Some have said I’m the most rejected man in America. Actually, my friend and recent presidential candidate Evan McMullin said it. Why would he say that? Here’s the story.
It all started in February of 2016 when I woke up one morning with a deep conviction that I had to do something in this presidential election and that it was very likely that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee. I was deeply convicted that I must act, although on that February morning, I did not understand why or exactly what to do.
I began to explore what it would take to run an independent presidential campaign and to think about who might be a good candidate. I reached out to friends, colleagues and experts on the matter to learn about things like ballot access, the electoral college, funding possibilities, minor parties and all sorts of other things I never knew existed even after working in politics for ten years.
After a week or so I decided to test the waters and wrote a memo outlining a scenario, based on some polling our firm had done, whereby Condoleezza Rice could become president. This was all done without Dr. Rice’s knowledge but I had always liked her and thought she’d make an intriguing and viable pick. To my surprise, the polling showed that she was very, very strong and in fact might be able to mount such a run. I figured I better let her know.
There was only one problem – I’m not influential or connected at that level of politics. I was a small time consultant from Gainesville, Florida who had worked all around the country but mostly for medium-sized political action committees and state and local level candidates.
I’ve never been afraid to cold call anyone. Even the former Secretary of State. So, I looked her up. I found her chief of staff at Stanford, where she now works for the Hoover Institute, and I emailed. No response. So I emailed again. And again. Then I called – a few times. Finally, I got a rather frustrated response from her chief stating in no uncertain terms that Dr. Rice would not be running for president and I should leave them alone. Rejection number one.
The memo I had written on the matter was leaked to Politico who ran a small story on it that was apparently noticed by a few others who were feeling similarly. Long story short, I got connected with a few of them including Bill Kristol, Rick Wilson and others and began discussing other options for candidates. Bill had been floating ideas for a while and felt similarly, that we needed a better option.
Between us, we emailed, cold-called, met with and otherwise courted many well-known people. Former presidential candidates, generals, senators, congressmen, rich people, celebrities, leadership gurus. There were many different conversations and meetings. Rejections number two, three, four and some number higher after that. I lost count.
Eventually one man, David French, decided to seriously consider the idea. It was Memorial Day weekend. With the gracious assistance and leadership of his friend John Kingston, we holed up at John’s beautiful farm in Vermont to consider the possibilities. Extra pressure was added when Bill Kristol, heading to Israel for a week, tweeted that news may be forthcoming on a candidate. But we were ok. We were going to take a deliberative approach.
On the first day in Vermont, David’s phone rang. It was his publicist, or so the number read. In fact, it was a patch-thru from Mark Halperin of Bloomberg News and he asked David if he was going to run for president. When David didn’t deny it, a story was up in an hour and our quiet, deliberative planning turned into a pressurized, intense scramble to spool up a possible presidential campaign in less than a week, still not knowing if our candidate was indeed going to run.
(Side note about the impacts this stuff has on people – that same day my wife called me to inform me that, minutes earlier, the neighbor’s dogs had mauled and killed our family cat of 11 years and she and my young kids came home to the scene. So yeah, my cat died while I was gone and I wasn’t there to bury him or help my kids process their first pet death. A few weeks later our fish died. Garage doors broke. Things stopped working around the rental house. Such are the real costs of giving yourself to something like this.)
What ensued in Vermont was a crazy few days of making lists of possible staff, supporters, financial backers and endorsers. Soul searching. Building a potential platform. Long days of meetings interrupted by periodic walks around the farm to pray, or weep, or just try to make sense of it all.
I learned so much in those few days. I learned that it was indeed possible to spool up a presidential campaign in a few days. (this experience would prove invaluable later on.) I learned that there were quite a few people out there feeling the same way I was. I learned that despite unbelievable odds, many of them were ready to sacrifice greatly to help in any way they could.
I learned that John Kingston is one of the most open-handed and generous men I’ve ever met with a passion for advancing good in the world. I learned that David French is a deep, caring, thoughtful and incredibly intelligent man who loves his country, his family and his God. Others, like Stuart Stevens, came to offer advice. New friendships were formed. And I learned that if we were actually going to do this, it was going to be the hardest thing I’d ever done and it would probably fail by conventional political standards.
I will never forget the final, agonizing moments of David’s decision-making process. We had talked it out. He had talked to his wife. Now he just had to go talk it out with God. I watched him as he paced, and thought, and prayed. I knew he was wrestling with God in ways that few people ever do.
Then he walked into the kitchen in the colonial house and said, with tears in his eyes, “Guys, no.”
We had already rallied some troops to meet us in New York City the next day because we couldn’t wait too long and drag our feet. They thought they were coming to join up with a presidential campaign. What we didn’t know was that it would form the core of the next phase of this journey.
At the Marmara hotel just off Park Avenue we convened a group of operatives, thinkers and experienced hands to consider the possibilities. There were people with White House experience, presidential campaign experience, well-regarded writers and thinkers, potential funders and young, hungry operatives.
After David shared his decision, we shifted immediately to what was possible and what could be done. Many of us just weren’t ready to throw in the towel. Over the next 24 hours we settled on forming an organization and called it Better for America. Our mission would be to educate the American public on the process of running for President as an independent, to continue recruiting candidates and to get as much ballot access as we could while we waited and hoped for a candidate to step into the fray.
Great patriots and friends like Anne MacDonald, Kahlil Byrd, John Claybrook, Mohammad Jazil, Mike Lehmann, Ashley Pratte and many others joined John Kingston and I in what was, admittedly, a very uncertain journey ahead. The waters weren’t uncharted. Many had gone before us in the challenge of ballot access, running an independent candidate and other difficult tasks. But we learned very quickly that without a candidate, there was very little for anyone to rally around.
We struggled, under tight timelines, to gain ballot access, ultimately getting a newly formed Better for America party on the ballot in Arkansas and New Mexico. We tried to organize like-minded people online and rally them to the cause. We talked and met with many more potential candidates. All of them said no, even after some seriously considered it. I was truly earning that title as the most rejected man in America.
Pretty soon it was July and we still had no candidate, limited ballot access and a beat-down team of fighters uncertain of what to do next. Funding was gone, even after Kingston’s deeply sacrificial efforts. We decided to fold up shop.
In June, I had decided that I could no longer continue as the CEO of the consulting firm I had been leading. I could not serve that role well and pursue what had become a strange but unshakeable passion, even knowing it was almost certain to fail in the conventional sense. So I walked away from an incredibly stable, comfortable income with virtually unlimited prospects for the future and now I was literally unemployed and completely defeated. I had no idea what to do. So I went on vacation.
I took my family to Illinois to the tiny town of Bellflower where my wife grew up. That small town, and my in-laws house, has always been a refuge for me. I was so uncertain of what to do next. For several days I just sat on the porch or took walks or played with my kids. I drank coffee in the morning and beer at night (don’t worry, I believe in moderation so I wasn’t just drowning my sorrows.) I had no idea what the future held. One afternoon, as I sat by the garage, behind the cedar trees and enjoying a great Illinois summer breeze, my phone rang. It was Evan McMullin.
Evan had been asking around among friends and colleagues in Washington, hoping, like me, that someone was going to stand up and run against both Clinton and Trump. He had hoped, like me, that it would be someone of great stature or resources or both. Instead, he learned, we had failed. There was no candidate and not much to show for our efforts of the summer. In his asking around, someone had suggested maybe he should consider running. This was not what he was thinking. He was thinking he’d be willing to quit his job – but to work in the policy shop of this candidate of stature and resources. Now he was seriously considering it himself. Someone had told him if he was interested, he should call me since I was the guy with the plan, or so they thought. Maybe I was just the only one still crazy enough to be considering it.
We talked and I laid out for him all the challenges and the most likely outcome: crash and burn in the first two weeks. But, I told him, I still thought it was important and I thought there was an outside chance someone like him could get traction and make an impact on the race. I told him if he was serious we needed to meet in person. So he flew to Chicago and I drove up to meet him where we spent part of two days talking it all out.
He then went back to DC to consider it all. A few days later I got a phone call that he wanted to do it and wanted to know if I was in. I pondered it for 24 hours, talked to a few folks about it and then I got on a 5:30am flight the next day from Champaign, Illinois to Washington, DC. I told him I’d be with him through the end. Now all we had to do was launch a presidential campaign in three days.
What happened next was nothing short of amazing.