PURCELLVILLE, Va — Former Vice President Mike Pence made his latest foray back onto the political stage Thursday as speculation over a possible 2024 presidential bid swirls.
Pence delivered an address at Patrick Henry College, a small, conservative Christian school, focused on "educational freedom" as backlash to school mask policies and anti-racist curriculum has dominated national conservative politics this year as well as the high-profile governor's race taking place in the state.
The former vice president praised parents who've been at the forefront of this backlash, particularly in Loudoun County, where heated school board meetings and battles over diversity and equity programs in local schools have captured headlines for the past year. This effort, both in Loudoun County and nationally, has been bolstered by conservative activists, operatives, think tanks and politicians.
"On behalf of millions of people across this country, thank you," Pence said of those parents. "Thank you for your courage. You've reminded Americans that these schools are ours, and public education belongs to the American public."
Pence repeatedly expressed scorn for critical race theory — a study of the lasting effect of institutional racism that is typically taught at the graduate school level, but has become a conservative catch-all used to describe wide-ranging diversity initiatives and trainings.
"Critical race theory is nothing more than state-sponsored racism and it should be opposed by every American of every race, color or creed in every school in the land," he said.
In a 30-minute speech, delivered to a crowd of roughly 200 or more, Pence also made brief references to Tuesday's gubernatorial election featuring Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin and former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. In the final days of an unexpectedly tight race, Youngkin has made his closing message all about schools — releasing an ad Monday featuring a woman who advocated to ban Toni Morrison's "Beloved," a staple of high school English programs about the horrors of slavery.
Pence's event was not tied to Youngkin's campaign, however. As McAuliffe welcomes seemingly the entire Democratic Party to stump for him in Virginia, Youngkin has largely eschewed his party's national brand and its biggest stars — especially former President Donald Trump — as he attempts to win in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican since 2009.
Pence criticized former President Barack Obama who said recently while campaigning for McAuliffe that voters should ignore the "fake outrage" and "phony trumped-up culture wars" being promoted on the right, particularly as it relates to the education system.
The "outrage isn't fake, it's real," Pence said. "And it's grounded in love for this country and their kids."
Pence was greeted at the college with copies of the student newspaper, the cover of which featured an illustration of a Trump 2020 campaign button with "Pence 2024?" scrawled over it. But some who attended his address expressed skepticism over whether he could be a viable contender in the upcoming Republican presidential primary.
"I'm a little skeptical about his long term viability just because of his association with Trump," Cole Reynolds, a 21-year-old student at the college who called Pence a "good guy" with "some good ideas." "I think for the more moderate side of the [GOP] base, that is probably a con and what he did on January 6 probably undercuts his ability with the Trump side of the base. So that's probably a problem for him."
Pence has been traversing the country in recent weeks, campaigning for GOP candidates and causes. His speech Thursday, put on in conjunction with his new advocacy group, Advancing American Freedom, followed speeches he gave on U.S.-China relations in July and on law enforcement earlier this month. Pence, who went sideways with Trump after affirming President Joe Biden's victory, told Fox News earlier this month that Jan. 6 was a distraction from the Biden administration. (Pence's refusal to overturn the election was met with chants of "hang Mike Pence" from rioters at the Capitol that day.)
The press wants "to use that one day to try and demean the character and intentions of 74 million Americans who believed we could be strong again and prosperous again and supported our administration in 2016 and 2020," he told Fox's Sean Hannity.
This month, a Politico/Morning Consult poll showed Pence leading among Republicans who don't want Trump to run again. Other polls have shown Pence to be in a good position in the primary field — should Trump not run.
Lori Galloway, 57 of Purcellville, said she is not sure Trump should run again "only because he is polarizing." She said she was concerned Pence might "not be magnetic" enough to pick up the Trump mantle.
"Personally, I wish that somebody would rise up from the Republican Party who could be magnetic, a little bit younger, but very Trump-ish ... who would be like Trump but maybe better, understood social media better, and didn't tweet as much," she said.
Galloway's brother, Thomas Baker of Lawton, Oklahoma, said he would very much like to see Pence run in the upcoming cycle.
"You know, look, I supported Trump," Baker, 55, said. "At the same time, he could be a little bit difficult to work with. Former Vice President Pence seems to be a little bit more user-friendly."