Ex-CIA operative, devout Mormon and conservative third-party presidential candidate Evan McMullin has swung into a statistical dead heat with Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton in the once-uncontested GOP bastion of Utah. For a candidate who only declared in early August and boasts only 52% name recognition in Utah it’s an impressive result – that could upset the national electoral map.
But this result is due to more than just McMullin’s unconventional appeal (and the fact that he isn’t named Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton). Indeed, much of his financial backing comes courtesy of some very familiar GOP names and faces. This may be why so many Republicans are very comfortable backing McMullin. For all his various conservative upsides and (untested) potential, McMullin represents a triumph for the principled Never Trump movement.
Never Trump was born of the efforts of staunch GOP operators including Erick Erickson, Bill Wichterman, Alex Castellanos, Bob Fischer, a laundry list of understandably anti-Trump members of the Bush, Romney, Paul, and Kaisch camps, and unaffiliated establishment stalwarts. Some founded PACs producing negative Trump ads during the primaries. The more industrious attempted to head off Trump’s coronation at the convention stage through a unity ticket or other rules-based strategic moves. Those efforts failed.
As the behind-the-scenes coup melted, the movement splintered with some players gravitating toward Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, a few sliding into Hillary’s camp, others focusing on down-ticket races, and even more opting to sit on their hands for the rest of the cycle.
But two notable conservative groups still fighting the good fight as July turned into August were Our Principles, a former Rubio funder backed by hedge funders and run by a Romney’s deputy campaign manager, and Better for America, a 501(c) run by John Kingston, one of Romney’s major bundlers. Our Principles mission was simply to thwart Trump. Better for America actually wanted to replace him.
With no candidate in hand, Better for America began petitioning to have a yet-unnamed independent candidate listed on various ballots across the country even before the convention. With the support and direction of GOP establishment figures such as Lawrence Lessig, Christine Todd Whittman, the professor emeritus of the neoconservative movement, the highly respected columnist Bill Kristol, attempted to draft Romney, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and even National Review staff writer David A. French to fill the gap. They all declined.
Somewhere along the line, however, other GOP operatives were more successful, and former CIA field agent Evan McMullin, a former advisor to the House Republican Conference and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, fell into the mix. With no options available in early August, he was Better for America’s man and soon fighting fights his team – apparently correctly – thought he could win (hence the big spend in Utah).
So there you have it: An outsider candidate propped up by the some of the most reliably conservative members of the Republican party.