As It Happens·As It Happens Q&A

Former Trump allies face uphill battle in U.S presidential race: Republican strategist

Several of Donald Trump’s Republican challengers are in the awkward position of pitting themselves against a man they once stood behind, says Republican strategist David Kochel.

Mike Pence and Chris Christie — both Trump allies-turned-rivals — enter U.S presidential race

Side-by-side portraits of Mike Pence, Donald Trump and Chris Christie looking straight at the camera. Trump is wearing his signature 'Make America Great Again' red hat.
Former U.S. vice-president Mike Pence, left, and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, right, were once allies of former U.S. president Donald Trump, centre. Now all three are competing in the crowded race for the 2023 U.S. Republican presidential nomination. (George Frey, Robert Perry, Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Donald Trump's newest Republican challengers are in the awkward position of pitting themselves against a man they once stood behind, says a Republican strategist.

Mike Pence, who was Trump's vice-president, announced his candidacy for the Republican U.S. presidential nomination on Monday. During an event in Iowa, he lambasted Trump over his handling of the Jan. 6, 2020, breach on the U.S. Capitol, saying: "I know history will hold Donald Trump accountable."

Pence was forced to hide with his staff and family that day as rioters, falsely believing President Joe Biden stole the election from Trump, shouted, "Hang Mike Pence!"

Meanwhile, Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who was one of Trump's earliest and most ardent supporters, kicked off his candidacy on Tuesday by taking jabs at Trump, calling him a man "who's obsessed with the mirror."

Pence and Christie join a crowded field of Republican candidates that includes Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina governor and Trump-appointed UN ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, right-wing talk radio host Larry Elder and former biotechnology investor and executive Vivek Ramaswamy.

David Kochel is the former executive director for the Republican Party of Iowa. He's worked on U.S. presidential campaigns for Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

David, what do you make of the way Mike Pence appeared to go after Trump when speaking to those Iowa voters?

It's interesting that we kind of heard him name the former president and really be more direct than we've heard [before].

I, frankly, think it's a choice that he really had to make, because it's the elephant in the room. It's the big issue kind of hanging over the whole candidacy of Mike Pence. And it might be the thing that would make or break his presidential ambitions.

There's some risk, presumably, with the traditional Trump supporters here given how Mike Pence stood loyally behind Donald Trump. Does this criticism potentially hurt him as well?

Well, it may — but I don't think he has a choice.

Look, he spent three years, 11 months and 16 days supporting the president, being a good, loyal soldier, just to run head-long into Jan. 6. And that entire … almost four years of work will come to nothing if he isn't able to address this, [and] address it in a way that brings people to his cause and that brings people to his understanding of what happened that day.

It's kind of a shame, given his record of service, his conservative bona fides and, you know, his standing as an evangelical that would be doing really well in the Iowa caucuses.

But to have come into Jan. 6 [and] made the decision that he made [to refuse Trump's request to overturn 2020 election results], I think he alienated a lot of those people who do believe that the election was stolen or rigged. I mean, I don't believe that. But I think there are a lot of Republican voters who would have preferred Pence fight harder for the Trump re-election.

In the past, one would expect a former vice-president to have a pretty good lead coming into this kind of ... pre-election period. And yet Mike Pence is polling at about, what, four per cent nationally? How big a challenge is this going to be for him to rise up among the others in this pack — and particularly, of course, Donald Trump?

It's going to be a huge challenge. Like you said, he's alienated a lot of voters who are ride-or-die Trump voters. But … I don't think he ever really had some of the Trump skeptics because he looked like he was doing too much to kind of cover up for the former president and help him when he was being outrageous. So he almost appears to be a man without a country.

WATCH | Trump vs. Pence explained:

Pence vs. Trump 2024 | About That

4 months ago
Duration 9:42
From friends to foes? Former U.S. vice-president Mike Pence is joining the race for the Republican presidential candidacy. His competition? Donald Trump, the president under whom he served. Lauren Bird looks at Pence's play for president.

Mike Pence isn't, of course, the only candidate to join the race this week. The … former governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, has also filed his papers. He yesterday called Trump a "lonely, self-consumed, self-serving mirror hog." How does that shape the campaign to have someone like Chris Christie direct such a pointed attack at Donald Trump?

I think it will irritate the former president. I think it'll cause some fireworks on a debate stage, if he's able to even qualify for the debate. And I think we'll be talking about it for a few days after the two of them run into each other.

But I'm not sure it's going to bring voters Christie's way.

How does someone like Chris Christie, who supported Donald Trump for so long — I mean, even helping him with debate preparation in the 2020 race — how does he now really authentically distance himself from Donald Trump?

You bring up an interesting point. I mean, he spent all those years defending him. He was the first person really of national prominence to endorse president Trump. And he did that shortly after dropping out of the race.

Look, I think it's kind of an awkward truth that I'm sure he knew better all along what kind of leader Trump would be, what kind of character he had to bring to the job. But when you're invested in something like a presidential campaign, and you're maybe hoping for something to come out of it — maybe a job like attorney general or something else — you're willing to put up with a lot.

And in this case, I think he's finally decided that the party needs to move on, the country needs to move on. And he's offering himself to be a person who can help accomplish that.

A smiling man in suit jacket stands with one hand in his pocket.
David Kochel is a Republican strategist and former executive director for the Republican Party of Iowa. He has worked on the U.S. presidential campaigns of Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney. (Submitted by David Kochel)

As we hear this criticism directed at Donald Trump, does that become something that he can further weaponize to try and rally his base?

The conservative media ecosystem has built up antibodies around president Trump. And voters in the Republican Party, many of them really view Trump as the most attacked and vilified person in history. 

They've learned from the conservative media kind of how to respond to these criticisms. They've been trained to push back on any manner of claims, whether it's paying off the porn star or whether it's Russiagate or, you know, pick any topic you want to pick about how Trump's been attacked by not only the Democratic Party, but the media, and they've got a ready answer for it.

They see him being attacked by his enemies, and they put on the the helmet and the jersey and they push back and fight hard.

Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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