Update: 2:04 p.m. ET
A late-night tweet from Kanye West this week strengthened the impression that establishment Republicans are helping the musician and fashion designer in his quest to get on the ballot in some states as a third-party candidate for president.
“I’m willing to do a live interview with the New York Time[s] about my meeting with Jared where we discussed Dr. Claude Anderson’s book Powernomics,” the post reads.
I’m willing to do a live interview with the New York Time about my meeting with Jared where we discussed Dr Claude Anderson’s book Powernomics
— ye (@kanyewest) August 12, 2020
“Jared” is Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser.
The New York Times reported that Kushner and West met privately last weekend in Colorado. Neither the White House nor West’s camp responded to NPR’s requests for comment.
Kushner addressed the meeting himself during a White House press briefing Thursday afternoon, noting that he’s been friends with West for about a decade.
“We both happened to be in Colorado and so we got together and we had a great discussion about a lot of things,” Kushner said.
“He has some great ideas for what he’d like to see happen in the country and that’s why he has the candidacy that he’s been doing. But again, there’s a lot of issues that the president’s championed that he admires and it was just great to have a friendly discussion.”
News of the meeting followed other reports suggesting that Republican-affiliated operatives are working to get West on the ballot in several states, part of a strategy to use West to siphon votes away from away from the major party candidates.
Contacted before West’s post on Twitter, the Trump campaign denied any involvement with West. After his post about meeting with Kushner, a campaign spokeswoman directed questions to the White House, which did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump told reporters last week that he likes West but has “nothing to do with him getting on the ballot.”
The Republican National Committee also denied any coordination.
“Everything about Kanye is news to us, just like it is to you. Our sole focus is re-electing the president and the thousands of great Republican candidates running across the country,” RNC national press secretary Mandi Merritt told NPR in an email.
Here’s a look at some of the efforts to get West on state ballots:
Republican Chuck Wilton originally signed on as one of the three electors for West in Vermont. He also was elected by the Vermont Republican Party months before to be a delegate for Trump at the Republican National Convention, along with his wife, Wendy, a Trump appointee.
But three days after the initial filing, the Vermont secretary of state’s election office was informed that Wilton was replaced as an elector by Bradford Boyles. Wilton could not be reached for comment.
In a phone call with NPR, Wendy Wilton declined to comment on the reason behind her husband’s withdrawal, only confirming that he is no longer a West elector.
In an interview with NPR, Boyles, a former Rutland County Republican chairman who now works as a film and TV producer, declined to say who in the West campaign approached him to be an elector. He said believes he was recruited because of his media work in Los Angeles.
“I have no knowledge of what Republican leadership is doing to help or not help Kanye. My choice here is independent of any national party’s efforts,” Boyles said.
Ruhland, who did not respond to a request for comment, represented the Trump campaign in a lawsuit at the end of July.
The Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit watchdog group, filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Office of Lawyer Regulation to “investigate whether attorney Lane Ruhland engaged in conduct inconsistent with her ethical obligations as a member of the Wisconsin Bar.”
“The fact that a lawyer for the Trump campaign is working to put Kanye West on the ballot suggests the West campaign is a sham,” CFA Executive Director Michelle Kuppersmith said in a statement.
An attorney at the Ohio law firm Isaac Wiles filed West’s paperwork in the state. That firm has reportedly received thousands of dollars in legal consulting fees from the state House and Senate Republican campaign committees since 2015.
ABC reported that of Colorado’s nine electors for West, four are current or former GOP operatives, including a former Colorado Republican political director.
Vice News reported that Rachel George, a GOP strategist who runs her own communications firm and had worked for Republican Sen. Cory Gardner when he was in the House, sent an email to contacts asking them to sign up to support West.
In an email obtained by Vice, George writes: “I have the most random favor to ask of you ever … would you help me get Kanye West on the ballot in Colorado? No, I am not joking, and I realize this is hilarious.”
“Bizarre and unusual”
Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that while it’s not unusual for a political party or party activists to try to keep a candidate off a ballot, the reverse is “bizarre and unusual.”
“We’ve never really seen [that] before,” Burden says.
“If this was happening in just one state, that there were a couple of Republican insiders who were aiding the Kanye West campaign, that would seem a little odd and kind of unexpected,” he says. “But because we’re seeing it now in multiple states, people who are either slated as electors, delegates or Republican attorneys working on behalf of Kanye West’s effort to get on the ballot, it looks like something systematic and organized across large parts of the country.”
Role of “spoiler”
Burden has studied the effects that third-party candidates can have on a presidential race and says the calculus centers on two factors: bringing in new voters and taking votes away from the major parties.
For example, Ross Perot, who made a bid for president as an independent candidate in 1992, had a mix of policy positions — both conservative and liberal — and so he took votes away both from Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton.
That’s unlike Ralph Nader, who ran as a Green Party candidate in 2000, well to the left of Democrat Al Gore to reach disaffected liberals. Nader ended up pulling votes from Gore.
So what does that logic mean for West?
Burden says it’s possible West could draw out some new voters.
“Some of them will be young, disaffected voters, maybe with no voting experience at all, but are kind of drawn in by the novelty of his campaign,” he posits.
But he says the second factor — the candidate from whom West will draw votes away — isn’t necessarily a given.
“Some Republicans are banking on the fact that he will hurt Biden more than Trump, but I don’t think that’s clear at all,” Burden says.
Much of Trump’s 2016 support came from voters who said they were tired of the status quo and were willing to give a political outsider from the entertainment industry a chance — descriptors that also apply to West.
Moreover, West appears to have socially conservative stances on issues such as school prayer and abortion, which makes him less likely to draw Democratic voters away from casting their ballots for Biden.
Burden says any real impact of West on state ballots comes down to how tight the election is.
“If this election turns out to be close like the one four years ago, then any small thing … could change it,” he said.
Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, says she imagines some Republicans may think West could attract Black voters who don’t see the Biden-Harris ticket as being activist enough on civil rights issues.
“But the problem is that Kanye West is an ideological mismatch for that type of voter,” she says.
“West’s manifestation of his [mental health] struggles has come out in moments where he has made some really controversial comments, ahistorical comments, about race that are actually alienating to many African Americans,” she said.
These comments include West claiming during a campaign rally in South Carolina that abolitionist Harriet Tubman “never actually freed the slaves.”
Several days later, his wife, reality star Kim Kardashian West, posted a statement addressing his health on her Instagram live story.
“As many of you know, Kanye has bipolar disorder. Anyone who has this or has a loved one in their life who does, knows how incredibly complicated and painful it is to understand,” she wrote. “Those who are close with Kanye know his heart and understand his words sometimes do not align with his intentions.”
West addressed his diagnosis with bipolar disorder during a widely televised Oval Office meeting with Trump in 2018.
Gillespie said there are dimensions to establishment Republicans’ support of West that go beyond political strategy.
“I’m actually really concerned about the ethics of it — not just the allegation of trying to support a third party candidate to play spoiler in an election, but just the exploitation of taking advantage of somebody who’s obviously not gotten his mental illness under control,” she said.