Where Evan McMullin Goes From Here

Evan McMullin speaks at a campaign event. (YouTube via National Review)

When Evan McMullin declared his candidacy for president in September of 2016 he was virtually an unknown. Previously a CIA operative and the chief policy director of the House Republican Conference he jumped in the race because “it’s never too late to do the right thing.”

It was clear from the start that McMullin’s campaign served as a protest vote for an electorate weary about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and concerned about the direction that either administration would pull the country. In making a play for Utah — home to his family roots, alma mater, and religion — he sought to deadlock the Electoral College and throw the election to the House of Representatives where he hoped to outmaneuver both Trump and Clinton and win the presidency. Failing that outcome, McMullin framed his campaign as one that would coalesce voters who respect Constitutional principles but feel left out of the two major parties.

The alarming message behind Trump’s populism, and his hostile takeover of the Republican Party, led McMullin to run his campaign anchored to traditionally conservative and Constitutional principles. His core message was to build a “New Conservative Movement” — implying that the movement conservatism of the Republican Party and Reagan coalition was on its death bed. “I certainly would not describe the New Conservative Movement as an appendage of the Republican Party,” Joel Searby, McMullin’s campaign manager, said in an interview with me. “It remains to be seen what the party leadership will do in the Trump era, so one important role of this movement is to hold the party accountable for its actions,” he said. “There has to be someone coming from the conservative side of the political spectrum who will speak truth and hold accountable the Republican Party.”

Trump’s rise, first through the Republican Party then to the presidency, raises questions about the role of traditional conservatism in a party now under his leadership, and the only home it has in the American political system. His inaugural address was a shot across the bow of both parties, ripping Democrats and Republicans both as elitists that hoarded wealth and let middle America suffer. And his policy plans, like a trillion dollar infrastructure proposal, fly in the face of conservatives like Paul Ryan and his “Better Way” agenda. Beyond an institutional level, rank-and-file conservatives were largely alienated from the party as soon as Trump became the Republican nominee. Trump’s inaugural speech should make clear that he is neither a Republican nor a Democrat — he’s a populist hostile to both.

McMullin campaign strategist Rick Wilson further clarified what “the New Conservative Movement” is, beyond just a campaign talking point. “We believe that the New Conservative Movement has to rededicate itself to a lot of the fundamental principles that are embedded and enshrined in the Constitution,” he said in an interview. “The Washington, D.C. Republican establishment wasn’t perfect before Trump. It wasn’t hewing to all these things and was certainly comfortable with crony capitalism and a lot of other things that don’t necessarily meet constitutional muster.”

Both Wilson and Searby emphasized that a new conservative movement needs to welcome constituencies that currently aren’t part of the Republican coalition — people like Hispanics, Muslims, and African-Americans. “We can’t just write an autopsy report after every election saying ‘oh we did a terrible job communicating with X or Y demographic, what could we have done differently?’ And then ignore it,” Wilson said. “It has to be a movement that expands the conservative movement, expands the conservative base, well beyond what it is right now.”

Of course, this big-tent conservatism would have come to fruition easily if McMullin’s path to the White House panned out. But now that Donald Trump has been sworn in and the Republican Party learns to work with him McMullin and his former running mate, Mindy Finn, are working to ensure that the message of their campaign carries on in the Trump era.

Starting today they will be behind a new public advocacy organization named Stand Up Republic. “The most important thing we were doing [in the campaign] was standing up for conservative, and we feel timeless, American principles,” McMullin said in an interview. “We thought the most likely scenario, if we weren’t able to block [Trump and Clinton] would be that Hillary Clinton would win and there would need to be a new conservative movement to pick up the pieces on the Republican side. And we would help lead that,” he explained.

But the upset election of Donald Trump made the re-dedication to constitutional principles more urgent, McMullin said. “In this new context, we believe it’s even more important for there to be a new conservative movement, especially given the fact that he appears to intending to govern in a way that is not consistent with conservative principles.”

Stand Up Republic is McMullin’s and Finn’s new vehicle to uphold those “traditional and timeless” American principles. Contra to theories during the election, McMullin is not forming a third party. Instead, the 501(c)(4) group will be focused on public advocacy and building a grassroots movement based on the campaign. According to McMullin, “the first task of the new conservative movement will be to defend our democracy and our Constitution under the Trump presidency, and to convince more people to join that effort.”

To that end Stand Up Republic will provide resources for voters interested in getting involved with McMullin’s and Finn’s effort. The group will also grow the grassroots movement the campaign tapped into, and will flex its muscles, when necessary, to get Congress to listen to its concerns about the Trump administration. “We’re doing this,” McMullin explained, “because our leaders aren’t.”

Besides pushing back against the Trump administration, another motivation behind Stand Up Republic is to “stand up to Russia’s efforts to undermine democracy in the United States and Europe,” according to McMullin. “It’s not just about Trump or his relationship to Russia, but to broader context of Russian interference in Western democracy,” he said.

McMullin or Finn won’t be diving into more races anytime soon — “for now we’re focused on getting the organization up and running,” he said — and Stand Up Republic won’t be immediately recruiting candidates for office.

“The bottom line is, you’ve got this large group of people in the country who clearly were attracted by the conservative vision that Evan and Mindy were talking about, and we don’t want to squander that,” Joel Searby explained.

Stand Up Republic will make sure that doesn’t happen.

View Stand Up Republic’s first ad here.