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Is Evan McMullin’s presidential candidacy just a protest, or something bigger?

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Yahoo News
Brynnley Pyne shows her support for a cardboard cutout of her candidate at an Evan McMullin rally in Salt Lake City. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred/The Deseret News via AP)

It’s difficult to imagine Evan McMullin as an undercover CIA operative lurking in the shadows of South and Central Asia a decade ago, at the height of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He doesn’t really look the part. McMullin, the 40-year-old previously unknown Capitol Hill staffer who is the surprise presidential candidate of 2016, is everlastingly polite and remarkably normal-looking. He has a shaved head. That can sometimes imply toughness. But on McMullin, it simply plays up how follicularly challenged he is.

“Can you grow a beard?” I asked him one day recently during the second of two conversations we had at his campaign headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“My beard is really spotty,” McMullin admitted. But, he added, “with a shaved head and a spotty beard … I’d make a very good Chechen.”

McMullin was only 27 when he first deployed as a spy in 2003. He entered the agency through an unconventional route.

As a high school student living in the Seattle suburbs, McMullin called 411 — the information line that people used to call before smartphones and the Internet — and asked to be connected with the CIA. He’d wanted to work for the agency ever since as a kid he’d watched “Three Days of the Condor” with Robert Redford.

McMullin had read enough about the CIA to ask for their recruitment center. And surprisingly, his doggedness led to a phone conversation with a man “who would call himself Arthur Delaney, and I’m certain that’s not what his real name was,” McMullin said. The two kept in touch over several years, and after McMullin graduated high school and completed two years as a Mormon missionary in Brazil, he did a semester internship at the CIA each year he was a student at Brigham Young University. He may have entered the CIA early, but the agency does have a penchant for hiring members of the Mormon faith.

After he graduated college, McMullin went undercover for an initial assignment that lasted two and a half years. He did shorter stints in the field for a few years and eventually left the agency in 2010.

McMullin said he could not discuss the details of what he did without asking the CIA to grant him permission. He did say that his role was “multi-mode.” It involved showing up at “cocktail parties with leaders in the business community and in government and diplomats” and then later that same night meeting up with terrorist operatives, heavily armed, to collect information.

Bloomberg’s Donny Deutsch asked him in a live interview, “Did you ever kill anyone?”

“I don’t think answering that question directly is the thing for me to do,” he said. “I certainly located terrorists, and those terrorists were either arrested or sometimes killed.”

As challenging as that time was, McMullin faced plenty of fears when considering late this past summer whether to launch a quixotic campaign for president. He felt strongly that conservatives had to have an alternative to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. He felt, as many #NeverTrump conservatives did, that Trump was unfit for the office. And he strongly opposed Clinton’s big-government liberalism. But the consequences of becoming a candidate himself seemed enormous.

“I’m not wealthy. It is income. It is future. It is reputational. It is all those things,” McMullin said. He left his job as a senior policy adviser on Capitol Hill to the fourth-ranking House Republican, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.

“It’s gone,” he said of his fledgling career in Republican politics, which was less than three years old. “I can’t go back to the Hill.”

Evan McMullin at a rally in Draper, Utah, Oct. 16, 2016. (Photo: Rick Bowmer/AP)

But whatever he expected to come out of this run for president, it now appears he’s on track to be the first independent or third-party candidate since the staunch segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace in 1968 to win a state’s Electoral College votes. McMullin is leading in the polls in Utah, a state with a heavily Mormon population that has voted for the Republican candidate for president in the past 12 presidential elections, a span of nearly a half-century. But Donald Trump is widely loathed by the Mormon church in Utah, which has given McMullin an opening to make history.

*****

If McMullin does win Utah, it may not make a very big impact on the presidential race. It would take Utah’s six electoral college votes away from Republican nominee Donald Trump, but those would matter only if the race were close. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is leading Trump in so many battleground states she looks poised for a convincing win.

McMullin’s name is on the ballot as a candidate in 11 states, and he is eligible for write-in votes in 29 others, with four more final states expected to approve write-in status this week. The campaign is hearing positive anecdotal feedback about McMullin’s candidacy in Minnesota, Colorado, Iowa and Idaho, in addition to Utah.

But the real question is what McMullin’s candidacy means for the future of the Republican Party.

McMullin frames his candidacy as representing a “new conservative movement” that could be the seedling of a new political party if the GOP cannot recover from Trump’s candidacy.

“It’s just like that steady state company that knows its products are stale but for a bunch of legacy reasons cannot adjust, and that’s what I think we see with the Republican Party and the Democratic Party right now. They are the limping gazelles on the Serengeti,” he said.

Talk of a new political party sounds far-fetched, but it’s being taken seriously by Republican operatives and conservative pundits.

Juleanna Glover, who worked for former Vice President Dick Cheney, told me that she wants to see “a principled, pro-trade, tolerant, entitlement reform, hawkish conservative policy party.”

“I don’t know whether that will be the Republican Party going forward,” she said.

Jonah Goldberg, a popular conservative writer at National Review, said on ABC’s “This Week” this past Sunday that even if Trump loses, he could wreak such havoc on the GOP as an outside figure that it forces the party to split in half.

“If Donald Trump doesn’t play nice, when and if he loses, and he decides that he is just going to be a spoiler or create this television network, we could see — I would predict that we are going to see a new party emerge,” Goldberg said.

Fairgoers visit an Independence Party tent at the Minnesota State Fair last August. (Photo: Jim Mone/AP)

McMullin strategist and pollster Joel Searby told the Weekly Standard that they are building state organizations around the country, which will create “an army of people who want to be a part of whatever comes next.”

Searby told me that in some states, like California, their campaign has had to recruit 57 electors and vet each one. In Nebraska, their state coordinator is a former executive director of the state Republican Party. And so on. Even becoming a legitimate write-in candidate requires “a significant amount of legal and grassroots work,” Searby said.

In the event that McMullin does win Utah, “We’re not going to just say we did a good job and move on,” Searby said. “There’s a very real possibility that a new party will be formed out of this effort. I think that’s the most important possibility that’s sitting on the table.”

American politics has not seen a new, nationally competitive party in almost a century, since former President Teddy Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate in the newly formed Progressive, or Bull Moose, Party.

Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard’s founder, told me in an email that McMullin’s candidacy “could be harbinger of something big.”

“Or it could ‘just’ be a statement on behalf of principle and decency,” Kristol wrote. “Either way, it’s a good thing.”

Kristol, who helped recruit McMullin after failing to pull in more imposing political figures like 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse to run as an independent, said he is voting for McMullin.

*****

McMullin told me that he had considered a run for elected office at the state level, or maybe for Congress, 15 years or so down the road. The thought of running for president did not enter his mind until after the Republican convention in mid-July.

“I hoped that the delegates would be able to revolt. They did, but they were blocked,” McMullin said. “When [Trump] became the nominee, then I said, ‘All right. The time to act is now.’”

Trump, McMullin said, is “a true threat to our country that is beyond the scope and scale that most Americans have ever seen or experienced.”

So he spoke with a few members of Congress he and others had previously encouraged to run for president. But none of them were willing to take the plunge, McMullin said.

“They thought it was too risky. They didn’t want to risk their current seats in Congress. They didn’t want to risk the criticism, and the humiliation, and all of that. I urged them to do it, and they would not do it,” McMullin said. He did not identify which members of Congress he had talked to.

One of the members of Congress told McMullin he should run. McMullin said he spent 10 days mulling the decision, rehearsing the ridicule he would have to endure: “Look what you did. You ran for president. You couldn’t even get on all the ballots,” he said.

And he knew going in it would be impossible to get on all 50 state ballots, despite the formidable ballot access operation funded by Republican donor John Kingston and staffed by operatives like Searby, the pollster and strategist, and former Americans Elect ballot access expert Khalil Bird.

“As I went through all of that, I kept thinking, ‘If this is so important, if this is so right, you can’t make a decision to do it based on fear for your own finances, or reputation, or career,’” he told me. “Those are important, but truth is important.”

McMullin kicking off his presidential campaign in Salt Lake City, Aug. 10, 2016. (Photo: George Frey/Getty Images)

Glover, the former Cheney aide, said that one of the reasons she’s been willing to lend an unofficial hand to McMullin’s campaign is because she is “in admiration of him for standing up to do this.”

“He’s doing it at no small personal cost. I find that type of bravery moving, and I’m glad to support it,” she said.

McMullin’s role in House Republican leadership was downplayed by Capitol Hill aides I spoke to. They described him to me as a nonfactor whose presence in meetings of top lawmakers drew puzzlement from other aides.

Regardless, McMullin said the idea of a need for a new force in politics had been “brewing inside me for the last few years.”

“This isn’t working, and I mean the system,” he said. “I believe the constitutional checks and balances are all out of balance, I mean the federalism piece.”

“Right now we’ve got so much power in Washington,” he said. “Really, I think the power should be far more heavily weighted to the state and local governments.”

This message has resonated in Utah, said Boyd Matheson, a former chief of staff to Utah Sen. Mike Lee, one of the most outspoken Republican opponents of Trump over the past year. Matheson said that despite McMullin’s natural connection with Utah’s heavily Mormon electorate, his candidacy “does transcend LDS culture.”

“Utah is clearly trying to send a message to Washington and to the establishment of both parties, and I don’t think they want to send that message in the form of a Hillary Clinton win or a Donald Trump,” Matheson said. McMullin is “really big on federalism and separation of powers, which is obviously a big thing in Utah.”

“It’s one of the reasons Utah has rejected both Trump and Clinton: because we have a really good free-market economy, strong institutions of civil society — neighborhoods and volunteer associations — and because of that Utah is working and thriving.”

Of course, Mormons have repudiated Trump much more forcefully than any other religious group in the country. They saw in his proposed Muslim ban last December echoes of their own religious persecution in the past. And McMullin’s candidacy is another symbol of the LDS church’s opposition to Trump.

*****

Most of Utah’s statewide elected officials — with the exception of Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican — have opposed or refused to endorse Trump. There is speculation that Lee, who led efforts at the GOP convention to open up delegate voting to find another nominee besides Trump, might endorse McMullin.

But McMullin has made it more difficult to do so with some of his recent swipes at Republicans who have not endorsed him.

“We’ve invited Republican leaders to join us in this cause. The reality is that the vast majority of Republican leaders are putting party ahead of principle and putting power over the interests of their own country,” McMullin said this past Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

McMullin can sometimes overreach in his rhetoric. When he criticized Trump during one of our conversations, he said that “based on his leadership style and affinity for authoritarianism, this is probably the type of man who questions his abilities in bed.”

He understandably wanted to rattle the GOP nominee’s cage, and today’s media environment incentivizes over-the-top rhetoric. But it came off sounding a bit like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s juvenile mockery of Trump’s hands during the primary last fall.

Nonetheless, McMullin can mount a substantive critique of Trump on foreign policy, and his concerns about Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election are detailed and carry some weight because of his years in the clandestine service.

“I can readily identify that Vladimir Putin is undermining our democracy and our national power through Donald Trump, through his candidacy and through everything that comes with it: the white nationalist movement, the white supremacist movement, the nativism. All of these things turn America in on itself,” he said.

“Why would that be of interest to Vladimir Putin? Because we’re the main thing that keeps Vladimir Putin in check,” McMullin said. “If we turn in on ourselves, if we’re fighting each other, if we don’t want to trade, if we don’t think that we should play a role in defending basic human rights around the world, at least rhetorically — because we’re not defending them here — then that weakens us, and it allows an open space for Vladimir Putin to expand his influence.”

His knocks on the Republican Party are direct and withering.

McMullin outside his campaign offices in Salt Lake City, Oct. 12, 2016. (Photo: George Frey/Reuters)

“If the Republican Party won’t stand up to Vladimir Putin’s effort to undermine our democracy and to a candidate who isn’t committed to the cause of equality and liberty, then what does it stand for? What good is it providing to the country?” he said.

McMullin at one point in September decided to stop dancing around the issue of Trump and race and began labeling the Republican presidential nominee’s rhetoric and positions “racist.”

Trump’s national stop-and-frisk proposal is “purely unconstitutional and racist,” he said. “When you accept the support of the white supremacist movement in the United States — or let me be generous and say when you fail to repudiate that support — and you signal to them with your racist policies, then you are embracing and empowering the white supremacist movement in the United States,” McMullin said.

And he faulted the Republican Party’s leaders for failing to tamp down rhetoric over the past four years that turned off minorities, women and young voters.

“Leaders who should have stepped up and pushed back against bigotry, back against misogyny, thought about issues that are important to millennials, we didn’t do that,” he said. “Muslims, Hispanics, African-Americans, churchgoing African-Americans, these people are ultimately in my mind conservatives, but they feel that they’re not welcome in the Republican Party because of the color of their skin.”

McMullin and I spoke in an office suite a few hundred yards from the Capitol, in a glass-walled conference room. The campaign did not have enough money to spend on its own offices, and so it was in a shared space.

To my shock, I saw a man I recognized in an office across the hall from our conference room. It was Paul Teller, whom I’d first met when he was a rabble-rousing senior Republican staffer in the House. Teller is now a top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and has been tasked with building up a national grassroots organization that many people see as a vehicle Cruz will try to leverage for another run presidential run in 2020.

Just days before I showed up to talk with McMullin, Cruz had accepted the political reality that his refusal to endorse Trump at the convention had put his own reelection to the Senate in 2018 in peril, and forced himself to endorse Trump.

As Teller sat there in his office, picking up the pieces of the wreckage that Trump has made of Cruz’s political career, McMullin and his top strategist, Florida Republican consultant Rick Wilson, were completely oblivious he was there.

I pointed out Teller, just 15 feet from where we sat. “That’s him right there,” I told Wilson.

“Oh, so it is,” he said.

Teller’s effort on behalf of Cruz — backed as it is by the political heft of a man who received almost 8 million Republican votes in the primary — is the more formidable one. But just across the hall, McMullin and his campaign are betting that something entirely new will have to come from the ashes of 2016.

 

 

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