WASHINGTON ― Hillary Clinton gained an unlikely ally on the campaign trail this week: a former Republican congressional aide running as an independent who could, if he gains some traction, tilt key states into the Democratic column.
Evan McMullin has been making the rounds of the political talk shows after leaving his job with the House Republican Conference. The 40-year-old, who also spent a decade with the CIA, is hoping to win over GOP voters who can’t stomach the idea of either Clinton or Donald Trump in the White House.
“I’m trying to offer the American people something they can vote for as opposed to voting against,” McMullin told CNN.
Still, his net effect is likely to benefit the Democratic nominee. While polling suggests that the Green Party’s Jill Stein will pull votes predominantly from Clinton, and the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson could take votes from both Clinton and Trump, McMullin is more likely to hurt Trump.
As it stands, self-described traditional conservatives who choose to vote this November are likely to set aside their misgivings and vote for Trump rather than cast a ballot for the long-reviled Clinton. But McMullin, with his background and orthodox Republican views, gives those voters an acceptable alternative.
“There’s no other conservative in this race right now,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida GOP consultant and senior adviser to McMullin’s new campaign.
Wilson has already declared publicly that a Clinton presidency, while undesirable, would be preferable to a Trump presidency and that a thorough Trump thrashing, rather than a close election, would help the Republican Party rebuild afterward.
“The party of Lincoln needs a complete, top-to-bottom reset ― one that completely purges the Trumpkins who believe racial animus is a governing philosophy,” Wilson wrote in a recent New York Daily News op-ed. “Since I know his loss is coming, I pray to God that it is total.”
Still, Wilson said McMullin’s run is a real one, not something simply designed to ensure that Clinton will defeat Trump. He said that as Trump keeps embroiling himself in self-inflicted controversies, McMullin has the opportunity to pick up more and more disaffected Republicans.
“He believes there’s a pathway,” Wilson said. “It’s a narrow pathway. It’s a steep pathway. But it’s one he’s going to pursue.”
That pathway starts with getting on the ballot in as many states as possible, Wilson said. Some will be easy, like Colorado, where it’s a matter of paying a filing fee. “Write a check. Boom. We’re done,” he said.
Other states require independent candidates to submit various numbers of signatures. In Utah, McMullin needs only 1,000 signatures. Wilson said his candidate, a Mormon who graduated from Brigham Young University, already has 600 volunteers lined up.
If McMullin manages to draw off support among the significant Mormon populations in Utah and Arizona, that could help Clinton win those reliably Republican states.
But Wilson said McMullin’s appeal in the Mountain West goes beyond religion.
“If you offer those very, very conservative Western voters a real conservative, you have some opportunities,” he said.