Mike Pence Brought Conservatives Home. What If They Don’t Need Him Anymore?

Evangelical Christians were drawn to the vice president because he shared their values. But Trump’s style has made defiance of political norms, not a Pence specialty, seem appealing.

By Jeremy W. Peters

They always had Mike Pence.

Deeply religious, strait-laced and unfailingly loyal, the vice president was supposed to be an insurance policy for the social conservatives and evangelical Christians who found President Trump too crude, domineering and politically unreliable.​

But Mr. Trump’s hospitalization for complications from Covid-19 raised an unsettling question about Mr. Pence, and more broadly about the future of the party, for Republicans who have grown used to the alpha, tweet-first, consider-precedent-later leadership of the president.

In recent days, no Republican, including Mr. Pence, was able to fill the giant void left by the president’s brief disappearance from the public eye. Mr. Pence remained largely out of sight as Mr. Trump refused to delegate his powers, denying the man next in line to the presidency a moment to shine.

Ahead of the vice-presidential debate on Wednesday evening, the highest-stakes event Mr. Pence has faced in a political career he does not want cut short before he has a chance to run for president himself, it is not at all clear that his reserved and dutiful approach, conservative in both style and substance, can substitute for the sheer force of personality that Republicans now associate with the political success they have had under Mr. Trump.

One unforeseen consequence of Mr. Trump’s dominance of the Republican Party has been how thoroughly he shattered the expectations of religious conservatives — the cornerstone of the party’s base — for a president’s conduct and leadership. The mold for appealing to those voters used to look a lot like Mr. Pence: an evangelical Christian who has unabashedly taken up causes dear to the activist right, like opposition to abortion and gay rights and dismantling government regulations on businesses, schools and churches.

One of the biggest questions hanging over Mr. Pence’s future is whether Republican voters in a post-Trump world will embrace a candidate who seems to embody what the party thought it needed in a nominee before Mr. Trump came along, and who lacks the fearlessness and audacity that many conservatives say Mr. Trump demonstrated as he pushed policy and the courts further to the right than any president in recent history.

“There are some qualities that Mike Pence has that I’ll continue to hope and pray that Donald Trump adopts — and the reverse is true as well,” said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, a pro-Trump, social conservative group. “There are qualities that Donald Trump has that I hope and pray Mike Pence adopts. And that is that he picks up a little bit of the fight and courage that Donald Trump shows on a daily basis.”

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