The week was like any other week of Donald Trump’s presidency: It started with him threatening to dispatch U.S. troops to the southern border and ended with him calling a Democratic activist who was a target of the pipe-bomb campaign a “crazed & stumbling lunatic.’
And like every week before it, Vice President Mike Pence ignored the tweets, the statements and the outbursts as he travels across the country delivering the election message the old Republican guard wants to hear as the GOP tries to keep control of Congress.
Pence touted the new jobs created (“4.2 million”), the unemployment rate (“lowest in 50 years”) and the success of GOP-backed tax cuts (“the largest tax cuts and tax reform in American history”) at every speech and at every campaign event, using language that would have easily earned the stamp of approval from congressional leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.
“Literally since the day after the election, confidence is back all across the country, jobs are coming back all across this state and this country,” Pence recently told a couple hundred people at a Des Moines hotel. “In a word, America is back and it’s just getting started.”
Republicans fighting to hold onto their majorities in Congress have something to campaign on in next week’s midterm elections: the nation’s healthy economy.
But while Trump touts the economic turnaround — repeating most of the same statistics as Pence — he chooses not to stay on message, careening from one controversy to another, often of his own making.
“Republicans across the country need help from the White House but not the distractions,” said Craig Robinson, a consultant and a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party. “That’s the benefit of bringing Pence in. He’s the perfect safe surrogate.”
Together, Trump and Pence appeal to both kinds of Republicans — those who prefer the focused policy-driven message of Pence at smaller, subdued events and those who favor the free-wheeling speeches of Trump at his raucous Make America Great Again rallies.
Trump appeals to the non-traditional voters who backed his unorthodox 2016 campaign because of his blunt talk and his ability to reveal himself publicly the same way he does privately.
Pence — who is widely considered to be more conservative than Trump — appeals to the base passionate about the Trump agenda but not necessarily the Trump style.
Amy Thomsen 67, a retired college instructor from Des Moines, said she initially backed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for president in 2016 but reluctantly voted for Trump after he secured the Republican nomination. She still had reservations about his sometimes outlandish behavior. “Pence is more what I’m used to,” she said.
Pence has headlined at least 136 campaign events, including roughly 96 fundraisers — delivering the same consistent message about the economy — surpassing the number of Trump’s more splashy events, according to a McClatchy review of publicly available schedules since the two were sworn into office in January 2017. The schedules, which inexplicably are missing four weeks, do not distinguish between fundraisers and rallies, but the estimates were calculated based on information about the events, including their locations and their accessibility to the public. In total, Pence has helped raise more than $50 million, according to someone familiar with the fundraisers.
And Pence has delivered almost identical speeches — each entitled “Tax Cuts to Put America First” — at nearly 25 events this year hosted by a political group that promotes Trump policies, America First Policies.
“Right before Christmas, with the support of the conservative leaders from Missouri and Kansas, President Trump signed the largest tax cuts and tax reform in American history,” he said in Kansas City in July. “That’s promises made and promises kept.” It was a line he has repeated over and over from Billings, Montana to Wheeling, West Virginia.
During one recent week, Pence headlined 14 campaign events for 13 candidates in five cities — rallies or fundraisers for those running for the House in Iowa, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Kansas and Virginia, for the Senate in West Virginia and for governor in Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma and Iowa. He also attended three fundraisers for the Republican Governors Association and an event for the America First-related super PAC, America First Action.
The sheer number of events — some in races where he isn’t needed or won’t make a difference — will only help Pence build loyalty among Republicans and party infrastructure as he considers a possible run for president in 2024.
“When Trump’s time is up, we’re going to get Pence in there,” said Doug Carter, 69, of Des Moines, as he attended his first Pence event.
But it’s unclear how many people are hearing Pence’s message. His events draw a fraction of Trump’s rallies, which are attended by thousands of supporters and more than 100 journalists, and garner little, if any attention, in the nation’s capital where the political establishment is busy with Trump’s controversies.
Pence’s office did not respond to multiple questions about his schedule and strategy.
But Marc Lotter, a former top Pence aide who remains close to the administration, said Trump and Pence deliver the same message to the same people. “They each speak with their style,” he said. “They say things in different ways but they’re saying the same thing.”
Pence is cautious and measured. Trump is brash and unpredictable.
In Des Moines, Pence campaigned for Rep. David Young, who faces a tough re-election next month in a year when the president’s party traditionally loses ground. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats in the House and two in the Senate to gain control of the chambers. Only about 200 supporters and less than a dozen journalists attended his Des Moines speech.
In a 25-minute speech, he spoke about the increase in defense spending, the newly confirmed justice to the Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh and, of course, the economy. He began his speech by saying how honored he is to serve as vice president and ended by asking the audience to pray for all Americans regardless of party.
He did not mock Kavanaugh’s accuser, he did not talk about the “witch hunt” into whether Trump aides colluded with Russia in the 2016 election and he did not call the media the “enemy of the people.”
“You feel like he’s very truthful and honest,” said JoEllen Arthur, of Polk City, Iowa.
Mark Langgin, a Democratic consultant in Iowa, said that even with Iowa’s races focused on the economy and heath care, Pence is on the wrong side of the issues and is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. “People’s position on Trump is baked in,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot to move that one or another.”
It’s not unusual to see a vice president campaign hard — even harder than a president who is saddled with more work and security — but no running-mate in modern history has had a task like Pence: Ignore the hourly crises and deliver the message the party wants to hear.
“I guess you could call Pence old reliable,“ said Ben Marchi, a Maryland business owner who served as a Trump delegate to the 2016 Republican convention. “He’s delivering the message that the old guard wants but the president understands you have to employ unconventional methods to get things done.”
Marchi said although Trump has a plan to win the campaign and accomplish his policy goals, even though he may not share what the plan is.
Trump has been headlining boisterous Make America Great Again rallies several times a week in states that backed him in 2016, including North Dakota, North Carolina and Arizona, trying to boost Republican candidates. Between Wednesday and Election Day, he is expected to make campaign stops in Missouri, West Virginia, Indiana, Montana, Ohio, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida twice.
But while Trump does talk about the issues, including the economy and tax cuts, he often veers off track, speaking for well over an hour about so many topics that sometimes attendees are left scratching their heads about what he meant.
At a recent rally in Missoula, Montana, Trump talked about his former rival, Hillary Clinton, acid washing her emails; journalist Barbara Walters trying to determine whether he wears a toupee and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test, which showed little Native American heritage. “You see what we did with taxes?” Trump asked the crowd before quickly moving on. “We forget taxes with so many things more important than taxes.”
Trump wasn’t close to Pence — who had endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for president — before tapping him to be his running mate. But Trump has given Pence, a former congressman and governor, an outsized role in the administration, initially relying on him to navigate Washington in ways that other modern presidents have not needed.
When America First Policies began planning the tax cuts events with business and community leaders the group went immediately to Pence to ask him to participate, said the group’s spokeswoman Erin Montgomery said.
Pence has been campaigning for candidates and party committees since he was sworn into office but his schedule has picked up in recent weeks.
And each and every time, Pence tells the audience that he’s there on behalf of Trump — before launching into a policy-driven speech that is very un-Trump like.
“They’re a good match,” said Angie Suchan, a student from Urbandale, Iowa. “They even each other out.”
Kellen Browning in Washington contributed.