MANCHESTER, N.H. – Just before the sun set over the Merrimack River, former Vice President Mike Pence took the stage at the Double Tree hotel in downtown Manchester Thursday night, ready to test his presidential ambitions and put a dark chapter to rest.
He walked up to “Takin’ Care of Business” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive, with prepared remarks including phrases such as “moral decay” and “the great Republican comeback,” culminating in a series of crescendos aimed at getting applause.
Most landed, but some didn’t.
In his signature speaking cadence, he had something important to say – that he and former President Donald Trump may never “see eye to eye” on the January 6 insurrection, but that he’s still proud of what the “Trump-Pence administration” accomplished – but not until the completion of the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem, introductory speeches, a series of toasts, and a call for the men in the room to “seat the ladies.”
Pence was the main attraction for the Hillsborough County GOP’s annual Lincoln Reagan Dinner, promising a fundraising boost as the biggest name to hit the trail so far in the so-called invisible primary.
With over half of the Granite State’s GOP voters in just two counties – Hillsborough and Rockingham, sitting in the southeast corner of the state near the Boston suburbs – this dinner was equal parts prom and shopping for New Hampshire’s Republican elite.
At $1,000 for a table of 10 and an extra $250 for “VIP room” access, donors and power players could kick the tires on Pence 2024 and rekindle their quadrennial proximity to power.
‘He needs to get it out of the way.’
Should Pence choose to run in the 2024 GOP primary, locking up the best talent on the ground in New Hampshire will be a key step.
While some prospective candidates arrive in the Granite State solo or with just one non-governmental staffer – often relying on local lawmakers or unelected power players to show them around – Pence brought with him a small team to work the room.
Among them were his former chief of staff as VP, Marc Short, along with his former press secretary, Devin O’Malley, and Marc Lotter, another former press secretary and director of strategic communications for the Trump 2020 campaign.
Lotter wrote Pence’s speech for that Thursday night, which bounced between religious themes and a more Trumpian ends-justify-the-means framework.
“As I said that night, January 6 was a dark day in the history of the United States Capitol,” Pence told the crowd. “But thanks to the swift action of the Capitol Police and federal law enforcement, violence was quelled, the Capitol was secured, and that same day, we reconvened the Congress and did our duty under the Constitution and the laws of the United States.”
The room went silent, save for a few whispered conversations.
He’d just landed a trifecta of standing ovations, starting with a line on how “Black lives are not endangered by police, Black lives are saved by police every day,” and that the United States “is not a racist country.”
Shifting into that signature Pence cadence – a staccato rhythm where he gets simultaneously louder and slower approaching the end of a sentence – the former VP gave the crowd what they wanted.
“You know, President Trump and I have spoken many times since we left office, and I don’t know if we’ll ever see eye to eye on that day,” Pence said. “But I will always be proud of what we accomplished for the American people over the last four years.”
Pence threaded the needle, distancing himself from Trump and the mob who chanted “Hang Mike Pence” while showing sufficient deference to the undisputed leader of the Republican Party.
“I thought it was a very good move on his part,” a longtime New Hampshire GOP operative told Insider, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the party’s outlook on 2024.
“He needs to get it out of the way if he wants to run for president,” the operative continued. “He handled it far more decently than Trump did, particularly considering Pence was on the right side of the event. I thought the crowd loved him.”
Although many of the donors and lawmakers in the room have plenty of experience speaking to reporters during primary season, most quickly declined to speak on the record once the subject of January 6 came up.
“I just think he handled the whole situation tonight very well,” David Tille, a 54-year-old Republican from Henniker, told Insider. “And I thought – I was impressed that he addressed it, that he brought it forward.”
Unlike some Republicans – such as Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who described the insurrection as “by and large a peaceful protest” despite copious videos and firsthand accounts to the contrary – the consensus among New Hampshire’s GOP intelligentsia seemed to be that the Capitol siege was a horrible moment, but not something that should define the party.
Pence said as much, telling the crowd, “I will not allow Democrats or their allies in the media to use one tragic day to discredit the aspirations of millions of Americans.”
Mark Vincent, former chairman of the Hillsborough County GOP, told Insider that “it’s the same party I’ve always known,” and that Pence’s remarks on January 6 were neither a rebuke of Trumpism nor a euphemism.
“It’s a Pence-ism,” Vincent said of the “eye to eye” descriptor. “That’s the way I would expect Mike Pence to describe that situation. And he doesn’t wanna dwell on it.”
Winning the invisible primary
Before Pence spoke, Thomas and Tom Kentara, a father and son pair of Nashua Republicans, said they think he could possibly get better results as president compared to Trump, citing his relationships in Congress and more even-keeled demeanor.
However, both said Pence is not necessarily their pick going into 2024.
Along with several other attendees, the Kentaras said they’re particularly enthusiastic about two Republican governors – Ron DeSantis of Florida and Kristi Noem of South Dakota – because of how they rebuked public health experts during the pandemic.
“That’s the name you’re going to hear the most,” Vincent said of DeSantis.
A Pence aide told Insider that the former VP was simply in New Hampshire to rally support ahead of the 2022 midterms. Pence was not made available for an interview.
The aide also said Pence met with New Hampshire’s Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, as well as former Sen. Kelly Ayotte and the GOP conference in the State Senate.
A network that includes 424 state lawmakers, dozens of town selectmen and city council members, as well as unelected power brokers in key counties can provide the lifeblood of a presidential campaign in the Granite State.
They house campaign staff and volunteers, set up fundraisers, host events, and make endorsements after being courted by the candidates.
Trump won the New Hampshire Primary in 2016 without paying much attention to the traditional way of doing things in the state, but with the party firmly in his grasp, whoever wants to win the next one will have to flex the Trumpiest bona fides.
With his near death experience on January 6 “out of the way,” Pence has begun to do just that.