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Essential Politics: Pence’s breakup with Trump is dragging into the midterms

A man in a dark blue suit and red tie, left, gives a sidelong look to another man, also in a suit
Then-President Trump and then-Vice President Mike Pence at a news conference in 2020.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

President Trump demands unshakable loyalty from his aides and allies. He requires they follow orders and not betray him, no matter the circumstances.

For four years, Vice President Mike Pence gave the president exactly that. He carried out Trump’s vision and stuck by his side, even as outrage and scandal ripped through their administration.

But when Trump urged Pence to overturn the presidential election, the vice president reached his limit.

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The vice president declined to go along with Trump’s plan, even as the president’s supporters sacked the U.S. Capitol and called for Pence to be hanged. Since that day, Trump has repeatedly blasted Pence, ensuring the former vice president is detested among the core GOP voters who still believe Joe Biden stole the White House.

If Pence retired from politics, losing the Republican base’s affection wouldn’t matter much. But after endorsements and a flurry of speeches, it appears Pence may not be done running for office. Neither man has formally launched a bid for the 2024 nomination — yet. But the rivalry between the two casts a light on the splintering of the GOP.

What does the former running mates’ split really indicate? And how has that spilled over into the party?

Hello, besties. I’m Erin B. Logan. I am a reporter for the L.A. Times. I cover national politics and the Biden administration. Today, we will discuss elections, voters and what happens when a president and his vice president stop being polite and start getting real.

The splintering

It’s been nearly two years since the presidential election and Trump still has not let up on the lie that he won. He routinely promotes the idea and blasts those who challenge it. GOP candidates explicitly and implicitly promote unfounded conspiracy theories about the election. Some Republican officials have gone so far as to refuse to certify election results even when the outcome would benefit their party.

A few Republicans have refused to go along.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the vice-chair of the House select committee investigating the insurrection, is perhaps the most notable and high-profile Republican who has refused to back Trump’s unfounded assertions about the election. The conservative editorial boards of the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post and Wall Street Journal have also derided Trump for his handling of Jan. 6.

Some downballot candidates have de-emphasized Trump’s obsession and are instead aligning themselves with Pence. But even Pence’s allies flirt with election conspiracy theories.

In the Republican primary for governor in Arizona, for example, Pence-backed candidate Karrin Taylor Robson will not explicitly say that Biden stole the election. In a CNN interview on Monday, she wouldn’t say whether she would have certified the election results if she were governor and said she is “focused on looking forward.”

Taylor Robson, who is also endorsed by incumbent Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, did, however, nod at Trump’s unfounded claims. “We have the wrong guy in the White House,” Taylor Robson said. “The 2020 election, at a minimum, was not fair,” she said. “And that’s my consistent answer.”

Taylor Robson’s Trump-endorsed opponent, Kari Lake, not only insists that the 2020 election was stolen but has said that Taylor Robson and her allies “might be trying to set the stage for another steal” in the gubernatorial primary.

National media have described the Arizona race as a showdown between Pence and Trump. Over the weekend, the pair attended campaign events in Arizona for their preferred candidates. On Tuesday, the former allies were in Washington for dueling speeches.

At the Young America’s Foundation annual student conference in downtown Washington on Tuesday morning, Pence called the insurrection a “tragic day.” He hinted at Trump’s obsession with the 2020 election, saying that “some people may choose to focus on the past, but elections are about the future.”

An audience member asked Pence if he believed the perceived split with his former boss extends to the rest of the party. In response, Pence said he did not “know that our movement is that divided.”

“I don’t know that the president and I differ on issues, but we may differ on focus,” Pence said.

Trump spoke at the America First Policy Institute’s policy summit Tuesday afternoon. In a wide-ranging and lengthy speech, he repeated the lie and falsely asserted that he won the 2020 election.

In a Tuesday interview with The Times, Kellyanne Conway, a former senior counselor to Trump who now runs AFPI’s Center for the American Child, called the idea of a Trump vs. Pence rivalry a “fiction” created to distract from the Biden administration’s failings.

“The rivalry is between the Biden-Harris administration unraveling the Trump-Pence accomplishments,” Conway said hours before Trump’s speech. “Why would there be a rivalry between two people — Pence and Trump — who literally worked together to make America great again?”

The America First Policy Institute has stressed that it’s creating a policy framework that can be adopted by the next Republican president, whether it’s Trump or someone else. “It’s not here to advance any candidate, including President Trump, it’s here to make sure ... the legacy of the Trump/Pence administration is preserved and progressed,” Conway said.

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Future elections

For now, at least, most GOP candidates must espouse some form of Trumpism to make it out of their primaries, said Douglas Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “That doesn’t mean that that Trump [completely] dominates the party,” said Heye, who noted that not all of the GOP candidates endorsed by the former president have prevailed in the midterm primaries. “But he’s still the biggest player in the party.”

“The candidates Pence is backing are, by and large, pretty Trumpy,” Heye added. “They just aren’t that kind of Trump Addams Family-esque strain of the party that Trump always gets behind.”

In essence, Republicans “are going to be in the same neighborhood,” Heye said. “They just don’t want to go down the same street.”

“The center of gravity of the party has definitely moved towards Trump, whether or not [candidates] ultimately back him.”

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The view from Washington

— In recent months, conservative Republicans have attacked Walt Disney Co. over its vow to help repeal a Florida law that limits discussion of LGBTQ issues in schools, Times writers Seema Mehta and Ryan Faughnder reported. Now, Democrats are irate over a decision by the Disney-owned streaming service Hulu not to air ads about abortion and guns — two central issues in Democrats’ midterm campaigns.

— Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Monday that she recently tested positive for the coronavirus, the Associated Press reported. In a brief statement, the Republican said she tested positive after experiencing flu-like symptoms. Her statement did not specify the timing of the test. Murkowski’s campaign posted photos of events that she attended on Friday and Saturday in Fairbanks.

— The era of COVID-19 school closures appears to be over, but parents’ frustration with that difficult period is set to play a pivotal role in November’s midterm elections, Times writer Courtney Subramanian reported. Last summer, anger about months of remote learning energized Republicans, who founded activist groups, launched recalls of school board members and introduced new legislation. They also attacked school closures, “critical race theory” and sex ed. Now, with the elections just months away, Democrats are fighting back, recalibrating their message to parent voters.

— Biden probably contracted a highly contagious subvariant of the coronavirus spreading rapidly through the U.S., and now has body aches and a sore throat since his positive test, according to an update from his doctor Saturday, the Associated Press reported. His doctor said the results of the preliminary sequencing that indicated the BA.5 subvariant does not affect Biden’s treatment plan “in any way.”

The view from the Jan. 6 Committee

Stephen K. Bannon, a longtime ally of Trump, was convicted Friday of contempt charges for defying a congressional subpoena from the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the Associated Press reported. He was convicted after a four-day trial in federal court in Washington on two counts: for refusing to appear for a deposition and for refusing to provide documents in response to the committee’s subpoena. Bannon could get up to two years in federal prison at his sentencing on Oct. 21. Each count carries a minimum sentence of 30 days in jail.

— Pence’s former chief of staff has testified before a federal grand jury investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol, a person familiar with the matter said Monday, the Associated Press reported. Pence’s close aide Marc Short was at the Capitol on the day of the siege and was with the vice president as he fled his post presiding over the Senate and hid from rioters who had stormed the building and called for his hanging.

The view from California

— In Washington, Kevin McCarthy is the ultimate party-line Republican, one of former President Trump’s most loyal congressional foot soldiers and leading the charge in the GOP’s quest to regain control of the House in November, Times writer Jasper Goodman reported. But back in his home district, some voters are skeptical. McCarthy is tasked with introducing himself to more than 200,000 new voters in a district where the GOP’s registration advantage has grown to almost 20 percentage points, the largest in the state. But even in an area that red, McCarthy faces mistrust from voters on his right flank — including some who have supported him in the past.

— California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a controversial gun control bill modeled after Texas’ vigilante abortion law on Friday, teeing up a legal battle with a U.S. Supreme Court friendly to 2nd Amendment groups and firearm owners, Times writer Hannah Wiley reported. Newsom started a game of legal chess in December when he called for gun control legislation in California modeled after a Texas law that authorizes private citizens to sue anyone who aids and abets in an abortion, which the high court declined to block. A coalition of Democratic lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 1327 in response to Newsom’s request. They hope to test the Supreme Court’s legal logic while setting up a political rivalry with states that have used a conservative majority of justices to expand gun ownership and curb abortion rights.

— Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin has cut off Councilman Herb Wesson’s pay and benefits after a judge temporarily barred Wesson from performing the duties of his office, Times writer Benjamin Oreskes reported. City Council President Nury Martinez appointed Wesson’s chief of staff, Heather Hutt, as caretaker to handle matters in the 10th District. Wesson was appointed this year to temporarily replace Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was suspended after federal prosecutors indicted him on corruption charges. Ridley-Thomas has denied the charges and plans to fight them in court in the fall.

Times writer Arit John contributed to this report.

And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter for updates about my iconic dog Kacey and to share pictures of your adorable fur babies with me at erin.logan@latimes.com.

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