By JILL COLVIN
NEW YORK (AP) — In Donald Trump’s assessment, Mike Pence “committed political suicide” on Jan. 6, 2021. By refusing to go along with the former president’s unconstitutional push to overturn the results of the 2020 election, Pence became a leading target of Trump’s wrath and a pariah in many Republican circles.
But the final weeks of the intensely competitive 2022 election suggest the former vice president’s fortunes have shifted as he lays the groundwork for his own potential campaign for the White House in 2024.
The man who was booed last year at a conservative conference is now an in-demand surrogate for Republican candidates, including some who spent their primaries obsessively courting Trump’s endorsement, in part by parroting Trump’s election lies.
Pence has been traveling the country, holding events and raising millions for candidates and Republican groups, including signing fundraising solicitations for party committees.
For some campaigns in tight races, Pence is seen as something of a neutralizing agent who can help broaden their appeal beyond Trump’s core base of support. That includes Arizona, with a key Senate race on Nov. 8 and what is expected to be a hotly contested stop in the 2024 presidential campaign.
Last week, Pence endorsed Senate nominee Blake Masters, who has struggled to pivot from the primary to win over moderates in a state where one-third of voters are registered independents.
“He takes a little bit of the edge off Masters with a lot of voters,” veteran GOP strategist Scott Reed said. “You know Masters is new to this, first time candidate, said some silly things he probably regrets during the campaign.”
Yet the endorsements can seem jarring given that Pence has spent much of the past year pushing back on Trump’s election lies, which spurred the violent mob that descended on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, while Pence was trying to preside over the formal congressional certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory. Pence and members of his family had to be rushed to safety and held for hours in an underground loading dock as the marauders roamed the hallways, some chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” and erected a makeshift gallows outside.
Masters, during the primary, baselessly denied the 2020 results, recording a video in which he said he thought Trump had won. Masters claimed on his website that, “if we had had a free and fair election, President Trump would be sitting in the Oval Office today.”
Trump said when he endorsed Masters in June: “Blake knows that the “Crime of the Century” took place, he will expose it and also, never let it happen again.”
Pence made no mention of that in Phoenix on Tuesday.
“What I came here to Arizona to say is not only is Blake Masters the right choice for the United States Senate, the people of Arizona deserve to know Blake Masters may be the difference between a Democrat majority in the Senate and a Republican majority in the Senate,” Pence said.
Pence, along with Masters and Gov. Doug Ducey, took just three questions, two of them from conservative websites. When a television reporter noted that Masters has questioned the 2020 election, a spokesman for Masters cut him off before he could finish his question.
Masters is not the only election denier Pence has endorsed or assisted.
Two days after the Masters event, Pence was in Georgia headlining a fundraiser for Burt Jones, the nominee for lieutenant governor. Jones not only embraced Trump’s claims of widespread election fraud and called for a statewide investigation into the 2020 race, but also signed on to be one of his state’s fake alternate electors — a scheme that is now under criminal investigation.
Last month, Pence campaigned in New Hampshire for Senate nominee Don Bolduc, a retired Army general who also spent his primary campaign telling voters the 2020 race was stolen from Trump.
Marc Short, a longtime Pence adviser, declined to set a red line for candidates Pence would and would not endorse.
“It’s more about making sure that he’s being a team player where he needs to be,” he said. “I think as a lot of these candidates look to solidify the party behind them, Pence can be helpful.”
There is no evidence of any widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines in the 2020 election, underscored by repeated audits, court cases and the conclusions of Trump’s own Department of Justice. Still, support of false election claims run deep among GOP candidates this year.
Short said Pence was happy to support candidates who had moved past 2020, as he has urged the party to do.
“If people sort of acknowledged a mistaken position before, he certainly wants to reward that,” said Short. “I think he wants to help conservatives first and foremost, but if people who were elected are now adopting new position about the events of Jan. 6,” he said, “then that’s a positive.”
Reed, the Republican strategist, said he wasn’t surprised by the candidates Pence had chosen to back.
“He’s a big picture party guy. And it doesn’t surprised me that he’s hustling as hard as he is for people who may not be 100% Pencers,” Reed said. “By doing these kinds of events,” he added, “they’re going to take another look at him if he decides to run.”