Lessons From A Loser

On Tuesday I lost my second straight election – another crushing defeat by the raw numbers.

David Abroms was unable to get traction in the crowded and ridiculously expensive field of the Georgia 6th congressional special election despite investing a lot of his own money and more importantly being a truly great candidate and fine human being. My last loss was in the presidential election, serving as the campaign manager for Evan McMullin.

I’ve been working in politics long enough to know that you’re going to lose some races. I’ve also won a lot of races over my ten years working in the business. But as a political professional, unless you work in only the most winnable, well-funded campaigns and ignore the principles and deeper motivations for why you’re in this business in the first place, you will almost certainly lose more than you win.

I learned a lot about how to handle losing by playing sports growing up. In both victory and defeat, the key for me has always been to learn. To grow. To get better. You simply can’t guard against losing in elections. It’s a single winner game. But you can control what you do next. In politics, you can also control who you choose to work for.

I’ve been attacked from the left and the right the last 6 months for my work. Those attacks are sure to increase as I keep fighting for what I believe in. The center is a lonely place in professional American politics. I have, of course, made lots of mistakes running campaigns over the years. Some of them contributed to losses. I own those. They have real consequences for people and I take them very personally.

In David and Evan I worked for candidates who were aspiring to VERY difficult change. They were swimming upstream of a powerful current of partisan politics in our nation that works against people like them. People who are open-minded AND principled. Passionate about their causes AND sympathetic to the views of others who disagree. David Abroms and Evan McMullin represent much of what is good and right and true in our country. Men who are willing to make tremendous sacrifices for what they believe in, even knowing the long odds.

I believe we are pioneering a new generation of leaders in this country. I’m proud to be working with the Centrist Project to recruit and elect a new type of independent servant leader from the U.S. Senate down to local offices. Pioneering is always hard. There are always casualties and scars and many difficulties.

But it is in the trials that we learn the most. In fact, it may be the only way we truly learn. Malcom Muggeridge puts it brilliantly:

“Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained. In other words, if it ever were to be possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence by means of some drug or other medical mumbo jumbo…the result would not be to make life delectable, but to make it too banal and trivial to be endurable.”

We are formed in the crucible. Shaped in the potter’s hands by force. Sometimes our misshapen pot gets smashed back into a lump of clay to be necessarily remade altogether. Many have asked me the last 24 hours what I learned from the Georgia special election. I get the same question often about Evan’s campaign. As I reflect on it I am focusing on what I can learn – about voters, about candidates, about the system, about the media and about myself.

The sting of defeat is real. You’ll be mocked and scorned. But the only way defeat becomes permanent, instead of temporary, is if you let it define you and refuse to learn from it – if you give up on the reasons and principles that motivated you to try in the first place.

The list of great figures of history who have failed, numerically, way more than they succeeded is a long one. But in learning from their failures they were shaped, “enhanced and enlightened.” I’m trying to stay humble, open and eager to learn. I believe deeply that our country needs a new way, a new approach, new options in our political system. The time is coming. Don’t give up. I’m not.

 

 

 

The First Week in Pictures

Here’s a visual look at what the first week of the McMullin campaign was like, from staff cell-phone pics – the most authentic way to see it! I’m working on a piece to go with this but thought some of you might enjoy a sneak peek!

How Evan McMullin’s Campaign Launched in Three Days

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.

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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.)

 

 

 

The Most Rejected Man in America

The story of how I asked dozens of people to run for president – and one who finally did.

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.

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David French, wrestling toward his decision.

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.

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