Around Mike Pence’s 40th birthday, his wife Karen booked a trip to a ranch near the Roosevelt National Forest in Colorado. Pence was mulling over a second run for Congress after a failed bid years earlier. As the Pences sat atop a bluff in the park, they noticed two red-tailed hawks riding a hot-air current, rising higher and higher.
“We should step off this cliff and make ourselves available to God,” Karen Pence remembers telling her husband. “And this time instead of ambition driving us, we should allow God to lift us up to wherever he wants to use us, with no flapping.”
Last Wednesday, on his 64th birthday, Pence stepped off that metaphorical cliff once again when he announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. In a speech peppered with biblical references at the Future Farmers of America Enrichment Center in Ankeny, Iowa, he vowed to fight “the radical Left,” defend the Constitution, and oppose abortion, among a laundry list of other conservative promises.
Iowa’s caucus is seen as a bellwether for the GOP’s primary race. It is also a litmus test for a candidate’s popularity with evangelical Christians: Nearly two-thirds of caucus participants in 2016 were evangelicals, according to an entrance poll.
Pence, who will appear at the Family Leadership Summit, a gathering of conservative Christians in Des Moines next month, is hoping his evangelical credentials will garner the support of his fellow believers in the state. And if he wins the caucus, he could find himself at the top of a crowded field of Republican hopefuls led by former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
On paper Pence would seem like the ideal choice for evangelical voters: a faithfully married born-again Christian running what may be the most conservative campaign thus far. Pence ticks the box on every major issue evangelicals list as important—from abortion to Second Amendment rights, LGBT issues and religious freedom. There’s no questioning that the former vice president sees his faith as deeply intertwined with his political journey.
“I came to faith in Jesus Christ as a man in college, and I started a lifelong love affair with the Constitution of the United States for all of my adult life,” he said in Iowa.
But Pence is badly trailing Trump and DeSantis. The two lead the former vice president by double digits in national polls. As a result pollsters and political commentators have written his campaign off. Does Pence have a chance against them, especially among evangelical voters?
Ralph Reed, founder of the conservative advocacy group Faith and Freedom Coalition, thinks so.
“Mike is as effective a messenger in reaching voters of faith as anyone I’ve ever seen in my career. And I think he’s going to get a very fair hearing, from not just evangelical voters but all primary voters,” said Reed, who describes Pence as a “dear friend.”
Reed highlighted that Pence can claim credit for Trump administration policies popular among evangelicals, such as moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and appointing three conservative justices to the Supreme Court who helped overturn Roe v. Wade.
According to at least one poll evangelicals in Iowa seem inclined to give Pence a fair hearing. About 58 percent view him favorably, a similar share enjoyed by Trump, though the former running mates were both edged by DeSantis.
Mike Demastus, pastor of the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, says evangelicals in Iowa are not yet sold on a candidate. Demastus has helped organize meetings between pastors and some of the candidates, including a recent one with Trump. In his view, the front runners are Trump and DeSantis, who is Catholic, but even then he says they cannot assume they have clinched evangelical support.
Consider Trump. In a meeting with about 50 pastors from Iowa, Demastus says Trump gave “lackluster answers” to questions about abortion and same-sex marriage. Trump’s refusal to commit to a federal ban on abortion has invited criticism from some evangelicals.
“Even though after the meeting Trump said that he has evangelical support, that’s not the case from that room,” Demastus said, speculating that it was unlikely a majority of the pastors gathered supported him.
Bob Vander Plaats, an evangelical leader whom media often refer to as the “kingmaker” for his role in organizing support for GOP nominees in Iowa, also has found Trump’s stance on abortion lackluster. Last month he tweeted, “The #IowaCaucuses are wide open” after Trump said a six-weeks abortion ban signed by DeSantis in Florida was “too harsh.”
On the other hand, Pence has said he supports a federal ban on abortion and, in his speech in Iowa, criticized Trump for not committing to the same.
“Sanctity of life has been our party’s calling for a half a century long before Donald Trump was a part of it, but now he treats it as an inconvenience, even blaming our election losses in 2022 on overturning Roe v. Wade,” Pence said.
This is another sore spot for evangelicals with Trump. After the 2022 midterm elections Trump pinned blame on lack of evangelical support, even accusing some of his former faith advisers of “disloyalty” for not backing his presidential campaign.
Yet that may not be enough to convince someone like Demastus to choose Pence over Trump or DeSantis. The pastor remembers when Pence was governor of nearby Indiana.
“I remember when he had the power to hold the line with the strongest piece of religious freedom legislation ever put together in our nation, and as soon as he received some backlash from the corporate community, he caved,” Demastus said, referring to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. While Pence signed the bill, it was later amended after critics argued the law would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT individuals.
Terry Amann, another Iowa pastor involved with the candidate meetings, also seemed disgruntled with Trump’s position on abortion, but he is not sold on Pence either.
Pence, he said, talks “good evangelical language,” but Amann disagrees with his refusal to pardon people who participated in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol. Some of the insurrectionists called for Pence’s execution after he rejected Trump’s unfounded calls to not certify the election results. A modest majority of evangelicals agreed with Pence’s decision, according to a poll from January 2021.
Among Hispanic evangelicals, Pence’s chances seem slimmer still. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, an association of Latino evangelicals, admires Pence’s faith but sees the vice president struggling to resonate with Hispanic evangelicals.
“I can’t deny that his faith is beautiful, and it’s inspiring, and the public expression of his faith is something that is admirable and something to be emulated,” Rodriguez said. “With that being said, Mike Pence will not be on top of the list as pertains to a viable candidate for the Hispanic community.”
For Hispanic evangelicals, Rodriguez says the top choices are Trump, DeSantis, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. (Rodriguez previously served as a faith advisor for the George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Trump administrations. He prayed at Trump’s inauguration.)
Perhaps Pence understands the odds he faces. In Iowa he ended his announcement with an entreaty for prayers.
“I ask for your prayers, for me, for my family, and for all of the American people,” Pence said. “We don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future.”