Call it Mitt Romney’s revenge.
With less than three months left before Election Day, some prominent Republicans are banking on a long-shot candidate to bring down Donald Trump—one who happens to be a Wharton educated Utah native and a Mormon missionary.
Don’t expect Evan McMullin, who is also a former CIA counterterrorism officer and chief policy director of the House Republican Conference, to get jammed up on basic constitutional questions. He won’t be grousing aloud about our national hesitance to deploying nuclear weapons on a whim or hurling brickbats at Republican leaders. It’s doubtful that McMullin has ever filed bankruptcy and likely has no headline-grabbing, message-derailing personal baggage.
Republican consultant Rick Wilson, who eviscerated Trump in a weekend opinion column published in the New York Daily News, has teamed up with Florida-based pollster and operative Joel Searby to head up McMullin’s campaign staff.
“A growing number of Americans are coming to the realization that Trump is more than just a political train wreck,” Wilson wrote. “He’s a real threat to the nation…”
McMullin, he believes, is the answer Republicans have been waiting for. Wilson readily admits that it will be an “uphill battle,” but said there is a strategy is get McMullin on the ballot in a broad number of states and said that if necessary, the campaign will take matters to court to do so. Americans should have a choice between “crazy” and “corrupt,” said Wilson, referring to Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Even so, the self-styled conservative independent won’t likely take home any states this fall and there’s no reason to believe he can topple Clinton in the polls. And with so little time left in the campaign, the likelihood that he will meet the qualification threshold for national debate appearances seems impossible. There frankly isn’t enough time on the clock to build the kind of state-by-state organization necessary— especially since Clinton already has thousands of foot soldiers out door-knocking and has been up on television for weeks.
But McMullin might not be in the race to win, place or even show. His candidacy appears to have one specific aim: Cut off Trump’s narrow path to victory.
Back in March, when former Massachusetts governor Romney stood before cameras and called Trump a “fraud” and a “phony” and said his “promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University,” most people watching said, “Okay, what are your going to do about it?”
Well that answer came around noon Monday when McMullin filed the requisite paperwork, formalizing his bid for the presidency. Backed by Republican operatives who worked with Better for America, a 501(c)(4) funded in part by former Romney bundler John Kingston, McMullin might have just enough money to dig a hole in the electoral map and bury Trump in it.
Doing so means keeping previously uncompetitive states like Georgia and Arizona safely out of the win column for the New York businessman. It means forcing the quasi-reality television star to fight in territory that any other Republican candidate could have taken for granted. In several states out West and in the deep South, where the majority of Republican voters live, Trump is neck-and-neck with Clinton. Matched against Romney and John McCain, Trump is losing (or coming close to it) where he should be safest.
Recently polling shows Clinton expanding her campaign map to include states like Utah, Nevada, Arizona and even Georgia—where she holds a stunning 44-37 lead. She’s even pulling ads out of Virginia and Colorado. But, with McMullin potentially peeling off bench-warmers, independents, and center-right voters in close contests— people who might have otherwise stayed home or held their noses to vote for Trump—Clinton’s strength in close-in suburbs might just flip states with sitting Republican governors.
There is no reason to believe that McMullin will upset that math or carve into Clinton’s base of centrist and progressive Democrats. But keeping Trump out of the White House isn’t the only goal. McMullin presents a bona fide conservative alternative to the toxicity unleashed by Trump and his campaign. Should McMullin make it onto the ballot, his candidacy would give disaffected right-wingers a lever to pull.
“In a year where Americans have lost faith in the candidates of both major parties, it’s time for a generation of new leadership to step up,” McMullin told ABC News. “It’s never too late to do the right thing, and America deserves much better than either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton can offer us. I humbly offer myself as a leader who can give millions of disaffected Americans a conservative choice for President.”
For her part, Clinton has been actively courting independents and those who don’t have the stomach for Trump. The early numbers show a significant softening in support for Trump in the wake of a seemingly endless string of public gaffes and verbal fisticuffs.
The ultimate fear of Republicans is that once center-right voters begin splitting their tickets, they might leave the party and never come back. (Trump is effectively locking them out and Katy-barring the door.) Thus, the GOP could lose its national footing for a generation or more. By challenging Trump, McMullin may be saving the party—something RNC chairman Reince Priebus didn’t have the mettle for.
They couldn’t beat Trump in a fractured primary and their efforts on the Cleveland convention floor quickly turned to dust. But by putting McMullin in the race, with focused efforts on a handful of state contests, the #NeverTrump coalition is betting it can seal the Republican nominee’s fate once and for all.
In the end, McMullin might be able to knock the wheels off the crazy-wagon.