NEW YORK — When President Trump shook the political world, the epicenter was Pennsylvania, the one swing state Republicans had tried and failed to carry in each of the last six presidential elections. The flamboyant businessman targeted Pennsylvania from the start and addressed the Pennsylvania Republican Party’s signature fundraising event in Manhattan exactly two years ago this week.
Last Friday, the Pennsylvania Society reconvened in New York City, but this time, it was Vice President Mike Pence who was scheduled to deliver the keynote speaking slot, a role Pence has accepted with vigor across the country since taking office.
Although his speech was cancelled at the last moment, his plan was to speak eloquently of the White House’s accomplishments over the past 10 months, it was estimated his planned appearance still raised nearly a half a million dollars, a number essential for a state party apparatus who not only helped place both him and the president in the White House but is also bracing for big in-state midterm elections next year for both governor and U.S. Senate, as well as holding all 13 of their GOP House congressional seats.
Pence’s appearance is notable for several reasons but not because this is a sign he is preening his own political ambitions or is creating a shadow campaign as other news organizations have reported but because he has unofficially taken on the role as the leader of the Republican Party.
“Without question, Pence has absolutely taken on the traditional role as leader of the Republican Party. The mistake is made when people reference his out-front fundraising activity as a lurch for personal gain, or some shadow campaign for himself; they could not be more wrong,” said Rob Gleason, former chair of the Pennsylvania state GOP who took a lot of personal heat when he invited Trump to headline the party’s fundraiser in New York in 2015.
“Pence came up in the Republican Party the traditional way, first getting elected ... congressman, and ultimately as the state’s governor,” he said.
“And along the way, he knows the way to build the party from the ground up is to pay attention to the small races that can turn a majority in the House or a presidential election,” Gleason said recalling Pence, then chair of the House Republican Conference, campaigning at the Richland Township Fire Department near Johnstown, Penn., for a special election 2010.
“I know it is said all of the time, but Trump is Trump, and part of his uniqueness in American politics is that is that he is a completely different kind of president in terms of his relationship with party building,” Gleason explained.
And the truth is Trump prefers the rallies to the traditional fundraising dinner scene. Actually let’s be honest: Trump loves the rallies and the rubber chicken circuit doesn’t suit him — to do those right you go in and spend your speech bragging about the local heroes, not yourself. That’s not exactly his strongest suit.
“Pence thought is impeccable at doing just that, and that is what Republicans desperately need him to do in terms of fundraising and relationship building,” Gleason said.
During the campaign, Gleason had a very close relationship with candidate Trump in terms of instructing Trump where the votes were to win the state in particular in counties like Luzerne and Erie where the president flipped ancestral Democratic strongholds his way. Trump went on to win Pennsylvania by 40,000 votes over Clinton.
Pence knows the way to hold the majority and the White House, and build for the future, is with clear eyes — winning votes for majorities and building relationships with Republicans is understanding that not all of America consists of the Johnstowns of the country, something the president may neither grasp nor care about.
And despite his creation of his own fundraising PAC, an unprecedented move by a vice president in modern American politics, this is not a coup. Instead, it is a smart strategic move by a White House aware that Trump’s strengths are in being a party leader or party builder — but a man willing to go to places where no Republican showed up before and ask in his own unique way for their vote. Conversely, Pence’s strength lies as the more traditional party leader and party builder roles held by the commander in chief.
The fact that it's his PAC that gives out the first checks out instead of the President's is new territory. The other new thing is that the administration is picking friends very early politically some of whom will have primaries, like Rep. Diane Black of Tennessee, the House Republican who is seeking her state’s Republican nomination for governor.
Black is in a four way-primary in Tennessee.
Pence also gave to several Freedom Caucus House members ahead of their primaries across the country and cut a check to Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who has a primary for her bid for the U.S. Senate against a former congressman, Stephen Fincher.
“The vice-president has always held the role of doing fundraisers, but never taken the lead,” said Brad Todd, a Washington based Republican strategist, “Normally, the president would designate the vice president to do a good bit of that, but I think what's noteworthy with this administration is that Pence is doing all of it. He's doing all the administration's sort of external political appearance.”
There is a pretty good argument to make that we have three parties in this country: Democrats, Republicans, and Trumpians. Currently, the latter two are in a coalition government, and Pence represents the head of the Republican Party.
In truth, in this rapidly de-institutionalizing world, this whole notion of political parties may be silly. We might be in a world where political movements and candidates just rent parties for ballot access.
One of the upsides to Trump for a lot of voters was that he came from completely outside of the world of Washington and Congress, but one of the downsides is that makes him less useful in negotiations.
Pence, then, brings the asset of being well trusted among Capitol Hill Republicans.
Trump is still the gold standard for the voters. That's a thing that you can't take away from Trump, at least for quite a while, but it's an odd and ironic situation that in order for Trump to be successful, he's going to need help of a seasoned Washington player, but yet at the same time, his measure of success will have been whether he conquered the seasoned Washington players or not.
It's a very odd dynamic in a series of years of oddities — but should anyone really be surprised? In a moment where the traditional dynamics in culture, media, and politics have been turned on their head, the least controversial thing happening is that someone is still holding on to the norms of political parties.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.