A leading progressive group is launching a campaign-style effort to paint Vice President Mike Pence as an extremist who wields unprecedented power in the White House – an early sign that as the vice president takes a lead role in midterm campaigning, he also risks making himself a target.
The Human Rights Campaign, a leading LGBT rights organization, is launching a sustained attack against Pence, with a website, videos and a lengthy report to be released on Thursday. The materials were shown to POLITICO early.
The attack from a key player in the Democratic base comes as Pence is campaigning heavily for Republicans ahead of the 2018 midterms. And as Trump’s legal troubles expand, from the special counsel probe to a federal investigation of his personal attorney, some Democrats are beginning to train their fire on Pence in case the president doesn’t run for re-election in 2020 or gets removed from office.
“Mike Pence has made a career out of attacking the rights and equal dignity of LGBTQ people, women and other marginalized communities,” Chad Griffin, the president of HRC, said in a statement. “Now as vice president, he poses one of the greatest threats to equality in the history of our movement. With the world distracted by Donald Trump’s scandal-ridden White House, Mike Pence’s nefarious agenda has been allowed to fly under the radar for too long. He has become not only the most powerful vice president in American history, but also the least scrutinized.”
“This is just another politically-motivated attack on the VP by a left-wing organization closely aligned with the Democratic Party,” said Pence press secretary Alyssa Farah.
Internally, the Vice President’s office was largely dismissive of the campaign.
The broadside comes as Pence has taken on an outsized role in the Republicans’ work to prevent a Democratic wave in 2018. In the next week and a half, Pence will be making campaign stops in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Indiana and California. Those trips come as Pence has already crisscrossed the country stumping and fundraising for Republicans.
As Pence becomes a more visible part of the administration, Democrats have another incentive to lash out at him: cash.
“I think the most likely thing here is that Pence is an easy target for the Human Rights Campaign to raise money from,” said Republican strategist Rick Tyler, who served as communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential run. “Every special interest group, and Human Rights Campaign is not alone, has a bogey man, and theirs is Mike Pence.”
The HRC effort highlights what it describes as Pence’s “extremist ideology”: his opposition while in Congress to Employment Non-Discrimination Act protections for sexual orientation; his opposition to ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which barred openly gay people from serving in the military; his opposition to hate crime protections for transgender individuals; and a statement on his 2000 campaign website that appeared to endorse federal funding for the controversial practice of “conversion therapy.”
The report, which highlights these positions, also hits Pence for his handling of an HIV/AIDS outbreak in Indiana during his governorship and for signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics said would legalize discrimination against LGBT people and which nearly derailed his governorship.
Along with the report, HRC produced a series of videos, including one in which Pence decries the use of condoms and another in which he lobbies against hate-crime legislation. The videos feature ominous background music and black-and-white images of a malevolent-looking Pence. Clips of Pence speaking on the floor of the House – including one in which he says, “Abstinence and marital faithfulness before condom distribution are the cure for what ails the families of Africa” – are spliced in.
Pence is one of the more popular members of the administration, said HRC’s Charlotte Clymer, who helped draft the report, adding that Pence has received “less scrutiny” than other White House figures.
“We’ve seen Mike Pence fly underneath the radar,” said Chris Sgro, HRC’s communications director. “The unfortunate reality is that Mike Pence has tried to hold himself out there as the moderate, grown-up voice in the room. But we know, and this report exposes, that he’s anything but. He is a dangerous extremist.”
Tyler said even if HRC and other groups beat up on Pence as November approaches, he believes voters are more likely to make ballot-box decisions based on their views of Trump.
“When [House Speaker Paul] Ryan announced he wasn’t running for re-election, that was in many ways the end of the Republican Party the way I knew it and the way Ryan knew it,” Tyler said. “The cord is severed, this is now Trump’s party, for better or worse, for good or bad, and 2018 is now a referendum on his party.”