Across the street from the British embassy, with its red telephone box and Winston Churchill statue, in Washington DC is the residence of the US-vice president. It has its own basketball court, on which Mike Pence reportedly installed a logo from the 1986 film Hoosiers starring Gene Hackman about small-town Indiana sports.
Fortunately, the Washington Post noted a couple of years ago, the logo is removable.
Pence, a former governor of Indiana, and his wife, Karen, will be packing their bags and moving out of the residence in January to make way for America’s first female vice-president, Senator Kamala Harris of California, and her husband Doug Emhoff.
Said to have nurtured ambitions for the presidency since he was 16, Pence must now decide what to do with the rest of his life. Among the 61-year-old’s options: a return to his roots in conservative talk radio as a way to remain relevant in his party.
“I think he would want to stay involved in Republican politics and probably in a more conventional way than the president,” said Michael D’Antonio, co-author of The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence. “So he could be a broadcaster, and there’ll be lots of opportunity for that, but he would be nicer than Trump.
“When he was on the radio in Indiana, he called himself ‘Rush Limbaugh on decaf’. There is a lot of potential in that identity for him.”
Mike Pence takes part in the 2020 vice-presidential debate with Senator Kamala Harris in Salt Lake City, Utah, on 7 October 2020. Photograph: Reuters
In a more low-key version of Trump’s own ascent-by-celebrity, Pence used his prominence as a conservative radio show host in the 1990s as a springboard to a political career in 2000. He served six terms in the House of Representatives and was an early advocate of the Tea Party movement.
Elected governor of Indiana in 2012, he was widely condemned for a slow response to an HIV outbreak and for signing “religious freedom” legislation that made it easier for conservatives to refuse service to gay couples. Then he joined forces with Trump’s election campaign in 2016 and proved a crucial enabler and apologist for the 45th president.
That continued on Monday when Pence signaled his support for Trump’s baseless legal challenges to the 2020 election result, tweeting: “Told @VP Team Today, “it ain’t over til it’s over.. and this AIN’T over!” President @realDonaldTrump has never stopped fighting for us and we’re gonna Keep Fighting until every LEGAL vote is counted!”
But on Tuesday, even as the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, declared: “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration,” Pence simply remained silent when asked by reporters, “What evidence is there of widespread voter fraud?”, “Do you think the election was stolen from the president?” and “Is it time to concede?”
It was also reported that Pence and his family would travel to the Florida island of Sanibel on Tuesday for a holiday, in what might be an attempt to distance himself – figuratively and literally – from Trump’s refusal to concede defeat.
The approach has been a hallmark of Pence’s vice-presidency: at once both unswervingly loyal to Trump and yet also managing to fade into the background at the most politically damaging moments. Pence is head of the White House coronavirus taskforce, but it is Trump who has shouldered the most blame for American’s disastrous pandemic.
D’Antonio said: “Pence has done well to stay on the right side of Trump without becoming a snarling and profane apostate. That’s pretty impressive in terms of contorting himself into the one shape that may be acceptable to a majority of the voters.”
Judge Amy Coney Barrett and Mike Pence walk up the steps of the Capitol in Washington DC on 29 September 2020. Photograph: Reuters
Last week’s election result did not necessarily deal a death blow to Pence’s hopes of running for the White House in 2024. A victory for Donald Trump would have left Pence – or any other Republican – with the historically formidable challenge of securing a third consecutive term for the same party.
Instead Trump and Pence’s resilient haul of more than 70m votes, a higher total than any incumbent president and vice-president in history, was not the wholesale rebuke that Republicans feared. Unless Trump himself runs again, it gives Pence a potential launchpad.
D’Antonio continued: “He would hold to his beliefs religiously and politically but offer himself as the kinder, gentler version of Trump and, if that were the case, he might actually win a majority of the votes in a national election where Trump never has. He could run with a woman vice-presidential candidate and be very appealing. I’m sure that they’re already gaming this out.”
In this year’s election campaign Pence’s thunder at the vice-presidential debate was stolen by a fly that nestled in his snowy hair. But as a born-again Christian, he once more proved an effective salesman to white evangelical voters turned off by Trump’s unholy behaviour. D’Antonio added: “It’s a tremendous asset: that’s probably 30m votes right there.
“In the electoral college, I think it pretty well aligns with the red portions of the map and he would do better than Trump in Michigan and Wisconsin because those are pretty heavily evangelical states. We definitely have not seen the last of Mike Pence.”
There is only one Republican alive who has been part of an incumbent presidential ticket that lost a re-election campaign: Dan Quayle, also from Indiana, and former vice-president under George HW Bush. After defeat in 1992 he wrote three books, founded and sold an insurance business in Indiana, worked in academia and took a lucrative position at a private equity firm.
But old friends of Pence in Indiana hope that he will remain involved in politics. Charles Hiltunen, who was at law school with him in Indianapolis and last saw him about two weeks ago, suggested he could bring his influence to bear on the Senate, where the balance of power depends on two runoff elections in Georgia in January.
“Depending on the makeup, that’s where Pence could have a role to play as the mediator or trying to get issues going,” he said. “I think he and Joe Biden have had a great relationship. It would be a good opportunity for him to be a statesman and show some leadership on key issues.”
Hiltunen, a principal at the lobbying firm Sextons Creek, also suggested that Pence might go back to conservative radio. “Mike would probably be a good spokesperson there if that’s what he wanted to do. It’s going to be fascinating to me to see what his next chapter is.”
One of the biggest questions is whether Pence, once criticised by columnist George Will for “his talent for toadyism and appetite for obsequiousness”, will continue to defend Trump or decide to cut him loose so that he can pursue his own political aspirations.
Moe Vela, a former senior adviser to Al Gore and Joe Biden, said: “He and a whole host of people, including possibly Donald Trump, will be back in 2024. The 70m-plus votes that they received is going to give them oxygen, so I don’t think you’ve seen the last of Mike Pence.
“It will be fascinating to see whether he waits to see what Trump is going to do or whether he disregards what Trump is going to do and does his own thing. Is he going to be loyal even post-presidency, or is that loyalty going to end now? I personally think he’s going to go out and do his own thing and say, ‘I was so loyal to you. I stood by you. Your time’s up. It’s my turn.’”
• This article was amended on 12 November 2020. An earlier version overlooked Walter Mondale in referring to Dan Quayle as the only person alive who has been part of an incumbent presidential ticket that lost a reelection campaign. Quayle is the only such Republican.