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It’s Trump vs. Pence in Georgia, Though Neither Is on the Ballot

Georgia’s primaries bring Trump’s likely 2024 run into focus.

Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks at a campaign rally for Gov. Brian Kemp on May 23, 2022, in Kennesaw, Georgia.

An old saying advises that if you sit by the river long enough, you will eventually see the body of your enemy go floating by. The counsel here is patience, of course, something Donald Trump has rarely evidenced in his long, sordid career as Angry Man on Television. He seems to spend an awful lot of time by that rhetorical river, though; his enemies keep bobbing past him like strange fish, and not a one of them ever goes past unremarked upon.

The latest body in the drink is Mike Pence, former vice president and target of deliberate violence by the madding Trump crowd that sacked the Capitol on January 6. Trump spent that fateful morning hanging a pork chop around Pence’s neck before shoving him into the shark tank:

Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us, and if he doesn’t, that will be a, a sad day for our country because you’re sworn to uphold our Constitution. Now, it is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy. And after this, we’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you, we’re going to walk down, we’re going to walk down. Anyone you want, but I think right here, we’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women, and we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them. Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong…. I hope Mike has the courage to do what he has to do.”

And in the intervening months, Trump has veered from offering Pence backhanded praise to accusing him of outright disloyalty for continuing to claim he had no right to do as he’d been ordered to and overturn the election. Pence’s retelling of that day’s tale paints him as a beleaguered hero. In fact, he spent that morning trying everything he could to justify doing as Trump asked. Only the stern intervention of former Vice President Dan Quayle (of all people) kept the country from veering off into post-constitutional mayhem.

Over all those months, Pence has quietly noodled himself into a position that could allow him to run for president in 2024, if he somehow managed to convince himself he had a chance of winning while Trump remained on the planet. Trump, you see, has Pence’s number, and he has it cold: Pence was on his way toward becoming just another forgotten Indiana governor when Trump tapped him to serve as a body shield for evangelical voters. Trump’s many sins fly around him vividly like a flock of Tippi Hedron’s birds, and the only way he could court that vote was by pulling Pence onto the bandwagon. It worked, and now Trump gets to say he “made” Pence. He’s not wrong.

Jump to Monday, the eve of the all-important Georgia primary where the Kemp vs. Purdue contest has become a showcase for internal GOP strife. The Trump wing of the party has fallen in behind Perdue at the behest of Trump, while the slowly growingMake The Bad Man Stop” wing has piled in behind Kemp. Unless something drastic happens, Kemp looks prepared to win in a walk with Pence at his side, and this is not sitting well with the former president.

Trump spokesperson Taylor Budowich became the vent in Trump’s spleen, reminding reporters that Pence was “set to lose a governor’s race in 2016 before he was plucked up and his political career was salvaged. Now, desperate to chase his lost relevance, Pence is parachuting into races, hoping someone is paying attention. The reality is, President Trump is already 82-3 with his endorsements, and there’s nothing stopping him from saving America in 2022 and beyond.”

Here was bog-standard Trumpian tough talk, to be sure, but the potentially ominous overtones of today’s vote in Georgia cannot be sidestepped, even by someone as adept at self-gaslighting as Trump.

“A strong win by Mr. Kemp would be the most promising signal to date that many Republican voters, at least in Georgia, are ready to move on — not from Mr. Trump per se, but from his toxic fixation on 2020,” reports The New York Times. “It could also provide a hopeful model for other results-oriented Republican governors, evidence that they can thrive even without bowing to the former president’s anti-democratic obsessions. And if Mr. Trump plays things wrong, he could wind up damaging his own political fortunes as well.”

Pence was a little white-haired lab mouse the entire time he stood in Trump’s shadow during the administration, and his overall demeanor has not changed much since. If he does run, it will likely be because Trump somehow damaged himself beyond repair, or if further evidence arises to suggest the base is ready to move on. For the moment, neither avenue appears convincingly open.

Me? I think Pence’s emergence this week makes it all the more likely that Trump will run for president again in 2024. Never mind the money to be made, or the legal cover to be found. His ego demands nothing less. If candidates like Pence and Ron DeSantis do choose to challenge him, Trump may label them traitors and betrayers, and will run to spite them. If no challenging candidates step forward, if Trump clears the field, he may well deliver a “See I Told You!” speech before relaunching his campaign.

That’s about all the clarity we can muster at this juncture. The GOP is in weird flux today, and Georgia will not be the end of it. If you’re looking for Trump, he’ll be down by that river waiting for familiar faces to float by. He knows they’re coming; they always do.

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