WASHINGTON — A week after Vice President Pence traveled with his boss to Elkhart, Pence will get the stage to himself Friday at another Indiana event to publicly tout the GOP tax package and privately raise money for Senate candidates.
The trip comes as Pence is being criticized both for being too deferential to President Trump while also getting accused of annoying Trump’s aides by building up his own political influence.
“I do think it’s laughable that he’s being attacked for being too loyal to the president while on the other side that he’s creating some sort of shadow campaign 50 feet from the Oval Office,” said Marc Lotter, Pence’s former press secretary and an adviser to Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
Pence is so publicly loyal to Trump that he’s been mocked by Trump critics for his effusive praise of the president. GOP strategist Steve Schmidt last week said Pence shows a “slobbering servility” to Trump. Conservative columnist George Will went after Pence’s “talent for toadyism and appetite for obsequiousness.”
Pence last week said it’s time for special counsel Robert Mueller to end his investigation of Russia's interference in the 2016 election. He also declined to comment on allegations surrounding Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen, calling them a “private matter.” (Cohen is under investigation for his role in paying hush money to a porn actress who said she had an affair with Trump, a claim Pence has dismissed as a “baseless allegation.”)
But Pence has also been flexing his own political muscle through a leadership PAC and travel around the country raising money for candidates and holding events like the one in Indianapolis Friday to sell the tax package.
The headline on a New York Times story published Monday declared: “Pence is trying to control Republican politics. Trump aides aren’t happy.” In addition to his extensive campaigning for the midterm elections, the article said, Pence has tried to steer some of Trump’s endorsements and his attempted “empire building” through some of his staff hires.
“Even as he laces his public remarks with praise for the president, Mr. Pence and his influential chief of staff, Nick Ayers, are unsettling a group of Mr. Trump’s fierce loyalists who fear they are forging a separate power base,” the New York Times reported.
A Politico story also published Monday said Pence’s actions have prompted Trump to assert his dominance.
“Trump puts Pence in a corner,” Politico declared.
One reported example of that is the addition of Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, to Pence’s political team.
Pence’s team rejects the premise of those news stories.
They say Pence is executing his part of a midterm election strategy developed at Camp David in January with the president, vice president and congressional leaders.
“The president asked the vice president to serve as the tip of the spear on midterm elections,” said Marty Obst, a senior Pence political adviser.
A former governor and member of the House GOP leadership, Pence is good at fundraising and campaigning for candidates.
But Trump will continue his unique ability of energizing the base through the rallies he holds that attract thousands of voters — such as the one both Trump and Pence went to in Elkhart last week, his team says.
“These guys are very, very close,” said Bob Grand one of the organizers of the Friday fundraiser who also raised money for Trump’s 2016 campaign and is friends with Pence. “Just look at Elkhart. He asked the vice president to come with him. What better example do you need?”
Pence’s efforts, however, simultaneously strengthen his influence within the Republican Party. But history shows Pence won’t have much of a political future without Trump.
Since presidents and vice presidents started running together on the same ticket more than 200 years ago, no vice president has been promoted when the president they served has not sought and won a second term, points out Ron Klain, who worked for Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden.
“There is no path for Mike Pence that does not include success for Donald Trump,” Klain said.
It is unusual for Pence to have created a leadership PAC soon after becoming vice president. (The PAC enables Pence to travel around the country for fundraising and other campaign events for candidates.)
But Pence’s level of involvement is less a power grab than a reflection of the fact that Trump has “never shown an interest in being an institution builder within the Republican Party,” Klain said.
“Trump is only about Trump, and that leaves a vacuum,” Klain said.
GOP strategist Michael Steel said there’s no sign that Pence is pursuing an agenda separate from the president’s. Instead, Pence and Trump are utilizing each’s unique skills. Trump has an “unparalleled ability” to rally the party’s base, Steel said. Pence is the more experienced politician with ties to the donor base and to many of the candidates he’s helping.
Plus, the disciplined Pence can hold event after event on the GOP tax package — which Republicans see as key to their success in the midterm elections — without going off script.
“You will probably never see the vice president throw his prepared remarks up in the air,” Steel said, referencing Trump’s paper toss at a West Virginia event last month that was supposed to focus on the tax package.
Pence starts his tax events the same way he begins most events: bringing greetings from Trump — “a man who is making America great again.”
Friday’s event in Indianapolis is expected to include a discussion on the tax package with some members of the congressional delegation, a local businesswoman and Alfredo Ortiz, the Job Creators Network, a business advocacy group.
Those who want to attend Friday’s fundraiser with Pence, Gov. Eric Holcomb and Sen. Todd Young will have to pay $2,700 per couple. Photos with Pence cost a minimum of $10,000 per couple. The top tier package costs $25,000 per person.
The event is expected to raise more than $500,000 for the GOP Senate candidates in Indiana, Ohio and Missouri.
Pence has also teamed up with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to raise money for House candidates, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of dollars Pence has contributed to candidates through his leadership PAC.
Lewandowski, who has been working on the pro-Trump group America First Policies which puts on the tax policy events, started working for Pence’s PAC weeks ago, according to Pence’s aides.
Obst said Lewandowski’s addition ensures “total cohesion” with the president and vice president’s political travel. Lewandoski also provides analysis on key races and guidance on preparing for the 2020 re-election campaign.
Lotter said the fact that Lewandowski is working for Pence’s PAC while he, a former Pence aide, sits on the advisory board of Trump’s re-election campaign is a sign of unity.
“It just shows you,” Lotter said, “that we’re all working seamlessly as one team.”
IndyStar reporter Tony Cook contributed.