As the White House was struggling to tamp down the controversy over Donald Trump Jr.'s campaign meeting with a Russian lawyer, Vice President Mike Pence was recruiting Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley to enter a Senate race that is one of the Republicans' best pickup opportunities next year.
"Josh spoke to Vice President Pence this weekend and has been getting a great deal of encouragement to run," a Hawley spokesman told the Kansas City Star. "He is giving the race serious consideration."
With the Russian intrigue pummeling the White House anew, Pence's role as a party leader, President Trump's point man on Capitol Hill, and a source of calm within the storm becomes even more important as Republicans try to forge ahead with their agenda in spite of the probe into last year's election.
"The fact that Pence is divorced from anything to do with Russia is a great help to the administration, for sure, because he's not bogged down in the investigations that are swirling," said Bradley Blakeman, a Republican strategist and former adviser to George W. Bush. "He's above that."
"The constant controversy surrounding Trump drives members of Congress closer to Mike Pence, who has managed to stay above the fray," said a GOP congressional aide. "Whether this translates into policy wins for Pence is to be determined, but he's certainly emerged as a safe refuge for congressional leaders not wanting to totally distance themselves from the White House but needing some space from the Trump controversies."
Pence has long served as a bridge between the president, a political outsider with no prior experience in Washington, and the Republican congressional leadership. A six-term member of Congress before he was elected governor of Indiana, Pence rose as high as chairman of the House Republican Conference and has a strong relationship with leaders like House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Also, unlike the president, Pence has a long history in the conservative movement. He voted against many of the increases in federal spending that took place the last time Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress, including such major Bush administration initiatives as No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug benefit.
That gave Pence the credibility to negotiate with Republican lawmakers on thorny issues like healthcare, as getting the party to consensus on how to partially repeal and replace Obamacare has been much more difficult than anticipated. Sometimes, that means holding the line against conservative insurgents, while other times, he acts as their voice.
"He went on [Rush] Limbaugh Monday and went to bat for the [Consumer Freedom Amendment]," a conservative Senate aide said of Pence, referring to an amendment by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, with the potential to win conservative votes for the upper chamber's GOP healthcare bill. "That was huge for us."
Club for Growth president David McIntosh recalled a meeting with conservatives where Pence took a backseat to the White House budget director, a veteran of the House Freedom Caucus. "He made Mick Mulvaney the centerpiece of the meeting," said McIntosh. "Everybody made sure they were there because it was in the vice president's office… Great leaders will tell you that that gives you much more influence if you're willing to work out of a position of humility."
"I think his pedigree and experience and relationships make him the perfect point person for the Hill, and I think that was the plan all along, was to have Pence be the legislative point person on all things Hill-related," Blakeman said. "So, the fact that he is so immersed now in healthcare and in taxes is the reason why you're not seeing him more engaged in the day-to-day news of the day."
"It is always a pleasure to work with fellow Hoosiers, and Vice President Pence is no exception," said Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, R-Ind. "America is benefiting from something that Hoosiers have known for a long time: Mike Pence is a principled leader with an influential voice who always puts the best interest of his constituents first."
Pence could deliver Trump legislative victories, but the Russia matter has the potential to create awkwardness between the two men. When the Donald Trump Jr. emails were published, the White House had to clarify a statement from the vice president's office disavowing interest in issues "pertaining to the time before [Pence] joined the campaign."
"There's absolutely no distance between the president and the vice president," White House deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders said.
"He's obviously got to stay loyal, but he took this thinking long-term," said a Republican strategist. "He knows Trump saved him from losing in Indiana and put him back into the presidential mix in the future, but Trump can also take him down with him."