Mike Pence’s strong debate performance fuels speculation he may have already set his sights on 2020 campaign

Many Republicans are unhappy that Senator Ted Cruz failed to support Donald Trump at the party’s convention

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 October, 2016, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 October, 2016, 3:00pm

Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s strong performance in the vice presidential debate Tuesday night made him a big winner with a lot of groups – especially evangelicals. But what does that mean for Senator Ted Cruz, who made his 2016 run for president centred on evangelical support?

To some observers, Pence is now a top contender for a 2020 presidential run – should he and Republican nominee Donald Trump lose in November. Cruz is further back, with many evangelicals unhappy that the Texan failed to support Trump at the convention during the senator’s prime-time convention speech – though he recently did endorse the New Yorker.

Steve Scheffler, president of Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative Christian group, and an Iowa Republican committee member, said in an interview: “Pence is the real deal. He’s got a superb political background.”

Pence is the real deal. He’s got a superb political background ... This really put Pence up there for 2020
Steve Scheffler, Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition

As for Cruz, Scheffler said: “I would have preferred, when he had a speaking opportunity at the national convention, that he would have endorsed Trump or declined the invitation.”

Indiana University professor of public affairs Paul Helmke, a former Republican politician, said in an interview that Pence, who opposes women’s right to abortion, had always had evangelical support in his base.

“He once again established his bona fides,” said Helmke of Tuesday’s debate. “Someone like Cruz may be one of the losers last night. This really put Pence up there for 2020.”

Cruz ended up in second place for the presidential nomination to Trump and is now looking at re-election to the Senate in 2018.

“Cruz’s highly public and controversial non-endorsement of Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention, and subsequent reversal two months later, has created significant troubles for him here at home in Texas,” said Mark Jones, professor of political science at Rice University in Houston.

“While Cruz retains substantial support among both tea party conservatives and Christian conservatives [the two most important voting blocs in the Texas Republican], this support is not nearly as wide or deep as it was as late as this past July prior to the Republican convention,” Jones wrote.

Another Texas expert, James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said: “I think Cruz’s standing with evangelicals, like his standing more broadly right now, is bound to be somewhat in flux until we get past the presidential election and learn the fate of the Trump candidacy.

“The most recent polling in Texas by the Texas Lyceum showed that Cruz was still in reasonably good standing with evangelicals at home, though his overall numbers are down somewhat following his presidential campaign.”

Pence has the advantage of having the spotlight from now until the election, even if Trump loses.

“The vice-presidential candidate of the losing ticket has a national fundraising network and name exposure,” Dan Cox, research director of the Public Religion Research Institute, a non-partisan group, said in an interview. “Pence is a great fit for evangelicals. His style is not quite as combative as Cruz’s.”

Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston, gives Pence the “pole position” with evangelicals for now.

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“Cruz early on tried to ascend the pulpit of the national evangelical vote, especially in announcing at Liberty University, but the divided Republican field left evangelicals looking to multiple candidates to be their standard-bearer,” he said. “Pence has been more deeply tied to the political wing of the evangelical movement since he was first elected to the House.”

But at least one well-known political forecaster didn’t want to speculate about Pence or Cruz in the next presidential contest.

“This is so premature it’s amusing,” Larry Sabato, director of the Centre for Politics at the University of Virginia, said. “Let’s see what happens November 8 before we start speculating about 2020.”

He pointed out that Pence, Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Ohio Governor John Kasich and House Speaker Paul Ryan all “will be in the mix for 2020, if, in fact, Trump loses.”