Politics & Policy

Inside the #NeverTrump Candidacy That Almost Was

(Jason Reed/Reuters)
Anti-Trump conservatives failed to recruit David French into the presidential campaign. What will they do now?

The latest would-be presidential candidate spent just under a week in the spotlight — long enough to confound official Washington, but not long enough to make a national splash. He passed that time whizzing from his home in Columbia, Tenn. to New York City to Washington, D.C., before ending up at a farm in Woodstock, Vt., where he pondered the big questions: Was there really a path for an independent candidate? Just how much money would it take to actually get on the ballot?

The man in question, David French, himself a National Review writer, was joined in that tiny New England hamlet by some of the country’s top Republican strategists, many of whom continue to sit on the sidelines of the 2016 presidential race, either because they refuse to work for Donald Trump, the party’s presumptive nominee, or because he has not asked. French concluded that it is indeed possible for an independent candidate to mount a real challenge to Trump and to Hillary Clinton, who tomorrow evening will become the presumptive Democratic nominee, but that he is not the right man for the job.

“The early challenges are real,” he says of a third-party bid. “They are simple to overcome, but they are hard to overcome” — that is, they require both resources and will. Those challenges include getting on the ballot in as many states as possible, building a real campaign infrastructure, and raising enough hard money to compete through November — a super PAC propelled by unlimited donations from a handful of wealthy conservatives isn’t enough.

“I began to feel like I might be blocking an individual who could hit the ground running and actually blaze that trail,” French says.

The history of third-party candidates is grim: Not a single one has ever succeeded in capturing the White House. But given how the past year has unfolded, many are arguing that 2016 is different. And the effort to field a candidate, led by Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, has itself reflected the craziness of the political season: Kristol wooed General James Mattis, pleaded with Mitt Romney, and begged Ben Sasse, before landing, somehow, on French, a man with little national profile, though he is known and respected within the conservative movement.

The history of third-party candidates is grim: Not a single one has ever succeeded in capturing the White House.

After the news broke publicly that French was considering a run, the hashtag #FrenchRevolution began to gain steam on Twitter. So did #FrenchToast. When the local NBC affiliate dropped in at a diner in French’s hometown of Columbia, Tenn., to ask patrons for their thoughts on the would-be candidate, most had no idea who he was. “His name is who? Mr. French?” one woman asked. “I have no idea who he is, but he’s already got my vote, because I don’t like the other two candidates,” another woman, an African-American, told NBC.

How did French come to find himself the would-be standard-bearer for the many who share that sentiment? And why didn’t he pull the trigger?

For the past few months, French has been — along with National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, the Florida-based political operative Joel Searby, and others — on the periphery of the Kristol-led movement to field an independent candidate. But until Memorial Day, his efforts consisted mostly of penning op-eds encouraging Romney to jump into the race.

By late May, it was clear Romney would not jump in, and others — Mattis, Sasse, and former Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn — had also declined to run. Last Thursday, almost coincidentally, French, who was then in New York, boarded a train with the conservative donor John Kingston, a longtime friend, to have dinner with Kristol in Washington, D.C.

Neither Kingston nor French had ever met Kristol, and the dinner was intended to be a discussion about how to lure Romney into the race. Kingston, a Boston native, is a close friend of Romney’s and served as a major bundler for him in 2012; French is also a Romney confidant, and had for the past few months been beating the drum for the former Massachusetts governor to jump into the race.

But that day, Romney had made it clear to the group that he simply wouldn’t be persuaded. So they wound up brainstorming other options.

During the conversation, French says, he realized something he hadn’t appreciated given his relatively minimal involvement with Kristol’s effort up to that point: “All of the groundwork had been laid” for an independent candidacy, including a host of research and polling (conducted mostly by Searby) about what sort of person might succeed in this unique political environment. One finding, was that “support for an independent candidate would go down if they were a senator or a congressman,” says French. “They would be hampered at the outset if they held elected office.”

McLellan Style)

With all the other would-be candidates out of contention, according to French, “Bill said the only other possibility was a private citizen from Middle America with a compelling biography and a compelling message. A person like that would have a puncher’s chance.”

“At the end,” as Kristol tells it, “I said, ‘Why doesn’t one of you run?’” Kingston dismissed the idea immediately; French was more ambivalent. “I mean, how many people are Harvard Law grads, volunteered for the military at 37, defended religious-liberty cases, have a nice family, and are from Middle America? Not me,” Kristol says.

French left to make a train back to New York, which, thanks to numerous delays, pulled into Penn Station around 4 A.M. He awoke on Friday, May 27, to find that Kristol had posted a piece, “The United States of Argentina?” — in which he floated not only the concept of a less well-known independent candidate but also the idea of French himself as that candidate.

If Kristol’s goal was coyly to lure French into a presidential campaign, he was succeeding. French told Kristol he would consider it.

“I talked to Bill on the phone that afternoon and he said, ‘What do you think?’” French recalls. If Kristol’s goal was coyly to lure French into a presidential campaign, he was succeeding. French told Kristol he would consider it. Then he floated the idea to his wife, Nancy, a bestselling author and ghostwriter for Bristol and Sarah Palin, among others. “I talked to Nancy, and she said, ‘I think you should consider it,” French says.

By the next day, French was thinking seriously about the notion of mounting a long-shot bid, compelled “by the terrible thought that Americans would be left with the choice of two of the most corrupt leaders in politics,”he says. “Without a credible and unifying third voice, we’re drifting towards the most poisonous presidential race in generations, with both major candidates walking impeachment risks.” His wife, he adds, was behind the effort “a thousand percent.”

Over the long weekend, he gradually began to consult with others — Sasse, Romney, the Republican strategist Mike Murphy, Evangelical leader Russell Moore — soliciting their views on the feasibility and advisability of the effort. “The responses varied from enthusiastic to ‘no way,’” he says.

What counsel did Romney, who has publicly excoriated Trump, have to offer? Well, not to run. “As a data-driven guy, it was hard for him to see how this is possible,” French says. “If he didn’t see it as a path for him, then by golly, how would there be a path for me? I mean, I totally get where he’s coming from.”

#share#On Monday, Memorial Day, he set off from New York for Kingston’s farm in Woodstock, Vt., where he spent the week huddling with various friends, advisers, and political strategists, including Searby and former Romney campaign manager Stuart Stevens, who was acting on a volunteer basis. Together, they assessed the feasibility of getting French on the ballot in dozens of states and of throwing the race to the House of Representatives, the most likely path to victory for an independent candidate.

That’s where French was on Tuesday evening when all hell broke loose. The Bloomberg reporters Mark Halperin and John Heilemann had reached Kristol, who was traveling in Jerusalem, indicating they’d gotten wind of French’s nascent candidacy and seeking confirmation that he was mulling a presidential bid. They reached French, who was sequestered in Vermont, ten minutes before they went public with the story on their 5 p.m. television show.

The reaction in the mainstream media ranged from curiosity to derision. Mediaite and the Washington Post published articles answering the question, “Who is David French?” while the liberal website Vox pilloried him as “some random dude off the street that Bill Kristol decided will save America from Trump.”

Indeed, despite the seriousness of the undertaking, Kristol’s efforts have at times had a lighthearted feel. “Let Ben Sasse run, he can take Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, who would not accept being Trump’s vice-presidential candidate,” Kristol told CNN’s Jake Tapper last month. “Maybe she would like to run with Sasse, they can argue about which order to have the ticket in.” When Sasse formally declined to run, citing his three young children at home, Kristol responded on Twitter, “Those three little kids will enjoy their dad’s 6-month campaign — do home schooling on the plane, see the country . . . ”

“You can’t live your life 24/7 at a level of Churchillian rhetoric, and I’m not Churchill anyway,” Kristol says.” He calls this a “grim time,” but insists that “one can address a serious moment as a happy warrior.”

Gage Skidmore)

The prospect of a French candidacy did get the attention of serious conservatives, who were quick to offer their support. “I know David French to be an honorable, intelligent and patriotic person,” Romney wrote on Twitter. “I look forward to hearing what he has to say.” Sasse told National Review last week, “David French is a serious, trustworthy man who has served his country with honor. I’m interested to hear what he says in the coming weeks.”

It was enough, apparently, to spook the Trump campaign. Sources say that on Wednesday, influential supporters of the campaign, prompted by the campaign itself, began reaching out to the Republican National Committee, to Kristol, and to French, attempting to quash the bid. One Trump operative reached French’s wife’s family in Tennessee and told them, according to French, that he was “instructed to call and deliver a message that the race would be very difficult for me.”

“It was a pretty big assault that really put pressure on David that this not happen,” says a source familiar with the communications.

And then on Thursday, House speaker Paul Ryan, who had already voiced his opposition to a third-party bid, endorsed Trump. Though the endorsement was expected at some point, it was not expected last week, while Congress was in recess. Whether it was intended to or not, the timing of the endorsement helped to dissuade French from pulling the trigger. (A senior Ryan aide says French’s ruminations played “no role whatsoever in his decision.”)

French concluded Friday that although a third-party candidate would have a shot, such a candidate must either be extraordinarily wealthy or have benefactors who are in order to solve the problem of hard dollars — or, as he put it in a piece for National Review, to be a “transformational political talent” who could compete with Trump and the Clinton machine.

“The fact of the matter is that there is a lot more potential than an awful lot of people have been saying,” French says. Searby has insisted all along that the most likely scenario was a three- or four-week campaign that fizzled out, but that there’s a path nonetheless.

French still believes the problem of ballot access in particular is eminently surmountable.

French still believes the problem of ballot access in particular is eminently surmountable. The conservative pundit and activist Erick Erickson has estimated that it would cost about $250 million to mount the requisite ballot-access challenges. French says the figure is actually just a tenth of that. The deadline to get on the ballot in Texas has already passed, and North Carolina’s June 9 cut-off is fast approaching, though French says he believes an independent candidate would have a shot at appearing on both ballots with enough hard money. In many states, though not all, candidates are required to collect a slate of signatures certified by the candidate himself, something a campaign would have to pay for directly.

As for Kristol, it says a lot about the 2016 campaign season and the state of the Republican party that a man once famous for leading the charge against Hillary Clinton’s health-care overhaul in 1993 is now known mainly for his efforts to sink her Republican opponent. Though Kristol says he is “almost equally appalled at the thought of Hillary and Trump,” he’s also set on making the point that Trump “does not represent or embody modern American conservatism.”

“I can’t do much about whether Hillary embodies modern American liberalism,” he says, “but I’m interested in saving America from both Hillary and Trump.”

#related#On Sunday, hours before he publicly passed on a run, French attended a meeting in New York City with a wider group of anti-Trumpites, including Kristol, Kingston, former Jeb Bush aide John Noonan, and former Carly Fiorina aide Sarah Isgur Flores, among others. When he told those assembled in the room that he would not run, they once again found themselves grappling with how to lay the foundation for an anti-Trump movement either inside or outside of the Republican party — in essence, with how to keep the conservative movement alive.

It looks increasingly likely that the conservative resistance to Trump won’t take the form of a third-party candidacy, and that the group’s next project will be to find an effective way to protest Trump’s rise — even if they can’t arrest it.

— Eliana Johnson is the Washington editor of National Review.

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