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The Terrible Too's of an Independent Presidential Campaign

by Kahlil Byrd, published

Evan McMullin’s first full week as a candidate for president has been both surprising and, for some of us, predictable. McMullin talks and acts like a seasoned candidate, and not like a novice traversing his first national campaign. Predictable are the dismissive tones from a political class heart hardened to newcomers.

The most successful independent and insurgent candidates burst forth riding a sugar high of excitement, generating animated crowds looking for the new, and garnering quizzical but fawning converge from bored press hot for a new story. Evidence of real traction — money, a strong campaign team and top supporters, more media, and a grassroots reaction — adds yeast to the phenomenon.

These newcomers also suffer from the Terrible Too’s. The shiny new candidate is always Too Much or Too Little of something. Too new. Too young. Too green. Too unknown.

Dismissive adjectives make way to piercing questions. Is the candidate Too Black, White, religious, agnostic, or female to capture a majority of voters? Are they Too narrow — business person, military vet, or organizer — to be taken seriously. Shouldn't they satisfy the “we who know politics” crowd by running a more conventional track for an approved amount of time? Are they running Too early, showing a reckless impetuousness by jumping the line?

President Obama and Donald Trump both faced these arguments, and we see how far they got.

This time, the guy getting the treatment is Evan McMullin, now in his second week running as an Independent for President. McMullin is a shade over 40. A conservative, practicing Mormon born in Provo, Utah. A graduate of BYU and Wharton School of Business. A decade as a field operative in the CIA, with stints at Goldman Sachs and as Chief Policy Director for the Republican Conference in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Shortly after he announced last week, I helped launch Stand Up America PAC to support his run. We believe in the power of his fresh, independent candidacy and consider his entry into the presidential race essential. Also, my personal experience proves for me that newcomer candidacies like his contain intriguing possibilities.

In 2005, it was Deval Patrick, a complete unknown in politics whose audacious and foolhardy idea was to run for governor in Massachusetts. I was the only Republican working on staff in this Democratic campaign. Like McMullin, Patrick had a strong pedigree in public service and corporate life. He was a graduate of Harvard undergrad and Law School, appointed head of civil rights in the Clinton Justice Department, and General Counsel for both Texaco and Coca-Cola.

Despite our being at odds politically on some issues, I believed politics in Massachusetts was ready for a change; that a talented, substantive and smart newcomer could break through; and that voters would elect the better guy regardless of party.

Despite this being my first political campaign, and to my surprise, I rose swiftly to become press secretary and then communications director. Every day as part of our efforts, I brawled with and cajoled the press and a phalanx of doubters to accept Deval’s candidacy as something special and possible.

Articles, interviews, traction with money and endorsements got the Patrick campaign only so far with the most intractable. We were most successful when we convinced reporters to leave their newsrooms, desks at the capital, and barstools to actually travel with the campaign.

Doubters could deny anything was happening while stuck in the echo chamber. But they couldn’t ignore the way Patrick’s unique background and hopeful message made people feel out on the trail. Even the toughest, convinced also by slowly rising polls, eventually came around. Despite being a novice, Patrick was the best candidate for governor in that 2006 race. And that year he won his first campaign ever going away.

McMullin represents a profound challenge to the reform community I have long been part of. These are operatives, advocates, and funders who are trying to open a pathway for high-quality candidates to run outside the two-party system. Given a choice, we also want our standard bearers to be seasoned vets, who have run numerous campaigns, and served in multiple positions in high office.

Reformers aggressively offer up our Too’s just like everyone else. As McMullin continues his so far successful march toward credibility — he’s on the ballot in Colorado, Minnesota and Utah — we may have to face a reality. The road for the first credible independent presidential candidate since Ross Perot may lead right through Provo, Utah — McMullin’s birthplace — and possibly all the way to the White House.

And no, for Evan, it is not “Too” late.

Editor's note: This article originally published in The Hill on August 17, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Photo Source: Campaign image via Twitter

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