With Trump distracted, Pence hits 2018 trail

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and his White House have spent the last several weeks caught up in staff shake-ups, infighting, more revelations about Russia investigations and the response to the nation's latest mass school shooting.

Vice President Mike Pence, on the other hand, spent a good part of that same time traveling to states like Michigan, Tennessee and Texas, raising money for Republican candidates up and down the ballot in advance of this fall's midterm elections and selling the party's achievements in Washington, especially on taxes.

It's just the beginning of an ambitious calendar of events Pence has sketched out in the next three months, revealing a traditional political approach for a key member of a decidedly unorthodox presidency.

By the end of April, the vice president will have headlined 30 political events, according to his calendar, a schedule Republicans believe will be critical to helping them protect their congressional majorities in November at a time when many are predicting a Democratic wave.

On Friday, Pence visited Detroit for a tax policy event and political fundraiser, and next week he will travel to Iowa, Kentucky and Nebraska.

RELATED: Rising political stars to watch in 2018

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Rising political stars to watch in 2018
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Rising political stars to watch in 2018

Randy Bryce (D)

Bryce made waves earlier this year when he announced he would run against House Speaker Paul Ryan in the 2018 midterm elections. Bryce, a Democrat, is a U.S. Army veteran, cancer survivor and union ironworker.

Rep. Scott Taylor, (R-VA)

A former Navy SEAL, Taylor has represented Virginia's 2nd District since he was elected in 2016. He has branded himself as a Republican lawmaker who is unafraid to speak out against President Trump and members of his own party -- recently calling out Roy Moore for allegations of sexual misconduct.

Rep. Seth Moulton, (D-MA)

39-year-old Seth Moulton has increasingly emerged as a prominent House member and one to watch within the Democratic party. He served four tours of duty in Iraq and notably serves as the. Recently, he has advocated for "a new generation" of Democratic leadership.

Rep. Chris Collins, (R-NY)

Collins was elected to represent New York's 27th district on Capitol Hill in 2012, and has since positioned himself as a vocal right-wing defender within the Republican party. He also came out as one of President Trump's most vocal supporters leading up to an after the 2016 election.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.)

Krishnamoorthi was elected in 2016 -- making him one of the more freshman lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Still, the former lawyer with a past of aiding the Obama administration has played an integral role this year in congressional investigations into the Trump campaign's potential ties to Russia. As a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, he has taken many opportunities to speak critically of the clearance aides like Jared Kushner have -- and has firmly positioned himself as a staunch opponent of GOP efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, (R-AK)

As one of 21 women currently serving in the U.S. Senate, Murkowski has positioned herself as a more moderate leader within the Republican party. Murkowski refused to toe the party line on an attempted Obamacare repeal earlier this year, and has since raised skepticism over specific elements of the GOP tax bill and Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.

Rep. Charlie Crist, (D-Fla.)

Crist is one of the more interesting players currently positioned in the political landscape. Once a Republican, Crist served as both attorney general and governor of Florida -- but then switched to a member of the Independent and eventually Democratic party. In his current House role representing Florida's 13th congressional district, Crist has emerged as a Democrat unafraid to take a middle-ground approach in his policy stances.

Sen. Tom Cotton, (R-AR)

As the youngest U.S. senator, Cotton's political future currently looks very bright. As one of the few Capitol Hill lawmakers that has yet to have a public feud -- on Twitter or otherwise -- with President Trump, Cotton was recently on the shortlist to replace Mike Pompeo as CIA director if Pompeo replaced Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, (D-NV)

Catherine Cortez Masto is the first Latina ever elected to the U.S. Senate.

Governor-elect Ralph Northam (D-VA)

Northam was elected governor of Virginia in the series of "anti-Trump" Election Day victories Democrats celebrated in Nov. 2017. Northam's victory over Ed Gillespie signaled a potential shift in the oft-fraught over Virginia battleground state -- and Northam's gubernatorial tenure will be one to eye in the context of midterms and the 2020 presidential election.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D, NY)

Many who watch politics closely have noted Gillibrand as one to watch since she was appointed to Hillary Clinton's former Senate seat in 2009, and then elected in 2012. Early in her Senate career, Gillibrand used her position as a member of the Committee on Armed Services to chalk up a major legislative win by championing the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Gillibrand has also recently spoken out against sexual harassment allegations stemming from both Democratic and Republican offices -- calling on both Sen. Al Franken and President Trump to resign.

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Pence's ambitious early 2018 effort was sketched out during a January meeting at Camp David with the president, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

"Everyone agreed that the vice president has a key role to play in this process — the tip of the spear, so to speak," said Marty Obst, a longtime Pence adviser who heads the Great America Committee, a leadership PAC formed last year primarily to cover the costs of Pence's political travels.

And while the attention in Washington remains fixed elsewhere, Pence has begun focusing the party's campaign message on touting the administration's successes, including the signing of the major tax reform measure at the end of 2017.

"Promises made, promises kept," Pence said last Tuesday in a speech to the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville, promoting an agenda that, he says, has resulted in an America that is "more secure and booming."

"Under President Trump, strength is back, jobs are coming back. In a word, America is coming back," Pence told the National Religious Broadcasters convention. "The past year has been a year of action — a year of remarkable results."

And the vice president is just getting started.

Later this month, his stops will include North Dakota, on behalf of Republican Senate candidate Kevin Cramer. Then, on to Nevada in April for Sen. Dean Heller's re-election bid, as well as to Missouri for Senate candidate Josh Hawley. He will also visit Nebraska and New Hampshire to stump for the re-election of Govs. Pete Ricketts and Chris Sununu.

"Many politicians are good at bonding but not good at the ask," Doug Deason, a Dallas investor and prominent Trump donor who is part of the Koch brothers network, said of Pence's pitch for donations. "Mike is just extremely gregarious and a straight shooter. He's a Godly man — everything we stand for as conservatives. It's huge for the party."

Two weeks ago, Pence visited the Dallas home of Deason's father, Darwin Deason, a billionaire businessman who hosted a luncheon with 14 big donors that resulted in several million dollars in donations for America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC.

Later that night at a Dallas hotel, Pence headlined his first fundraiser for Protect the House, a new campaign fund that aids Pence's PAC, along with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's super PAC, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), and 22 vulnerable Republican House members that the party hopes to help ahead of the election.

RELATED: A look at Mike and Karen Pence

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Mike and Karen Pence
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Mike and Karen Pence

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, left, and his wife, Karen Pence acknowledge the audience before he speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada February 24, 2017.

(REUTERS/David Becker)

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, his wife Karen and daughter Charlotte, visit the former German Nazi concentration camp in Dachau near Munich, Germany February 19, 2017.

(REUTERS/Michael Dalder)

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen wave after he spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., February 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen arrive in Munich, Germany, February 17, 2017.

(REUTERS/Michaela Rehle)

U.S. President Donald Trump with his wife Melania and Vice President Mike Pence with his wife Karen dance at a Liberty Ball in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2017.

(REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)

Mike Pence kisses his wife Karen after taking the oath of office for U.S. Vice President during inauguration ceremonies swearing in Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States on the West front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2017.

(REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

U.S. President Donald Trump with his wife Melania and Vice President Mike Pence with his wife Karen cut a cake at the Armed Services Ball in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2017.

(REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence with his wife Karen waves at a Liberty Ball in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2017.

(REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)

Mike Pence is sworn in as U.S. Vice President as his wife Karen holds a bible during inauguration ceremonies swearing in Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States on the West front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2017.

(REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Vice President Mike Pence is sworn in as his wife Karen Pence watches during inauguration ceremonies swearing in Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States on the West front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2017.

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden says goodbye to Karen Pence after a luncheon and meeting with Vice President-elect Mike Pence at the Naval Observatory in Washington, U.S., November 16, 2016.

(REUTERS/Gary Cameron)

Indiana Governor Mike Pence, the Republican vice presidential nominee, and his wife Karen arrive to a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S. October 10, 2016.

(REUTERS/Jason Miczek)

Indiana Governor Mike Pence holds hands with wife Karen Pence after being named Donald Trump's Vice Presidential candidate as the walk out of Trump Tower in New York, U.S., July 15, 2016.

(REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)

Indiana governor Mike Pence and wife Karen Pence attends the 2014 IPL 500 Festival Parade during the 2014 Indy 500 Festival at on May 24, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

(Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Republican Vice presidential nominee Mike Pence and wife Karen listen as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump addresses the final rally of his 2016 presidential campaign at Devos Place in Grand Rapids, Michigan on November 7, 2016.

(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney introduces U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen Pence at the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual leadership meeting at The Venetian Las Vegas on February 24, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Mike Pence's speech to the group of Republican Jewish leaders and donors follows his trip last week to Germany where he visited the former Dachau concentration camp and a surprise stop on Wednesday at a Jewish cemetery in Missouri that had been vandalized.

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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The Dallas fundraiser hauled in $800,000 that will help, in part, the likes of Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, who attended the event and is one of the vulnerable Republicans.

The vice president is packing plenty into his trips out of Washington.

On Tuesday in Tennessee, for example, in addition to his speech to broadcasters, Pence addresed the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization with a super PAC arm that provides financial backing to anti-abortion candidates, and attended a fundraiser for the Republican Governors Association at Gov. Bill Haslam's residence.

Pence has already proved to be one of the most effective rainmakers since taking office. He led a fundraising swing through California in October that his allies intend to build on in other states this spring. Over the course of 48 hours in the state, Pence raised $5 million — funds that were divvied up between his leadership PAC, the NRCC and each California Republican congressional member.

"Vice presidents and presidents have always come to California to raise money, but this is the first time I remember a vice president starting in one end of the state and going breakfast, lunch and dinner up and down the state and raising that kind of money for our party," said Jim Brulte, the chairman of the California Republican Party.

Pence also campaigned in February for Rick Saccone ahead of a special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District on March 13 and raised $225,000 on the candidate's behalf.

In Michigan on Friday, Pence headlined an event hosted by America First Policies — his third such event for the organization— before leading another Protect the House fundraiser, which will help, in part, Rep. Mike Bishop, of Rochester, Michigan, another vulnerable Republicans to benefit from the fund.

Pence's PAC is also evaluating primaries in competitive congressional seats being vacated by Republican members.

"There are some open districts that are challenges," Obst said. "We'll look at polling and performance, and we'll do this based on the calculus of what we need to do to hold the House."

Obst insisted there are "no lost causes" in November, including the tough districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. "We think that talk of the wave election is premature," Obst asserted.

Pence's efforts will be aided by other political campaign arms, including the NRCC and outside groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Paul Ryan-backed super PAC that has already opened campaign field offices in 27 congressional districts to assist the candidates' efforts.

But the vice president is at the center of the party's 2018 campaign efforts, knowing all too well that midterm elections often do not fair well for the party in power.

"We threw out the playbook in 2016, and we're going to throw it out in 2018," Pence promised to more than 1,500 Republican activists last month at the Dallas County GOP's Reagan Day Dinner.

And thus far, he is leading the party's efforts at following that very playbook.

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