NEW YORK (AP) — With three months to go before the Iowa caucuses that he has staked his campaign on, former Vice President Mike Pence faces mounting debt and lagging poll numbers that are forcing questions about not only whether he will qualify for the next debate, but whether it makes sense for him to remain in the race until then.
Pence ended September with just $1.18 million left in his campaign account, a strikingly low number for a presidential contest and far less than his rivals, new filings show. His campaign also has $621,000 in debt — more than half the cash he had remaining — and is scrambling to meet donor thresholds for the Nov. 8 debate. While he would likely meet the debate’s polling requirements, Pence has struggled to gain traction and is polling in the low single digits nationally, with no sign of momentum.
Former President Donald Trump, meanwhile, is leading every one of his rivals by at least 40 points in national polls and ended September with $37.5 million on hand.
People close to Pence say he now faces a choice about how long to stay in the race and whether remaining a candidate might potentially diminish his long-term standing in the party, given Trump’s dominating lead. While Pence could stick it out until the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses, visiting the state’s famous Pizza Ranch restaurants and campaigning on a shoestring budget, he must now weigh how that will impact his desire to remain a leading conservative voice, according to the people, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to share their unvarnished views.
“For Pence and many of the others, you gotta start looking and saying, ‘I’m not going to go into substantial debt if I don’t see a pathway forward,’” said former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who ran against Trump in 2016 but abandoned his bid after concluding “the Trump train had left the station.”
Pence, for the moment, is pressing forward. He held a Newsmax town hall in Iowa Tuesday night and fundraisers this week in Cleveland, Philadelphia and Dallas. He was to speak at the Republican National Committee’s fall retreat Friday night and at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Annual Leadership Summit in Las Vegas next week — all opportunities to pitch deep-pocketed donors to keep his campaign afloat.
The super PAC supporting Pence is also continuing its efforts, fundraising and conducting extensive voter outreach, including knocking on nearly 600,000 doors and counting.
The campaign is also working aggressively to reach the 70,000-donor threshold needed to qualify for next month’s debate and expressed confidence they could get there if they try — even as others remain skeptical he can make it.
“I know it’s an uphill climb for a lot of reasons for us, some that I understand, some that I don’t,” Pence acknowledged as he spoke to reporters in New Hampshire last week after formally registering for the state’s first-in-the-nation primary.
Still, some in Pence’s orbit believe he has important contributions left to make in the primary, particularly after the Hamas attack on Israel pushed foreign policy to the forefront. Pence has argued he is the most qualified candidate to deal with issues abroad, saying in the August debate that “now is not the time for on-the-job training.”
Pence, they say, feels a renewed sense of purpose given his warnings throughout the campaign against the growing tide of isolationism in the Republican Party. Pence has used the conflict to decry “voices of appeasement,” which he argues embolden groups like Hamas.
Another person cautioned that Pence, a devout Evangelical Christian who sees the campaign as a calling, may respond differently than other candidates might in his position if he feels called to stay in the race.
If he decides to exit, Pence would have a potential platform in Advancing American Freedom, the conservative think tank he founded after leaving the vice presidency.
In the meantime, the campaign has been working to cut costs, including having fewer staff members travel to events.
Regardless of what he decides, the predicament facing the former vice president underscores just how dramatically Trump has transformed the GOP.
Pence, in many ways, has been running to lead a party that no longer exists.
He has cast himself as the field’s most traditionally conservative candidate in the mold of Ronald Reagan. But many of his positions — from maintaining U.S. support for Ukraine’s defense against the Russian invasion to proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare — are out of step with much of his party’s base.
He also faces fallout from Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of Trump’s supporters — some chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” — stormed the Capitol building, sending him running for his life. Trump tried to falsely convince Pence and his own followers that the vice president somehow had the power to overturn the results.
Pence has repeatedly been confronted on the campaign trail by people who accuse him of betraying Trump, who still promotes falsehoods about the 2020 election, often several times a day.
But Pence has also faced the same challenge as every candidate in the field not named Trump, a singular figure whose grip on the party has only intensified as he has been charged with dozens of crimes.
“If something big doesn’t happen on Nov. 8, the primary is over. Some would argue it is now,” said Walker, who entered the 2016 Republican primary as a front-runner only to end his campaign in September 2015, months before a single vote was cast, amid mounting debt.
An August AP-NORC poll found Republicans split on Pence: 41% held a favorable view of the candidate and 42% an unfavorable one. Nationally, a majority of U.S. adults — 57% — view him negatively, with only 28% having a positive view.
Some are hoping Pence doesn’t give up. In Iowa, Kelley Koch, chair of the Dallas County Republican Party, said she felt Pence had struggled to define himself beyond Trump and said many remained skeptical of his actions on Jan. 6.
But she said following the attack on Israel, with all eyes now on the Middle East and a new war, that Pence could have a moment to break through.
“He is such a pro on foreign policy. That’s one of his strengths. And he has that over a lot of the new rookie candidates who are in the race. He should run on that,” she said. “I would think that that would be just a major trumpet setting the stage for Mike Pence to step up and take the mic.”
Associated Press writer Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.