Former President Donald Trump has repeatedly hinted that he will run again for President. He ended this month’s influential Conservative Political Action Conference saying, “Who knows, I may even decide to beat them for a third time.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is most often mentioned as Trump’s primary opponent, with 51 percent of the nationwide Republican base viewing him favorably — up from 43 percent in mid-May.
I think the real threat to a future Trump-dominated Republican Party comes from his former Vice President Mike Pence. Pence might just have enough sense to realize that he will not get the Republican nomination. By avoiding the dead-end Republican primary, he could become a viable third-party candidate. Pence could slice off a significant number of Republican and conservative independent voters in the general election to eliminate Trump’s chance of a victory. He may lose the election, but a new or revitalized non-Trump Republican Party might result.
Tara Setmayer, former GOP congressional communications director, summed up conventional logic last week that paints Pence as a loser. “There is no viable path to being the GOP presidential nominee without Trump’s MAGA supporters, who won’t support anyone publicly rebuking the former president.” Consequently, Setmayer declared that Pence’s political career was right on top of a heap of ash for telling the gasping Federalist Society that Trump was “wrong” and “un-American” for wanting Pence to reject certification of Joe Biden’s win.
Pence gave that speech smack-dab in the middle of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago compound. That same day the Republican National Committee passed a resolution censuring fellow Republicans Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Lininger of Illinois for joining the bi-partisan congressional committee to investigate the January 6 insurrection.
So, the political insiders and pundits chalk up Pence, once the undying loyal and servile Vice President to Trump, as now locked out of his party’s wheelhouse. (Seriously, didn’t he know that criticizing Trump was tantamount to heresy?)
Remember, Pence was the Governor of Indiana, a solidly red state. With Pence on the ticket as V.P. in 2016, Trump won Indiana with a 19 percent victory margin. Four years later, Pence’s Republican successor as Indiana Governor won with a 24 percent margin, while Trump’s presidential victory margin slipped to 16 percent.
One factor that accounts for Trump’s drop is the Libertarian Party, a growing force in Indiana. In 2016, the Libertarian candidate for governor got 3.2 percent, but in 2020 their candidate received 11.4 percent. True, Libertarian candidates have never garnered more than 4 percent in a Presidential election. Still, since its formation in 1984, they have consistently outpolled the largest leftist party, the Green party, three to one. The Libertarian Party also is the only third party registered in all 50 states to run a presidential candidate.
While the Libertarians come from both sides of the political spectrum, a Pew poll taken in the late summer of 2016 showed that 11 percent of them leaned to Republicans, 7 percent to Democrats. An earlier 2012 survey found only 5 percent called themselves Democrats or liberals (3 percent). And like the Trump Republicans, they are overwhelmingly white (94 percent) predominantly male (68 percent). Consequently, a Libertarian-backed Presidential candidate would hurt the chances of a victory by a Republican candidate more than a Democrat in swing states.
Aside from raising critical issues, a third-party candidate can spike the chances of either of the major parties’ presidential candidate. It conceivably happened most recently with Green Party candidates in 2000 and 2012. Number crunchers have argued that Ralph Nader may have taken enough votes away from incumbent Vice President Al Gore in New Hampshire and Florida to allow George H. W. Bush to win the 2000 election by electoral but not popular votes.
Critics accuse Green Party candidate Jill Stein of taking votes away from Hillary Clinton in the three Democratic-leaning Rust Belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, a siphoning that allowed Trump to win the 2016 race. His margin of victory was less than Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s vote count in those states.
Other past third-party attempts have derailed an incumbent or favored candidate from winning. For example, although no former Vice President has ever run against his former President from the same party, a former president ran against an incumbent president. In the 1912 election, Republican Theodore Roosevelt running under the Progressive or Bull Moose Party, cost Republican Howard Taft, who lost the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Roosevelt ran to the left of both the Republican and Democratic candidates. Pence would be running to the right of the Democratic candidate. But even in comparison to Trump, he has the credentials for running as the most winnable right-wing candidate. When Pence was the Indiana Governor, FiveThirtyEight ranked him as the nation’s second most conservative governor. While serving in the House of Representatives, Pence was rated as a far-right Republican leader based on an analysis of bill sponsorship by the non-partisan GovTrack website.
Pence’s record helps him with the reactionary Republican voter base. A recent GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio, who previously did polling for Trump’s 2020 campaign, shows support for Pence at 19 percent and DeSantis at 17 percent among GOP primary voters without Trump in the mix. However, Trump gets 51 percent support when his name is added, trailed by Pence at 9 percent and DeSantis at 7 percent.
Still, Trump is not an unbeatable juggernaut. A CNN Poll conducted by SSRS from January 10 through February 6 shows that Republican and Republican-leaning voters are about evenly split between wanting their party to nominate Trump again (50 percent) or wanting a different candidate (49 percent). A majority of Republicans (54 percent) favored Trump, compared with 38 percent of Republican-leaning independents. In other words, overall, Republican and Independent conservatives are open to another candidate.
These polls show that Pence could hook up with the Libertarian Party to avoid the internal Republican Party blood bath if Trump is challenged in the Republican Primary. DeSantis’ reputation as a fighter makes it more likely to battle Trump within the party. He knows that the odds will be against him. That battle lands at the feet of the RNC, which controls the party’s presidential primary and the nominating convention. And Trump owns the RNC. Nevertheless, the New York Times reported that DeSantis is refusing to commit to get out of the way for Trump if the ex-president jumps into the 2024 presidential race.
The Daily Mail reported how DeSantis is preparing for a showdown with Trump by working media influencers. On January 6, for instance, DeSantis invited nine social media stars to Tallahassee to stop at the governor’s office, have dinner at the governor’s mansion, and go for drinks at a local lounge. Each of the attendees, including those from Fox News, New York Post, Turning Point USA, and the Claremont Institute, had more than 95,000 Twitter followers.
Pence has also been making the rounds but in a quieter undertaking. For instance, he skipped the opportunity to speak at the critically important CPAC conference, while Trump and DeSantis were featured, speakers. So, what do the Libertarians have to offer Pence to offset going down the primary rabbit hole in the hope of getting the Republican nomination?
First, without hesitation, Libertarians publicly condemned the January 6 insurrection. As the U.S. Capitol building was being breached, Libertarian National Committee Chair Joe Bishop-Henchman issued the following statement: “This is not patriotism. This is not protesting. This is reprehensible violence and aggression and needs to stop now. We hope for safety for all those who work in the Capitol.” Instead, the RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel identified the January 6 insurrection as “ordinary citizens who engaged in legitimate political discourse that had nothing to do with violence at the Capitol.”
Pence is not a dynamic speaker like Trump or DeSantis; rather he is seen as a somewhat dull and everyday politician. His policies are almost identical to Trump and DeSantis’s, but his demeanor is closer to good-old plain Joe Biden’s. Liberals and moderates will vehemently fight against Pence’s reactionary policies that block social justice and environmental-protection legislation. However, his extreme conservatism is not coupled with unquestionable loyalty to one man’s autocratic vision for this nation. In other words, he could be a safe candidate for conservative Republicans who, like Pence, believe in following constitutional rules and norms even when they don’t validate your desires.
Vice President Mike Pence has described himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” Pence’s religious beliefs could be acceptable to Libertarians as long he accommodates their principles of opposing government censorship in any form, opposing all government interference with private property, and prohibiting initiation of physical force against others. On the issue of abortion, which Pence has intensely opposed, the Libertarian Party recognizes that its membership includes both “pro-choice” or “pro-life” advocates, believing these views should remain matters of individual conscience. Given the make-up of the Supreme Court, Pence doesn’t need to do much on abortion other than support state rights to regulate it out of existence as they choose.
Overall, a workable relationship for a campaign could be forged between Pence and the Libertarian Party. For Pence to get the electoral votes in a state, he must run as a candidate from a new Republican-like third-party or the Libertarian Party. If both endorsed Pence as their candidate, just one of them would sponsor him in a state so as not to divide his vote in that state.
All states, but two, use party block voting (PBV), in which all the state’s electoral votes go to a party’s candidate that won the popular vote. The electoral voters swear to vote for their party’s candidate. So, if Pence won a state as a Libertarian or as a New-Republican candidate, the electoral voters would still be pledged to Mike Pence. The constitution does not obligate candidates to run from a party. Instead, the electoral voters are committed to the candidate, allowing the electoral votes to be combined to a single candidate when presented to Congress for a count.
With this strategy, Pence gains an invaluable social and political infrastructure for getting on the ballot in every state. The Libertarian Party would gain a unique opportunity to garner more votes than any prior third party had since the formation of the Republican Party, which occurred with the dissolution of the Whig Party. And the New-Republican party could see its candidate not be shut out from obtaining electoral votes.
This approach may also appeal to many non-activist Republicans who are disgruntled with Trump, either as individuals or organized into groups like the Lincoln Project. For example, many would agree with Representative Liz Cheney when she says, “I’m a constitutional conservative, and I do not recognize those in my party who have abandoned the Constitution to embrace Donald Trump.”
It is a strategy that conservative politicians like Cheney might see an independent presidential campaign, working in alliance with the Libertarian Party, as necessary to restore the Republican Party. A new entity could emerge which would be just as conservative as the current Republican Party. However, it would acknowledge the peaceful transfer of executive power every four years, which Trump-Republicans do not accept.
Here’s the final kicker. Funding this unique amalgam may well come from billionaires like the Koch brothers. For instance, Billionaire David Koch ran on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980, contributing $2 million, worth $7 million in 2022 dollars. His idea that government is the problem, and the free market is the solution to everything, has been embraced by the Republican Party. The Koch brothers did not initially support Trump and have been critical of him. Although David Koch died in 2019, Charles Koch and other reactionary billionaires could pump money into a Pence campaign if Trump snuffs out his opposition within the Republican Party. Having been hijacked by Trump, taking back “their” party could be the backdoor to funding Pence’s campaign effort.
Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,000 progressive municipal officials.