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Why Mike Pence's visit to Ukraine hits a little differently

Pence isn't likely to gain much ground among GOP primary voters with his visit to a country at the center of Trump's first impeachment.

Ukraine hasn’t been the most popular country among Republicans over the last few years. So when former Vice President Mike Pence popped up in Ukraine on Thursday, it was a surprise visit in more ways than one. Pence told NBC News that he was visiting because “America’s the leader of the free world” and that being there “steels my resolve to do my part, to continue to call for strong American support for our Ukrainian friends and allies.”

What once was a pretty boilerplate bit of hawkishness from a Republican candidate has become less of a selling point for GOP primary voters these days. Pence managed to highlight that shift in meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. It’s the second time the two men have met — but it should have been the third. That it wasn’t undergirds how far Pence stands from former President Donald Trump when it comes to Ukraine and how much of the GOP Trump has taken along with him. Whether that stance will cost him the chance to take his former boss’ place is another question.

What once was a pretty boilerplate bit of hawkishness from a Republican candidate has become less of a selling point for GOP primary voters these days.

Trump’s hatred for Ukraine goes back to conspiracy theories that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election. It became an obsession that eventually morphed into a shadow U.S. foreign policy spearheaded by his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and it intersected with his fear of former Vice President Joe Biden as a challenger in 2020. Trump’s first impeachment came after he tried to pressure Zelenskyy to open an investigation into the Bidens, withholding as leverage things like a White House visit for Zelenskyy and millions of dollars in much-needed military assistance that Congress had appropriated.

It’s not clear how much Pence knew about this scheming as it was happening, but it appears he was kept at least mostly out of the loop. One of the first signs that Trump was trying to pressure Ukraine came when Pence was ordered not to attend Zelenskyy’s inauguration, leaving Energy Secretary Rick Perry as the highest-ranking American to attend. Pence’s actual first meeting with Zelenskyy was, instead, on the sidelines of a ceremony in Warsaw marking the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II.

At that meeting, Pence delivered a message that U.S. military aid was being withheld because of Ukraine’s lackluster efforts to fight corruption. Testimony at the House impeachment inquiry hearings confirmed that the Ukrainians were meant to understand “corruption” as a reference to Trump’s demand for a Biden investigation. Gordon Sondland, then the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified that one of Zelenskyy’s top aides pulled him aside to make the link between aid and investigations explicit. (For the record, the Government Accountability Office later found that Trump’s withholding of the aid at all was illegal.)

Pence notably didn’t cooperate in the impeachment inquiry, and he defended Trump at the time. Since he left office, though, he has been a staunch supporter of Kyiv and the military assistance that has flowed after Russia’s invasion last year. That’s more than can be said for the rest of his party. After a brief period of bipartisanship soon after the invasion and a lot of blaming Biden for not being tough enough on Russia, Republicans overall have cooled on aiding Ukraine — especially those who are still in Trump’s orbit.

A recent poll from the Pew Research Center found that 44% of Republicans surveyed thought the U.S. is giving too much support to Ukraine. That’s more than say they have a positive opinion of Pence, according to a recent NBC News poll: “While 33% of GOP voters say they have a positive opinion of Pence, 37% have a negative opinion of him.” Those two numbers mean Pence’s campaign is unlikely to get much of a boost from his trip. Meanwhile, the Biden/Ukraine corruption narrative has been resurgent in the GOP, and Trump himself has both praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as being “savvy” for invading and pledged that he’d be able to end the war in just 24 hours.

Pence said Thursday that he views his support for Ukraine through the lens of President Ronald Reagan’s fight against communism. It’s a nice sentiment, I suppose, but I have to wonder whether there’s also some bit of regret that’s fueling him, a bit of penance-seeking for his role in turning the Republican Party against Kyiv. Because if his ultimate goal is to win over primary voters who are once again being told to link Biden and Ukraine in their minds, the chances of victory seem slim.