I slept on the couch at my in-laws the night before I flew to Washington, DC to launch Evan McMullin’s presidential campaign. I could tell you it was because I had a super early flight and I didn’t want to disturb anyone when I got up. But the truth is, my wife was angry and hurt that I was about to “deploy” for over 3 months. When your wife is angry and hurt, you get the couch. My gracious brother-in-law, David, awoke around 5 am on August 4th to take me to the tiny Champaign, Illinois airport where I’d fly out of one of its two gates. I flew through O’Hare and landed in DC later that morning. We had three days to launch a presidential campaign.
In order to understand the timeline of this story, I’ll take you back a week (the next three paragraphs are from last week’s piece here. Everything else is new) I had taken my family to Illinois to the tiny town where my wife grew up – Bellflower, Illinois. 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 enjoying a great Illinois summer breeze, my phone rang. It was Evan.
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. 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.
I started by laying out the realities of getting on ballots. I had just lived through several months of this with Better for America and learned of the extreme challenges of getting an independent candidate on the ballot in many states. Our nation’s system in set up to favor the two major parties in a big way. Requirements vary dramatically from state to state – $1,000 and a piece of paper by July 14th in Colorado on one end of the spectrum and over 79,000 signatures collected by May 9th in Texas. That’s before most of the primaries have even finished. Oh, and the petition signers can’t have voted in either primary. It’s really quite absurd. More on all that another time.
I then talked with Evan about how we had no money and very few prospects for anyone big to come in. It was possible, but unlikely given our experience so far. Only John Kingston had the courage and willingness to put in big sums of money to that point on an independent effort. He had truly sustained us. But none of the really big hitters we had talked to, even the most ardent anti-Trump folks, were willing to put more cash into the mix. Plenty of them put up big money earlier, to try to stop Trump – but that was when their favored guy – Rubio, Bush, Cruz, or whomever else they liked – were still in and it seemed politically expedient to oppose Trump and curry future favor with their guy. Now that Trump was the nominee, these donors had gone dark on us. Completely, totally dark.
I told Evan how we basically had to get our own traction, make our own news and be prepared to run this on a shoestring and still fail. Even with all that, there was a sense between both of us, that it still had to be done. He wanted to run for all the right reasons. He was smart and articulate. He knew the lay of the land and still believed it was worth it. We took a few days to consider things. The entry below is from my journal the morning after my first day with Evan in Chicago.
On August 3rd, I decided I’d do it. I began calling the trusted few who had been in the fight with us since the Spring and letting them know that we had a candidate. I didn’t know a whole lot more about him than they did. I explained to these trusted folks that I believed Evan had a solid resume and that he was dead serious. I told them I was going to do it and asked them if they wanted to be a part of it.
One of the first calls I made was to John Claybrook (@johnclaybrook). John and I had worked together on Better for America and I had found him to be one of the hardest working, most reliable, most humble guys I’d ever been around. John is the former student body president at Texas A&M and wise beyond his years. He had just recently found out Better for America was winding down. Now I was asking him to come to DC, in two days, to help on a presidential campaign for a guy he’d never heard of. I wanted him by my side in the fight. He said yes and immediately booked a flight. John became one of my most trusted sounding boards and friends and even sacrificed his body for the cause, sleeping on a pull-out couch at the Hilton Garden Inn for the first week. You’re a true patriot, John.
Also among the first calls was my friend Mohammad Jazil. Mo, as most call him, is an exceedingly talented lawyer who served as our lead counsel throughout. I needed his counsel on what it would take. We had, together, laid a lot of groundwork for it all in our work with Better for America. I had resigned from BFA as had all those wanting to work with Evan as is required by the law. I knew we could pull off getting it launched by the 8th but I needed Mo to actually make sure we were legal and we had all our paperwork in order. I knew if anyone could do it, Mo could. Mo has proven himself to be a faithful, wise and sacrificial fighter for the good in our country and I am deeply grateful for all he and his firm did.
I also called Ian Hines (@ianpatrickhines) to ask if he wanted to help with the digital and more importantly, if he could get a website up in three to five days, for a presidential campaign, and have it not suck. He said he could. In fact, he’d just done something very similar for Theresa May in the U.K. And now she was the Prime Minister. I liked my chances with Ian. He is scrappy and super-talented. Not only did he pull it off but he did it very well.
I called Chris Riklin (@chrisriklin) with Nationbuilder. I knew they were the only platform that could spool up that quickly and be ready to help us collect data and succeed. I’d been in talks with them since the Condoleezza Rice days and Chris knew my intentions. They were excited and he just happened to be visiting DC so we met and I let him know what was going on. I called him up to my hotel room where I introduced him to Evan and told him he was going to run for president. After his initial shock subsided, Chris got to work immediately and really helped make things happen.
I wanted us to have quality design. So I called Tim Dalrymple (@timdalrymple_)with Polymath about doing the branding and design. They were in and got to work immediately on logos and branding that have become iconic in their own ways.
I knew we needed to capture and produce video content to make this work digitally. So I called David Nolte from Scratch Creative about doing the video. I knew him to be committed and excellent and he didn’t disappoint. He was in and booked a red-eye from L.A. for Sunday.
I also reached out to Tyler Lattimore (@tylerlattimore), a talented young guy just out of Emory who I had met at church and I knew was considering a role with the RNC in African American outreach. I wanted him on our team and he jumped on board immediately. He proved to be an invaluable asset and made a lot of things happen throughout the campaign.
The team was coming together.
I called Bill Kristol, Rick Wilson, Bill Wichterman and Stuart Stevens to get their input and tell them about Evan. All were supportive but of course needed more info before going too far in. Except Rick. Rick was in the fight and he wanted to keep going. He was just the kind of fighter we needed. Rick had been at the vanguard of the never Trump movement and was, and is, the most creative with his (ahem) flowery language. He got on a plane and came to DC to serve as our senior comms advisor. He never backed down for one second throughout and helped us stay sharp every day.
I called others who I thought could be on the team – in comms, social media, finance, and other realms. A few said maybe. Some said no. They had their reasons. I didn’t try to convince anyone. We needed people who were in it all the way with no hesitation. By the time I got through the calls and got to DC, it was the afternoon of Friday the 5th. We were planning to launch on Monday the 8th and we still needed more folks.
We convened at the Hilton Garden Inn in the NoMa district of DC. This is no five star hotel. It’s comfortable, the staff was kind and it was quiet. But no one really paid much attention to us. After all, we were only launching a presidential campaign with no money or staff, in three days. I secured a windowless conference room for a couple days, some fruit and pastries, and coffee. Lots of coffee. I didn’t know about anyone else but I knew I could survive on that alone. I hadn’t yet considered that our Mormon friends would need lots of diet Coke. We got that in due time.
Present and trickling in that Friday and Saturday were Chris and Roshelle Harmer, John Claybrook, Tyler Lattimore, Ian Hines, his business partner Richie Alicea, a few confidants of Evan’s, Evan and myself. That was it. Ten of us.
I asked if I could start our first meeting with prayer. Even though we had people of different faiths present it just seemed right. After a brief prayer and some introductions, we got right to work. Ballot access was set in motion immediately. We began making lists of possible staff and calling them. We combed through Evan’s contacts and compiled lists of possible donors and supporters. It was fast and furious and we worked all together in that room late into the night. It was truly inspiring to see everyone just set themselves to the task immediately.
Evan was fully engaged and working incredibly hard in his own right. This was no candidate with a full staff at his beckon-call. This was an everyday American about to quit his job and put his reputation and life out there for all to see in a way that risked losing everything. So what did he do? He dove in headfirst and started writing a platform, calling friends, tweaking a bio, working on a speech, and many, many other things.
On Sunday the 7th more people began arriving including Rick Wilson, Mo Jazil and his colleague Doug Roberts, David Nolte and Ryan Leuning, the cameraman who would follow us constantly for the first two weeks. By Sunday night, the core team was assembled and working furiously for a Monday launch.
We worked on a platform, built the website, set up social media accounts, got a bank account ready, signed legal documents, talked about messaging, reviewed resumes, set up secure communications and generally just did everything we could think of doing. It was intense, but there was peace. It was not frantic or hurried. There was a clear sense of purpose and we were on mission.
When we wrapped for the night we had no idea what the response would be the next day. What happened in the first week was incredible and historic, no matter how you slice it. And it set the stage for the rest of the story.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I slept well that night, even if it was only a few hours. Somewhere in that craziness I came to a conviction that I shared which ended up being our informal slogan and I took great comfort in believing deeply that it’s never too late to do the right thing.
(here’s some pictures I took on my phone in the first week as a preview for my next installment of the story of the historic Evan McMullin presidential campaign.)