KOKOMO – The 28th vice president of the United States, Hoosier Thomas Marshall, once quipped, “Indiana is called the mother of vice presidents because it is home to more second-class men than any other state.”  

While time, absentee ballots and attorneys will decide whether Vice President Mike Pence gets to continue to live in One Naval Observatory Circle for four more years, the thought must have crossed Pence’s mind sometime in the wee small hours of the morning after Election Day, “Where do I go from here?”

President Trump's loss on Saturday makes it likely Mike Pence eventually falls short of grasping the brass ring. While the path to the presidency for Pence would have faced difficult hurdles if Trump had won, the road to presidential glory becomes immeasurably more challenging now that the former Indiana governor finds himself looking for Two Men and a Truck in January.

For a relatively quiet man, Mike Pence has shown that he possesses the grit of a riverboat gambler when it comes to his political career. Safely ensconced in a congressional seat, a member of the leadership team in the House of Representatives, with the speaker’s job a reasonable career goal, Pence chucked it all to make a run for Indiana governor in 2012. Pence understood members of the House of Representatives just do not get elected president. As a first-term governor, Pence could have served out another four years and then made a run for the highest office in the land in 2020, should Donald Trump not have been elected. It was the safe play, but not the play made by Pence. Instead, Mike Pence threw caution to the wind and hitched his wagon and political fortune to the wild ride of Donald Trump.  

Pence, who initially was not on any short list to become Trump’s vice presidential running mate, zoomed to the top of the list when the billionaire frat boy needed someone with unquestioned religious bona fides to calm the jittery nerves of the religious right, who were horrified at the revelations that the Republican presidential candidate was a boorish, sexist partier who was a serial philanderer and proud of it. At the time Pence made the decision to leave Indiana for the campaign trail, I had a distinct feeling that a first-class man had just made a lamentable deal to dance with the devil. I shuddered to think of Pence being asked to defend the personal conduct of Donald Trump. “Mr. Pence, do you think it’s appropriate to brag about grabbing a woman by the whatzit?”

Pence’s gamble paid off handsomely when Trump miraculously defeated Hillary Clinton and gained the White House. The unlikely victory by Trump in 2016 afforded Mike Pence a golden opportunity and a surplus of challenges.

History has generally not been kind to vice presidents, and its former occupants rarely have any kind words for the position. Former Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president, John Nance Garner felt that the job was not “worth a bucket of warm spit.” Thomas Marshall liked to tell the story of two brothers, one who ran away to sea and the other who became vice president, “Neither was heard from again.”  

Nelson Rockefeller complained that the only two jobs a vice president had was checking on the president’s health every morning and attending funerals for third-world dictators. Such was the case for Mike Pence in his first three years in the vice president’s chair.

And then the pandemic hit.

President Trump, burdened by the need to defend himself against the ridiculous impeachment process and the quickly unfolding 2020 campaign, tapped the vice president to head up the coronavirus response committee.  This presented Pence with both a golden opportunity to shine in the public limelight and the huge risk that he might be dubbed “a loser” by the president and dumped from the ticket.  

By most accounts, Mike Pence performed ably and effectively as leader of the committee. Unfortunately, he was not given much of an opportunity to shine in the limelight. Shortly after Pence’s first nationally televised press conference on the pandemic, featuring the leaders of our response, President Trump decided to horn in and then hijack the daily proceedings. What better way to get an hour and a half of free television time every day that every television network was pretty much forced to show! The vice president quickly moved from the podium to holding up a wall and then into obscurity. He emerged publicly in a widely circulated op/ed piece declaring that there would be no second wave to the pandemic. Sadly, for Pence, that proved to be over 100,000 deaths ago.

As I write this column on Wednesday morning, a second term appears to be quickly fading away for Donald Trump and his vice president. In the cruel world of presidential politics, there will be no time to cry or lick your wounds.  

The 2024 election campaign started this morning if not months ago for those senators, governors and glitterati who get up in the morning and see the next president staring back at them from their mirrors. This is the reality that Pence must face this week. The road to the job that he has sought for so long begins now and it will not be a road less traveled.

A reelection of the Trump/Pence team would have given Pence a significant leg up on the 2024 campaign. He would almost assuredly become the early favorite to become the 2024 Republican candidate for president. He could jet around the country in Air Force Two visiting centers of wealth, scarfing up campaign contributions and making campaign appearances with 2022 congressional and senatorial candidates in key states.  

He could find plenty of reasons to visit cornpicker conventions in Iowa and maple syrup festivals in New Hampshire. In short, he could spend the next three years campaigning on the taxpayers’ dime and still find time to ask about the president’s health and attend third-world dictators’ funerals.

Time for plan B. Presuming that Mike Pence still wants the job of president, he now faces the daunting task of facing as many as 20 potential Republican candidates in a beauty pageant that will unfold no more reasonably than the circus sideshow that was the 2016 primary season.  

He most certainly will face a wealth of Republican talent let by former Governor Nikki Haley, Sen. Tom Cotton, Sen. Tim Scott, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Mike Lee, Sen. Rick Scott, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Gov. Mike DeWine, Sen. Josh Hawley and either Ivanka Kushner or Donald Trump Jr.  

The wild card in all of this will be the plans and whims of Donald J. Trump. He might decide to make another run in a bid for redemption or weigh in on behalf of one of his children or one of his loyalists. Make no mistake about it, President Trump will happily throw Mike Pence under a bus and label him a loser if it suits his purpose. He has done the same to a litany of qualified and good men and women and Mike Pence should not expect any different treatment. President Trump, like him or not, is a death star and tends to destroy anything that enters his orbit.
The presidential primary system in the United States is broken without much hope of repair. It is immensely expensive, involves kissing cow derrieres in Iowa in an unfathomable voodoo caucus process, requires fawning over a state with only three Electoral College votes and pretty much crowns a winner before even half of the primary voters have cast a ballot.  

The large number of candidates puts a premium on those candidates who can grab more than their share of both press and voter attention and who have a loyal base of fanatical support. This reality puts Mike Pence at a distinct disadvantage in a crowded Republican field. For these reasons, I believe that Pence’s narrow path to the presidency may have shrunk to the point of being impenetrable. Mike Pence is a good man and an honorable public servant. History has demonstrated time and time again that these traits are not always the prime requisites to higher office.  

In my capacity as a Republican county chairman, I gave of my time, money and energy to help elect Mike Pence governor of Indiana and vice president of the United States. I am glad that I did so. As I peer into my political crystal ball, I just do not see a President Mike Pence. And then just as I write this, in my mind’s eye, I can see Mike Pence smiling that twinkling honest smile and thinking to himself about Mark Twain’s quote, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” 

Dunn is the former Republican chairman for Howard County.