CANTON, Ga. — Vice President Mike Pence returned to the campaign trail on Friday, hitting the stump for Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler after two weeks of ducking the spotlight and largely staying silent while President Donald Trump rages about their election loss.
Pence, who has tried to position himself as one of Trump's loyal allies while distancing himself from some of the more outrageous rhetoric, attempted to make the case for the Georgia candidates amid a tumultuous transition besieged by Trump's baseless claims of voter fraud and his refusal to concede — presenting Pence with perhaps the biggest test of his political career.
"We need the great state of Georgia to defend the majority," Pence said on Friday, alluding to a Biden presidency while being careful not to appear like he was getting ahead of Trump. "The Republican Senate majority could be the last line of defense for all that we’ve done."
Pence also briefly flirted with Trump's fraud allegations but stopped short of endorsing the baseless claims, telling the crowd "we are going to keep fighting until every legal vote is counted; we’re going to keep fighting until every illegal vote is thrown out."
"And whatever the outcome, we will never stop fighting until we make America great again," he added.
Pence will be Trump's No. 2 for a bit less than nine weeks, leaving him to contend with his own political path forward — including whether to run for president in 2024 — and how to chart his own course with or without Trump's supporters.
Pence can begin "to position himself as the titular head of the loyal opposition," said Barry Bennett, a Republican strategist who worked for Trump's 2016 campaign.
"What happened in the House tells us that the president's policies were quite popular. His personality, obviously, was not helpful with some voters," Bennett said. "But if Pence can run on the policies and not have the baggage of the image problem, he'll do quite well."
The GOP case for Perdue and Loeffler rests in part on acknowledging that President-elect Joe Biden will be in the White House next year and arguing that a Republican Senate is needed to keep him in check. Perdue and Loeffler are both locked in competitive runoff races in January that will determine which party controls the Senate.
But few Republicans, including Pence, have been willing to publicly spell out that reality out of fear that it could anger Trump and might risk upsetting his base supporters, who have become a critical part of the party's coalition.
Instead, Republicans have contorted their messaging, urging supporters to vote Republican to make sure the Green New Deal is not passed and to keep Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico from becoming states — stopping short of saying those hypothetical situations could become realities only with a Democrat in the White House.
Messaging intended to generate attention to Pence's trip made no mention of Biden, a stark break from the GOP messaging that has centered on attacking Democratic Party leaders in the Trump era. Instead, Pence and Georgia Republicans tweeted out links inviting supporters to sign up to attend "Defend the Senate" and "Save Our Majority" rallies.
Jon Thompson, who was Pence's spokesman on the campaign, said "the best message for Vice President Pence to deliver is that Senators Perdue and Loeffler are the last line of defense in protecting the Senate from a far-left agenda."
"You could argue that message eventually shifts to: Their election victories would result in a Senate GOP majority that provides a major check on Joe Biden's presidency," Thompson said.
Pence had presidential ambitions before he become vice president, and he is viewed as a top candidate for the Republican nomination in 2024. But how he handles Trump in the coming weeks could shape his reputation within the party.
Many Republicans view the Georgia Senate runoffs as testing grounds for 2024. Prospective candidates — from former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida — have already campaigned here in recent days.
"Georgia is the first real test of the 2024 presidential election. Numerous potential '24 candidates are descending on the state to not only encourage turnout and advocate for Perdue and Loeffler, but to be seen and heard in what is right now the political center of the universe," Thompson added.
Pence, so far, has navigated Trump's post-election presidency in much the same way he did the president's entire tenure. He has been cautious not to throw his full support behind Trump's voter fraud claims — baseless attacks against democratic institutions that might not reflect well on the party in the future — while trying to appear unquestionably loyal.
Pence stood by Trump's side on election night, but, speaking for less than a minute, he danced around Trump's claims of "major fraud."
"As the votes continue to be counted, we're going to remain vigilant, as the president said," Pence said, at the White House as results came in. "We're going to protect the integrity of the vote."
Pence has also been noticeably absent from the Trump campaign's legal challenges to the election results in battleground states, even as other allies of the president rushed to defend the lawsuits on cable news and dutifully appeared at news conferences echoing Trump's claims of fraud.
Looming over Pence and the rest of the presidential hopefuls is Trump's talk of running again in 2024. His defeat means he could seek a second nonconsecutive term — a feat that has been accomplished by only one president — which would gum up efforts by other candidates to mount campaigns and create a messy Republican primary season.
"I expect Donald Trump to talk about running again all the way up to the day the filing deadline has passed. There's power, and frankly it gathers attention," Bennett said. "But in the end, I would doubt that he does it.
"I hope Pence runs. A lot of us hope he runs," he added.