Mike Pence’s decision to end his presidential campaign on Saturday was a gift to what had finally become inevitable. He has struggled to raise money, win the support of the party’s base and manage the struggles of the man who made him nationally famous, Donald J. Trump.
But the root of the collapse of his campaign — and, quite possibly, his political career — goes back to 2016, when Mr. Pence accepted Mr. Trump’s offer to be his vice president.
“He got it completely wrong,” said the Rev. Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister and one-time leader of the anti-abortion movement who gave Mr. Pence ministerial advice 20 years ago but later turned against him because of his affiliation with Mr. Trump. “This ended disastrously for his political career.”
The two were not close before Mr Trump’s decision to put Mr Pence on the ticket. In many ways, apart from party affiliation, they couldn’t be more different.
Mr. Pence was the governor of Indiana, an evangelical Christian – he called his memoir “Help Me God” – who grew up on rolling Indiana farmland. He endorsed one of Mr. Trump’s main opponents, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. And he was, friends said, confused by the free manner of Mr. Trump, a playboy entrepreneur and casino owner born in Queens who thrived in the democratic world of New York.
But Mr. Pence faced a challenging re-election campaign against a Democrat he narrowly defeated in 2012. He, his advisers said, was also drawn into the presidential race by the chance to be on the national stage, positioning himself to be or the vice president. or a strong contender for the presidency in 2020 if Mr. Trump loses to Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, which polls have shown is likely.
After several days of consideration — and talking with his wife, Karen, consulting with political advisers and friends, and spending time in prayer, he said — Mr. Pence accepted Mr. Trump’s offer.
It was a deal that by Saturday morning in Las Vegas, as a former vice president forced out of the presidential race without even reaching the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Pence almost certainly regretted it.
He never learned to navigate his relationship with Mr. Trump, to navigate the deep cultural and personal differences between the taciturn Midwestern governor and the flamboyant New Yorker who never played by the policy rules that governed Mr. Pence’s career.
After more than a decade in Congress, one term as governor and another as vice president, Mr. Pence, 64, appears to be entering the darkest period of his public life since he was elected to Congress from Indiana’s Second District. 2001
His decision to break with Mr. Trump after storming the Capitol on Jan. 6 and his challenge to his former boss for the 2024 nomination angered the former president and alienated the Trump supporters who today define the party. But Mr. Pence’s four years of loyalty to Mr. Trump as vice president ultimately made it impossible for him to win over voters eager to turn the page on the Trump presidency.
His decision to join Mr. Trump came in June 2016, when a mutual associate of the two, an Indiana insurance industry executive named Steve Hilbert, called Mr. Pence to see if he would consider an offer to join Mr. Trump. Mr. Pence, who has been in the midst of an effort to recover from a potentially fatal mistake he made last year, was open to the idea.
Mr. Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which effectively empowered businesses to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples, such as Christian businesses that did not want to hold same-sex wedding celebrations. It sparked a storm of protest, leading to boycott threats from business leaders and sports teams across the country. The outcry caught Mr Pence by surprise and cast doubt on his political future.
“Even our critics — who said we should have seen it coming — didn’t see it coming,” said Jim Atterholt, who was Mr. Pence’s chief of staff at the time. “In fairness to the governor, this was not on his agenda, he did not push for it. But it was clearly consistent with the governor’s philosophy in terms of protecting religious freedom.”
Mr. Pence spent much of the next year speaking out on state issues such as education and taxes, touring Indiana on what he described as a listening tour as he tried to put the religious freedom law behind him and turn to his re-election campaign.
“Mike was a wounded sitting president,” said Tim Phillips, a conservative activist who has been a close friend and adviser to Mr. Pence. “I think he would have won that race, if it had been a good presidential cycle. But it wasn’t like he was cruising to easy re-election and a future presidential bid in 2020.”
If Mr. Pence had any misgivings when Mr. Trump approached him, he never expressed them publicly, not even to many of his advisers. “Mike sent a message that said, ‘If I’m called to serve, I will serve,'” Mr. Atterholt said. “Mike was open to serving, but he was fully planning on re-election.”
And there were other reasons why the offer was tempting. Mr. Pence has never hidden his ambitions to one day run for president himself, seriously considering it that year. Win or lose, campaigning with Mr Trump would put him close to the front line – or so he thought. And Republicans who were worried about Mr. Trump, and especially about the attention he would pay as president to the evangelical issues that animated Mr. Pence, encouraged him to do so.
“There was a real significant role for the vice president to play for Trump,” Mr. Phillips. “The evangelical right and the conservative right were very uncomfortable with Trump. Having a Sherpa who could lead it and provide credibility to Trump, that was really important in 2016.”
Today, nearly eight years later, after serving as Mr. Trump’s vice president before turning against him, Mr. Pence’s short-lived campaign bears witness to the unexpected consequences of that decision. For all the kind words spoken about him by his opponents after he was eliminated – “I have no doubt that Mike and Karen will continue to serve this nation and honor the Lord in all they do,” said one of his former rivals, Tim Scott – his own future is now uncertain.
Mr. Schenck said he had always been disappointed that Mr. Pence, a man he said he prayed with and read scripture with, aligned himself with a man Mr. Schenck called the “diametric opposite” of the moral leader he and Mr. Pence are. talked.
“There must have been a point where Mike either thought, ‘I can beat Donald Trump or I can rise above his immorality,'” Mr. Schenck said. “He had to do too much accommodation and adjustment. It could have been fatal to his leadership.”