Pence vs. Trump? Former veep opposing “extreme” Trump-backed GOP primary challengers

Wall Street Journal reports that Pence and the Republican Governors Association are set to defy TrumpWorld

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published November 22, 2021 12:53PM (EST)

Donald Trump and Mike Pence (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Mike Pence (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Former Vice President Mike Pence vowed last week to support sitting Republican governors against primary challengers backed by former President Trump, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Trump has raged in recent months against Republican governors who he believes were insufficiently loyal, or did not do enough to help him overturn his election loss, backing primary challenges to former close allies like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. But Pence, himself the former governor of Indiana, told the Republican Governors Association (RGA) last week that he plans to back sitting governors that drew his former running mate's ire.

"I want to be clear," Pence told the group in a private speech, according to the Journal. "I'm going to be supporting incumbent Republican governors."

Though Pence has consistently defended Trump since leaving office — without directly discussing his refusal to block certification of the Electoral College votes on Jan. 6 — there is an undeniable tension between the two camps as both reportedly mull potential 2024 presidential bids. Trump has not done much to repair the strained relationship, even defending Capitol rioters who chanted "Hang Mike Pence" in a recent interview.

RELATED: Trump defends supporters' threats to "hang Mike Pence" in new audio: "People were very angry"

Democrats say the intra-party discord could help them in a cycle where Republicans are otherwise poised to expand their power.

"These extreme primary challengers are going to push Republican governors further to the right and out of the mainstream," David Turner, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association, told the Journal. "The political environment is only going to improve for Democrats."

Taylor Budowich, a spokesman for Trump, told the outlet that the former president will continue to be an "active and defining voice in gubernatorial races" against "radical Democrats" and "weak Republicans."

"Just like in cycles previous, successful Republican candidates must earn the support of President Donald J. Trump," Budowich said.

But some Republican incumbents are instead trying to distance themselves from Trump. A growing number of Republicans view Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin's victory earlier this month, in which the Republican refused to campaign with Trump or endorse his false claims about the 2020 election, as a sign that they don't need the former president's support to win.

The RGA, which spent $14 million backing Youngkin, plans to spend millions to fend off primary challenges to incumbents, according to the Journal. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican who recently dealt a blow to the party's hopes of regaining the Senate by announcing he would run for re-election rather than against Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, also said he would back incumbents and criticized the Trump faction's campaign to unseat sitting conservatives. He even left open the door to a potential 2024 primary campaign against Trump in an interview with The New York Times.

"When the pandemic hit, no one had ever experienced anything like that," Sununu told the Journal. Republican governors "did a phenomenal job and to try to play politics after that — with those records of success — is a shame."

Trump has frequently groused about so-called RINOs, or "Republicans in name only," for a variety of reasons. None has drawn more anger than Kemp, whom Trump blames for resisting his demands to help overturn Joe Biden's narrow victory in Georgia. Though numerous recounts and probes failed to find any evidence of Trump's baseless claim that the election was stolen, Trump has pushed former Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., who lost his own runoff race in January after Trump spread conspiracy theories that the state's elections were rigged, to run against Kemp in next year's Republican primary.

Kemp lamented in an interview with the Journal that the attacks from Trump have undermined his conservative credentials, even after he signed draconian new voting restrictions inspired by the former president's conspiracy theories and challenged Biden's vaccine mandates.

"It's insane," Kemp told the Journal.

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The former president is also backing former TV anchor Kari Lake, a rabid conspiracy theorist who has echoed his false claim that the election was stolen, to replace outgoing Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who also rejected Trump's demands to help him overturn the results of the election. Ducey, who cannot run again due to term limits, told the Journal that he may "get involved" in the primary as well.

Trump recently threw his support behind Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who has feuded with Gov. Brad Little, a fellow Republican, over COVID policies, and even tried to seize power and overrule Little's decisions while he was out of the state.

Trump is also backing former Rep. Geoff Diehl, a former Massachusetts co-chair of Trump's campaign who lost a 2018 Senate bid against Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., by 25 points, in a potential primary against Gov. Charlie Baker, a moderate Republican and frequent Trump critic. Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, a Trump loyalist, has launched a primary bid against Gov. Mike DeWine, another Republican who has criticized Trump and blamed him for the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

A new name to surface on Trump's hit list is Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, according to the report. Trump blames Ivey — a staunchly conservative Republican — for a state commission decision that prevented him from holding a rally last July at the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park. The commission said it canceled the rally because the facility, which houses a World War II battleship and other historic military aircraft, cannot be used for political events. A spokesperson for Ivey denied that she had anything to do with the decision. But Trump has met with Lynda Blanchard, who served as his ambassador to Slovenia — the home country of Melania Trump, to drops a possible endorsement if she drops her potential U.S. Senate campaign and runs against Ivey instead.

Members of the RGA are increasingly concerned that Trump's revenge tour could hurt their chances in upcoming races.

"It's outrageous, unacceptable and bad for the party," Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, the former RGA chairman, told the Times, labeling the former president's retaliation campaign "Trump cancel culture."

Read more on Donald Trump's "revenge campaign" within the Republican Party:

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Aggregation Brian Kemp Donald Trump Elections Mike Pence Politics Republicans