartanburg, S.C., on May 5. (Meg Kinnard/AP Photo)

“Brian Kemp is one of the most successful conservative governors in America,” Pence said in a statement. “He built a safer and stronger Georgia by cutting taxes, empowering parents and investing in teachers, funding law enforcement, and standing strong for the right to life.”

Neither man mentioned Trump nor his baseless claims that he won the election, which have opened the sharpest divide inside the GOP since Trump left office.

The former president has wrestled with Kemp for more than a year now, with little success. In December 2020, Trump called Kemp and pressured him to throw out the election results in Georgia. A year after Kemp refused this request, Trump endorsed former Georgia Sen. David Perdue in his attempt to oust Kemp in the May 24 primary.

Trump headlined a rally for Perdue at the end of March. And in a surprising move, the typically tightfisted Trump released $500,000 from his extensive political war chest for Perdue. But his efforts to unseat Kemp have stumbled, with Perdue falling well short of Kemp in most polling.

On Wednesday, Trump slammed Kemp, calling him a “RINO” — a “Republican in name only” — in a statement that also took aim at Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, all of whom are backing Kemp.

Political observers seeking signs of where Republican voters stand ahead of the 2024 primaries have drawn mixed results from recent contests. Almost two weeks ago, the primary victory of Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance, who had been endorsed by Trump, was deemed a clear sign of the former president’s continued control of the party.

Former President Donald Trump mugs for the crowd as J.D. Vance takes the microphone.
Former President Donald Trump listens as J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in Ohio, addresses a rally in Delaware, Ohio. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

This week brought further indications that Trump’s grip on the party is not as firm as he and his aides have claimed. His pick for Nebraska governor, a GOP donor who helped Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election results, lost a tight race to a Republican backed by the GOP establishment and the powerful Ricketts family.

The next test, on Tuesday in the Pennsylvania Senate primary, could bring another loss for Trump, if the extreme-right commentator Kathy Barnette succeeds in holding back the daytime TV celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz, whom Trump endorsed a month ago.

Ever since a mob of pro-Trump rioters ransacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and scoured the halls searching for the vice president chanting “Hang Mike Pence!,” many Republicans have written off Pence as unlikely to win the nomination of a party whose most fervent voters have threatened to kill him.

But Pence has charted a steady, if somewhat subdued, path campaigning in support of Republicans in early voting states like Iowa and South Carolina, only occasionally speaking out against his former boss. Indications from Republican primary voters that they won’t march in lockstep with Trump’s endorsed candidates have Republican operatives predicting that the former vice president has a possible path (if a narrow one) to the nomination in 2024.

“Mike Pence has always been about doing the right thing, no matter the difficulties that may present,” said Mike Murphy, a longtime Indiana Republican and friend of Pence’s. “The Georgia race is not burning bridges for Pence, it is building bridges for the future prosperity of America."