ANKENY, Iowa — Mike Pence on Wednesday launched his run for president, making his most sweeping case yet against Donald Trump’s fitness for office and beginning an extraordinary campaign against his former boss more than two years after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol upended their relationship.
In his kickoff speech, the former vice president hit Trump on several fronts, including the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and Trump’s attempts to overturn his 2020 election loss. He spoke at length on this point, advancing an argument that Trump is no longer qualified for the presidency as he explained his rationale for challenging the man he served loyally for four years.
“I believe that anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States and anyone who asks someone else to put them over the Constitution should never be president of the United States again,” Pence said.
He called Jan. 6 “a tragic day in the life of our nation” and said “Trump’s words were reckless and endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol.” Pence added, “President Trump also demanded that I choose between him and the Constitution. Now voters will be faced with the same choice. I chose the Constitution, and I always will.”
The former vice president also challenged Trump on other matters, including abortion, changes to entitlement programs, comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin and even general civility.
It’s exceedingly rare for a former vice president to take on a president he served under and ran alongside, and Pence faces an awkward task of promoting his experience while arguing he is a strong alternative to Trump. That challenge came into focus Wednesday.
In his speech, Pence emphasized that he was “incredibly proud” of the Trump-Pence administration, touting the GOP tax cuts as well as the confirmation of three conservative Supreme Court justices who eventually helped overturn Roe v. Wade.
But a launch video released earlier in the day included no images of Trump, while the biography on Pence’s campaign website offered few specifics about his tenure as vice president and devoted more space to his work as governor of Indiana. It noted he and Trump entered office together in 2017 — then skipped ahead to February 2021.
The former vice president’s decision to seek a return to the White House — this time in the top slot — represents his most direct challenge to Trump, after serving him dutifully until resisting his exhortations to overturn the 2020 election. Public polls this year of the GOP race have shown Pence and a pack of other rivals in the single digits, well behind Trump, the former president and clear polling leader, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is in second place.
Pence’s entrance comes during a stretch of several Republican campaign launches, with former New Jersey governor Chris Christie kicking off his run Tuesday and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum doing so Wednesday. Pence has spent considerable time laying a foundation for his run this year, making trips to early nominating states and GOP gatherings promoting his vision for the country’s future. He is the latest in a series of Republicans long expected to enter the race who have made their candidacies official in recent weeks. His announcement speech illustrated a willingness to address Trump more directly than have some of his rivals.
Just how much of Pence’s campaign will involve talking about Trump remains to be seen. Interviews with Pence advisers and allies suggest that while Pence will be willing to talk about Trump’s conduct as president when asked, he also wants to discuss his own vision of the presidency.
“I think he’s going to be forward-looking. I don’t think he’s going to be in the rearview mirror because he knows that’s where Americans want to talk, is how you’re going to help them moving forward,” said Marc Short, a top Pence adviser.
Scott Reed, co-chair of Committed to America, a super PAC supporting Pence’s candidacy, said Pence is “going to continue to talk about ways in which he differs with the former president on policies — policies that they pursued together while they were in office. He’s not going to try to out-Trump Trump; he’s going to stand out as a leader of character.”
Since they left office, there has been a stark divide between Pence and Trump over the Jan. 6 attack, in which a violent pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol on the day lawmakers gathered to certify the electoral college results, some chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” The aftermath of the 2020 election marked the only time Pence broke publicly with Trump during his four years as vice president.
Pence has picked his spots for voicing direct criticism of Trump over Jan. 6, choosing to delve into the issue on Wednesday much more directly than have many of his rivals.
“I understand the disappointment that many still feel about the outcome of the 2020 election. I can relate. I was on the ballot, but I had no right to overturn the election. And Kamala Harris will have no right to overturn the election when we beat them in 2024,” Pence said Wednesday.
Leading up to that day, Trump repeatedly made false claims that the election had been stolen and used incendiary language at a rally near the White House that morning. Yet, Trump has claimed the violence he inspired that day was Pence’s fault. “Had he sent the votes back to the legislatures, they wouldn’t have had a problem with Jan. 6, so in many ways you can blame him for Jan. 6,” Trump said in March.
Now Pence is charting his own path as a traditionally conservative Republican, in the model of President Ronald Reagan. The ex-vice president is expected to invest heavily in Iowa, where he’s already made several visits.
A Pence adviser said the candidate picked Iowa as opposed to Indiana for his launch to symbolize a “forward-looking vision of the country.” The campaign plans to travel to all 99 counties in Iowa, according to the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview strategy.
But there is plenty of skepticism about his chances. “This could be very difficult for him. … Iowans will be nice, but I don’t know if there’s the enthusiasm there for him to actually build up a campaign and do what’s necessary to compete,” said Craig Robinson, an Iowa Republican consultant.
Pence has spent the past several months reminding voters of his long-standing ties to the antiabortion and evangelical communities, as well as his consistency on policy issues that, until recently, were long considered traditional Republican orthodoxy. His allies recently launched the Committed to America super PAC to reintroduce him to voters. The group, which can raise unlimited funds but cannot coordinate with the Pence campaign on spending strategies, will invest heavily in a paid voter contact program.
The Pence team’s theory of the case is that the Republican base did not become as extreme during the Trump era as some assume, and that Pence can capitalize on the policy successes of the Trump-Pence administration, without the baggage of the controversies and chaos of Trump himself — which has left even some Trump supporters exhausted and looking for an alternative candidate.
Yet that path to the nomination is shaping up as a difficult one. Some Trump loyalists have made clear they view Pence as a traitor for not overturning the results of the 2020 election, while those eager for change still view him as too closely associated with the former president. During an April appearance at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Indiana, Pence was greeted with some applause and loud boos.
After two unsuccessful bids for Congress and a stint as a talk radio host — during which he billed himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf” — Pence was elected to the House in 2000 and quickly established himself as a principled conservative, both politically and personally.
He railed against much of the spending of the George W. Bush era, including Bush’s Medicare prescription drug expansion, and in 2002, he told the Hill that he doesn’t dine alone with women other than his wife or attend events featuring alcohol without her. During his time in Congress, he also served as chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
Trump tapped Pence as his running mate in 2016. During the primary, Pence had supported one of Trump’s chief rivals, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.). Once in office, Pence promoted the administration’s policies and was seen as a staunch defender of his boss.
In challenging the president he served under, Pence is embarking on something with no equivalent in recent campaigns. Over 80 years ago, Vice President John Nance Garner challenged President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination. Both were current officeholders at the time and it wasn’t initially clear Roosevelt would seek a third term.
Despite having near-universal name recognition, Pence has nonetheless struggled to crack double digits in national polls. In focus groups of Republican voters, respondents regularly make clear that while many think Pence seems like a nice guy, he’s not one of their top choices to become the party’s nominee. A May poll from Quinnipiac University found that, among Republicans, 48 percent had a favorable view of him, 35 percent had an unfavorable view of him and 15 percent had not heard enough.
Pence said Wednesday that he’d support the Republican nominee for president, but when pressed at a CNN town hall on how he could support Trump if he wins the Republican nomination, he replied: “I don’t think Donald Trump’s going to be the nominee.”
This year, Pence has parted ways with several of his rivals, differentiating himself from some of the 2024 field with his stalwart support for Ukraine in the face of the Russian invasion last year. He also set himself apart from some during a March speech at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, where he called for “common-sense” changes to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, as well as reining in the growing national debt.
“Joe Biden’s policy is insolvency, but you deserve to know, my fellow Republicans, Donald Trump’s position on entitlement reform is the same,” Pence said Wednesday.
He has also sought to distinguish himself from Trump when it comes to abortion, which was on display in his announcement speech.
“After leading the most pro-life administration in American history, Donald Trump and others in this race are retreating from the cause of the unborn,” Pence said. “Sanctity of life has been our party’s calling for half a century — long before Donald Trump was ever a part of it. But now he treats it as an inconvenience, even blaming our election losses in 2022 on overturning Roe v. Wade.”
In January, Trump said on Truth Social that it wasn’t his fault that Republicans underperformed in the midterms. Instead, he said, it “was the ‘abortion issue,’ poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on No Exceptions.”
A staunch opponent of abortion rights, Pence has said he would support a 15-week abortion ban. As a member of Congress, Pence also supported “personhood” legislation, which defines life as starting at the moment of conception, to ban abortions based on the 14th Amendment. He told CBS News recently that he would like to see abortion pills “off the market.”
In April, Pence testified before a federal grand jury that is examining Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. A federal judge ruled this spring that Pence needed to comply with a subpoena from special counsel Jack Smith but could remain silent on subjects relating to his role in Congress on Jan. 6.
The Justice Department, meanwhile, has closed its investigation into Pence’s possession of potentially sensitive government documents after leaving office and will not pursue charges, officials said last week.
Parker reported from Washington.