An anonymous group of conservative billionaires is ready to place their bets on a man dubbed “Mad Dog,” hoping to draft him into the presidential race to confront Donald Trump.
Think of it as a Plan B should Trump be nominated by the Republican Party in Cleveland: swing behind retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis and press him into service yet again as a third-party candidate.
Mattis is the former commander of Central Command, which includes the strife-afflicted conflict zones of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, and has developed a reputation among troops as a general officer who cares about the little guy. This reputation blossomed into the political realm during the 2012 presidential contest, when a Marine Corps veteran started an online campaign to write-in Mattis on presidential ballots—it ultimately lacked the backing to take off.
But this situation involves far bigger players: Close to a dozen influential donors—involving politically-involved billionaires with deep pockets and conservative leanings—are ready to put their resources behind Mattis. At their request, a small group of political operatives have taken the first steps in the strategic legwork needed for a bid: a package of six strategic memos outlining how Mattis could win the race, in hopes of coaxing him in.
The general has received the package of memos, according to two individuals involved with the project.
Mattis, who is also nicknamed the “warrior monk” for his contemplative devotion to the military arts, would be a fallback option for anti-Trump forces. But since the next series of GOP nomination contests heavily favor Trump, this is not exactly a fantasy scenario.
“Everyone is hoping that Ted Cruz pulls it out, but I think a great deal of Republicans would rally behind an American hero if the choice is between Mattis and Trump,” said John Noonan, a former Jeb Bush aide now involved in the project to draft Mattis.
“He’s a man of character and integrity. He’s given his life to his country. How do you ask someone like that to leap headfirst into this toxic mud puddle of a race? It’s damn hard. But Trump is a fascist lunatic and Hillary has one foot in a jail cell. That means the lunatic can win. I’d be first in line to plead with the general to come save America,” Noonan added.
The strategy would not be for Mattis to win, at least at first—the operatives behind this potential bid would only be seeking to deny Trump and Clinton the 270 electoral votes necessary to win the general election outright. And there is also the incredible logistical challenge of getting Mattis on the ballot in a large number of states.
“The process is actually quite simple, but it’s difficult,” one of the strategists concedes in a memo, and the chances of Mattis winning the White House outright as a third-party candidate are “very low.” But if the retired military officer could win several states won by President Obama in 2012, they might be able to block Clinton, thus forcing the incoming House of Representatives to make a decision on the next president of the United States.
With the House split, the strategists reason, Mattis could be the consensus choice.
“The theme of 2016 is ‘all bets are off’ and this is a cycle where the unexpected has become the defining characteristic of this election,” said strategist Rick Wilson, who is also involved in the project. “In a moment when American politics on the left and right has been upended, and where the frontrunners of both parties are compromised, the time may be upon us where a uniquely qualified, and uniquely credible third-party alternative like General Mattis can take the stage.”
Another limiting factor is Mattis himself, who is disinclined to run. These strategists hope he could change his mind if he were to feel compelled to serve his country.
Those close to him are skeptical that his mind could be changed.
“It is difficult—if not impossible—to see him accepting being drafted,” said a source close to Mattis.
Still, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol poured fuel onto the fire Feb. 22, after Trump victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Speaking at a fundraiser for the Hoover Institute, where Mattis is a visiting fellow, Kristol suggested—perhaps jokingly—that the former four-star general might be conscripted into the race.
“No way!” shouted back a jocular Mattis, from the audience.
Mattis, who declined to speak with The Daily Beast, has previously suggested that he could not endure the political correctness required to be a contender for the White House. But given Trump’s myriad controversies, this may not be a problem this year.
“I’ve lived a very colorful life and I’ve said some things,” Mattis told an audience last year, according to the Marine Corps Times. “But not once have I taken them back, and I’ve never apologized for them—and I won’t. I like the enemy knowing there are a few guys like me around.”
The pro-Mattis donors, who want to stay anonymous for the time being, have assembled a core group of seven political operatives, led by Joel Searby, a Republican consultant based in Florida. The group of strategists also includes lead attorney Mohammad Jazil; ballot access specialist Matthew Sawyer; and former George W. Bush pollster Jan Lohuizen, along with a finance team and a “top firm” that has been secured to lead the ballot access petition gathering, members of the team tell The Daily Beast.
Wilson and Noonan co-authored a memo on how Mattis might capitalize on the current media environment, arguing that Trump’s “fake-macho act falls apart” before a bona fide American hero like Mattis. The general’s overall bearing “immediately blows a hole into the central narrative of Trump: his toughness,” they argue in a memo obtained by The Daily Beast. “[A]nd the drama of watching it fall apart under fire would be amazing television.”
Comparing him to President Dwight Eisenhower, the memo concludes that Mattis has “all the iconoclastic, authentic style of non-politician Trump—and all the serious government service credibility of Hillary Clinton.”
Some conservatives, disgusted with Trump’s candidacy, have already warmed to the idea of a run by Mattis—including conservative commentators Erick Erickson and Kristol.
Kristol told The Daily Beast that he had “huge respect and admiration” for Mattis—and Gen. John Kelly, another high-ranking general.
“I don’t know whether they’re ideally suited for the presidency,” he said. “But I do know they’re a hell of a lot more suited for it than Donald Trump.”