If you’re reading this, chances are good that you caught at least some of last night’s third and last presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
If you’re a Republican, odds are even better that you want what happened in Las Vegas to stay there.
If only there were a way to register your displeasure with the caricature that Trump has become, you tell yourself, without that translating into a vote for Clinton.
And so enters Evan McMullin. He wants your vote, most sincerely. But the odds of anything concrete coming from it are just south of astronomical.
On one hand, you might call him a CIA-trained Don Quixote of the Utah desert, tilting at electoral windmills. But McMullin, 40, might also be a youthful symbol of what the Republican party could become, if it’s smart. Or what might replace it, if it’s not.
McMullin is the #NeverTrump guy, officially registered with the state of Georgia as a write-in candidate for president. Ballots marked with his name will be counted – unlike those cast for Batman or Mickey Mouse.
McMullin already has a leg up on Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president who indeed will be on the Georgia ballot. McMullin knows what Aleppo is. “I’ve been to Aleppo. It was a beautiful town,” he said.
The write-in candidate was in Atlanta this week for a quick visit – a gesture, really.
After Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential contest, the GOP conducted an exhaustive “autopsy” that advised Republicans to get friendlier with minorities and women voters. To put it mildly, the report was shelved. Republicans instead have doubled down on Trump and the party’s aging white base.
McMullin is what might have been — had Republicans absorbed their own advice. His Monday, mixed-race gathering was at a battered church in the Old Fourth Ward near downtown Atlanta. “This is a center for African-American culture and thought, so we’re here to engage with the African-American community,” McMullin said before the event. “I hope we’ll do more of that.”
The #NeverTrump candidate has no chance of carrying Georgia. That’s not the plan. His emphasis is on states of the American West. Utah, where the latest poll has him even with Trump. Idaho. Wyoming. Colorado.
“That’s the region that rejected Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. So that’s where our message resonates more,” McMullin said.
The idea is to win one, two or three states – enough to deprive both Clinton and Trump the 270 Electoral College votes necessary to be declared president. The matter would then be handed over to the U.S. House, which could choose among the top three candidates as allowed by the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The last time that happened? Why, 1825, when the U.S. House chose John Quincy Adams as president over Andrew Jackson. Like we said, chances of history repeating itself are just south of astronomical. (Note to history teachers: This is your cue. Get to work on that lesson plan.)
There is the obvious question of why McMullin is running close in Utah, while Republicans in Georgia – if recent polling is to be believed – remain enamored of the New York businessman. The difference is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the candidate acknowledges.
“The Mormons, in their history, experienced some persecution in this country. That’s something that they remember – at least, culturally. So they see someone like Donald Trump attacking people of other faiths and people of other races, and it offends them,” McMullin said.
“I think it’s just a common decency thing, too. That applies not just to Mormons – that applies to a lot of people across the country, who just object to the way he is, which is, at times, quite vile. It just rubs people the wrong way,” he said.
In many respects, McMullin is a typical conservative with a typical political background. Eleven years with the CIA, beginning when he was still at Brigham Young University. A stint with Goldman Sachs, then a job as chief foreign policy analyst with the House Republican Conference in Washington.
He believes in limited government, returning power to the states and restricting entitlements. Lower taxes, a strong military and a foreign policy in which the U.S. doesn’t invade other nations willy-nilly, but doesn’t withdraw its leadership, either.
And yet. He believes in climate change and science. Then there’s that issue of diversity. “I do believe that the Republican party has missed the boat in welcoming people of other faiths and races and the female gender into the fold,” McMullin said. “They knew that after 2012, and then they didn’t do anything about it. They left themselves vulnerable to a hostile takeover by Donald Trump.”
And gay marriage?
“Full stop, we’re all created equal. I believe in traditional marriage. I’m a Mormon, and that’s part of my faith. I do believe it is the best thing for society,” McMullin began.
“But I also believe that adults ought to be able to make decisions for themselves, and if people like me disagree, they have the opportunity to be persuasive to the contrary,” he said. “But that’s different from the force of law, mandating something. Either way, we find ourselves in a place where the court has decided – and that’s the law of the land.”
You’ll remember that Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, several weeks ago announced that those Republicans who aren’t supporting Trump – Ohio Gov. John Kasich was the name most prominently left unspoken – can give up any hope of running for president in 2020.
I asked McMullin if he considered his future in the GOP to be foreshortened. His reply was startling.
“I’ve left the door open to returning to the Republican party, if the Republican party can make the reforms it needs to make, to offer the kind of inclusive, unifying leadership that this country so badly needs,” McMullin said. “But I’m skeptical that they’re going to be able to make those changes, because the autopsy was done, and it was ignored. And so here we are.
“It’s a huge, huge problem that may actually just ultimately cause the Republican party to shrink into irrelevance over time. That may be what we’re seeing here,” McMullin said.
So let’s say that McMullin takes Utah and a couple of other Western states. Neither Clinton nor Trump reach the magic 270 Electoral College votes and the matter goes to the U.S. House, controlled by Republicans. What next?
Democrats, in the minority, would have to give up on Clinton. McMullin says he could emerge as the compromise candidate that would avoid a Trump presidency. “I’m not saying all Republican states would vote for me, but I think I’d be able to pull some Republican states,” he said.
I raised an objection. Republican members in Congress wouldn’t be facing anger from the left. But Trump supporters across the South would rain down hell upon any Southern member of Congress who deserted.
“You just described the reason I don’t think the Republican party is going to be able to make the changes it needs to make,” McMullin said. He smiled, but it was a sad one.