On a cold Friday morning in February, 120 well-known conservatives gathered via Zoom. The meeting was unadvertised and invite-only, and under Chatham House Rule, attendees agreed to not publicly reveal the identity of others outside of that setting.

They were greeted by Mindy Finn, the political and technology expert who became Evan McMullin’s 2016 runningmate during his independent presidential campaign. McMullin was there, too — he organized the event alongside Miles Taylor, a former Department of Homeland Security official under former President Donald Trump. They called the gathering “The New Conservatives Summit,” its invitees representing a wide array of conservative thought: former members of Congress and former governors; prominent academics and pundits; disillusioned Trump aides and staunch Never Trumpers; officials from the Bush and Reagan administrations.

McMullin and Taylor said they had a simple purpose. A swath of conservatives helped remove Trump from office two months previous, and organizations like McMullin’s Stand Up Republic and Taylor’s RePAIR (The Republican Political Alliance for Integrity and Reform) were instrumental in that movement. But that groundswell of principle-based conservatism had to be harnessed. Common-sense conservatives needed a home, and McMullin and Taylor wanted to create one.

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“The people who got Joe Biden elected president are the rational, pragmatic Americans who want the United States to govern in a common-sense coalition, rather than divisive Washington politics,” Taylor told me. “How do we make sure there’s a political home for them?”

Taylor, the well-known author of an anonymous 2018 New York Times op-ed titled “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” left DHS in 2019 and has been a candid Trump critic since. But for many, McMullin’s name is more recognizable. The CIA operations officer-turned-presidential candidate ran his campaign based on opposition — and a principled alternative — to Trump. That effort has continued.

If success is measured only by winning, Evan McMullin’s 2016 campaign was a massive failure. He garnered less than one percent of the popular vote nationwide. In Utah, his best-performing state, he received 21%, finishing behind both Trump and Clinton.

But four years later, McMullin is back, and his vision for the Republican Party — and for America — may be even grander than his platform in 2016. He wouldn’t describe it as such; to him, it’s just “a return to founding American principles, to truth and to decency,” he said. Still, it’s a tall order.

The Feb. 5 meeting was a starting point. It lasted nearly three hours, and discussions from principles to platforms to new parties surfaced. Before the meeting adjourned, the attendees took a poll: Should a new party be formed?

The answer is complicated.

More and more like-minded conservatives have reached out to McMullin since news of the February meeting surfaced, showing interest in a new party or a new faction of the old party.

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“We’ve taken a number of steps forward,” McMullin said, then hastily clarified. “It’s not an either-or proposition (of a new party or a faction). We need to do both.”

Call it what you will — a new party, a new faction of the GOP, a new movement. McMullin, alongside Taylor, is the mastermind behind it, and he’s not planning on failing. And at age 45, McMullin just started another new chapter — last weekend, he celebrated a birthday and an engagement to Utah resident Emily Norton.

“Life wasn’t meant to be lived alone,” McMullin told me, with a laugh. “After having done that for 25 years as an adult, I can certainly attest to that.”

While McMullin is taking significant steps both professionally and personally, he’s ready. “Any new life challenge that I and my political partners take on, she’ll be with me.”

Evan McMullin, a former CIA operations officer and 2016 presidential candidate, poses for a photo in Highland on Friday, March 26, 2021. | Annie Barker, Deseret News

Restoring Republicanism

On Sept. 11, 2001, McMullin — then a recent graduate from Brigham Young University in international law and diplomacy — was at the CIA’s headquarters in northern Virginia. He’d just begun formal training with the CIA, and he and several other recent hires were completing a series of online trainings in a windowless, basement computer lab.

A woman, wearing a dress and tennis shoes, poked her head in the door. “Do you all understand what’s going on?” she asked. McMullin and the others said they didn’t. “We’re under attack,” she said.

McMullin ran upstairs and watched the attack unfold on television. Shortly after, the building was evacuated and everyone was sent home.

The events of Sept. 11 completely shifted both McMullin’s and Taylor’s career trajectories. For McMullin, it led to accelerated training, work in the Pentagon and seven years deployed as a foreign operations officer in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. For Taylor, his tenure with the Department of Homeland Security was sparked by a desire to never let something like 9/11 ever happen again.

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The Jan. 6 insurrection on the Capitol struck both McMullin and Taylor as eerily familiar — even reminiscent of the 9/11 attacks. “Jan. 6 was significant because the attack didn’t come from outside — it came from within,” Taylor said. McMullin concurred: “I look at that Jan. 6 insurrection as an incident of similar proportions. It was a violent insurrection led by a sitting president, who sought to overturn a free and fair election, in order to retain power unto himself illegally and illegitimately. And that is a direct threat to our republic as I could possibly imagine.”

Not all Republicans agree with that assessment. Recent polling from Reuters/Ipsos suggest that half of Republicans believe the Jan. 6 attack was largely nonviolent or sparked by left-wing activists, a false theory promulgated by comments from Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, among others.

Others in the Republican Party, like Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have been vocal in criticizing Trump for his role in the violence at the Capitol. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who supported Trump’s reelection, told me in February the insurrection was “a very, very bad thing that happened, and one of many examples of what can occur when people feel passionately about their cause but don’t bother to look at, or care about, what the text of the Constitution says.” 

The intraparty disagreements over Jan. 6 highlights the dysfunction and split that McMullin and Taylor want to heal. They said their goal is to unite, not divide, but that unity starts with recognizing the harm done.

“We would like unity within the party, but the unity worth having is a unity that’s committed to truth and our democracy.” — Evan McMullin

“We would like unity within the party, but the unity worth having is a unity that’s committed to truth and our democracy,” McMullin said on a Washington Post webinar in February. That’s part of why McMullin spent the past four years standing as a voice against the Trump administration, warning his fellow conservatives of the dangers of a leader “about himself and his own personal interests.” He recalls being called “overly sensitive” and “sanctimonious,” and was told no one president could do that much harm. Now, he hopes the detractors are listening.

Many are. For thousands of conservatives, Jan. 6 served as the start of a conservative exodus of sorts. In the days that followed the insurrection, at least 140,000 Republicans in 25 states changed their party affiliations, and it’s likely tens of thousands more did the same in other states without readily available data. Without some serious reason to do so, a shift of that degree is very unusual, political scientists say. While the shift is a relatively small percentage of the party as a whole, it illustrates a growing problem for the GOP.

McMullin opposed Trump and his version of Republicanism long before the Capitol attack. It was opposition to Trump, and a desire to offer the electorate what he called a true conservative candidate, that led to him to launch his 2016 campaign. But with growing numbers of dissatisfied Republicans questioning the rightward lunge personified by Trump, McMullin sees a renewed opportunity to unite.

Evan McMullin, 2022 U.S. Senate candidate, poses for a photo in Highland.
Evan McMullin, a former CIA operations officer and 2016 presidential candidate, poses for a photo in Highland on Friday, March 26, 2021. | Annie Barker, Deseret News

A party or a faction?

After the insurrection at the Capitol, McMullin called Taylor. They both expressed concern about the direction the country was heading. They also feared that the center-right voters that boosted Biden into office would splinter. If conservatives who opposed Trump were to have a place in the political realm in the near future, they had to be on the same page.

McMullin and Taylor invited some 200 people to the February meeting, and about two-thirds showed up. The discussions swirled around a return to truth and decency, and a recommitment to founding American principles. Attendees, including staunch Trump detractors (like Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger and former Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent) and disillusioned members of the Trump White House (like John Mitnick and Elizabeth Neumann), all had the opportunity to share their thoughts on what principles needed to be emphasized and salvaged. (“I’ve never been on such a big Zoom, where almost everyone gets to weigh in at some point,” Taylor recalled.)

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At one point, a straw poll among attendees asked whether a new party should be formed, or a new faction within the GOP. Most preferred the latter (43%), with 40% supporting a new party. They’ve since settled on starting some sort of movement — a “super identity,” in McMullin’s words — either within or outside of the GOP, uniting those whose vision of America is principles-based and who sincerely want to see cross-partisan cooperation.

That’s where strict alliance with the Republican Party gets tricky.

“We may need to work across the aisle to replace Republicans who have embraced conspiracism and division — who have abandoned truth,” McMullin said. They will not only work within the Republican Party, but be willing to work outside of it as well. “If, for example, Mark Kelly in Arizona, a unifying Democrat, is facing Kelli Ward, an extremist Republican in Arizona, in his next race, then in that case, choosing between a unifying Democrat and an extremist on the right, we would back Mark Kelly,” he said.

McMullin hardly believes the GOP, or any party, has a monopoly on unifying leadership — “being a unifying leader doesn’t mean being moderate,” he explained. “You can have strong conservative or liberal views and still recognize the vast amount of common ground Americans have.” More important than loyalty to party is loyalty to principle.

That departure from Republican tribalism isn’t popular within today’s GOP. Several members of Congress, like Sens. Richard Burr and Susan Collins and Rep. Liz Cheney, were censured by their states’ Republican Party for opposing Trump in his impeachment trial this year. As Utah Gov. Spencer Cox recently elaborated in a podcast with Daily Beast columnist Matt Lewis, “It seems we’ve (Republicans) just defined ourselves in opposition to whatever it is the left is doing. We’ve lost whatever moral high ground we had.”

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That puts McMullin and his center-right colleagues in a difficult spot. They want common ground and common sense, but seek influence in a party that he believes has largely abandoned both. Establishing a new party, then, seems logical, but the difficulties of finding national influence — and the logistical complexities that would accompany it, be it ballot access or funding or a host of others — make that option improbable. The possibility of forming a new party, and having national prominence, by the 2022 midterms is all but impossible.

Even in Utah, where McMullin found the most success in 2016, gaining traction for a new party would be a hard sell. While Trump received 45% of the state’s vote in 2016, he improved to 58% in 2020. In mid-January of this year, 36% of Utahns believed Trump legitimately won the election (as well as 44% of Utah Latter-day Saints). The well of anti-Trump center-right voters McMullin tapped into in 2016 seems to be drying up rapidly, if not already.

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If there was a large target electorate, the intricacies of forming a party still might prove insurmountable. Gallup polling from last fall shows a majority support in a third nationally prominent party in principle, but Geoffrey Skelley of FiveThirtyEight points to the Electoral College, among other electoral hurdles, as a major reason why a third party may never win a presidential election. In winner-take-all electoral systems like ours, it’s difficult for a party outside of the two major ones to garner enough nationwide traction to compete. And unless McMullin could lure moderate Democrats to join them (a hard sell, when your party holds majorities in both chambers and the White House), a moderate party may only fracture the GOP and empower the Democrats.

“Being a unifying leader doesn’t mean being moderate.” — Evan McMullin

McMullin, Taylor and their analysts surely know all this, as they’re leaning toward another approach. In some states, like California, where the GOP has effectively become a third party in its inability to compete in state elections, there may be room to organize a formal, state-based third party. At a national level, forming a new political identity for principled leaders, of any political leaning, seems most likely.

“We’ll establish a national ‘super identity’ — a brand new political identity — that allows people to be independents, Republicans or even Democrats, and unify under principles,” said McMullin. 

Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin delivers a concession speech at The Depot in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A path of principles

McMullin isn’t shy about his reputation. His 2016 campaign, though built upon what he calls “foundational American, and conservative, principles,” was viewed as pure opposition to Trump.

“A lot of us have spent the last four or five years talking about what we were opposed to,” he said. “But at this point, it’s very important that we articulate what we’re for, and that we provide an alternative vision for not only Republican leadership but also for leadership for the country.”

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That vision is built upon principles like liberty and self-government, integrity and constitutional order, free speech and free markets. Taylor characterizes the principles as “free minds, free markets and free people.” (An official ”statement of principles” will be released soon, they said.) The biggest struggle in modern America to McMullin, though, is the contention between liberalism and illiberalism, or a free, open society versus authoritarianism. When the biggest issue facing the country challenges a central tenet of democracy, McMullin reasons a policy platform will not suffice. Only a return to principles will.

“What’s dividing America now is the struggle between those who want to protect our democratic republic and those who are, for example, willing to abandon healthy elections and accountable government and truth in these things,” he said. “We recognize that shift. I don’t think the major parties have.”

Academics and pundits alike are noting a similar trend. Thomas J. Main, a political scientist at the City University of New York, has written about the rise of illiberalism among white supremacists and the alt-right. Bari Weiss, the former New York Times opinion writer, warned in Deseret Magazine of the same on the other side of the political spectrum: “On the left, liberalism is under siege by a new, illiberal orthodoxy that has taken root all around, including in the very institutions meant to uphold the liberal order.”

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If McMullin hopes to unify Americans across the aisle to fight illiberalism, he’s on track by highlighting founding principles. Recent polling by Scott Rasmussen shows a plurality of American voters — 73% — believe freedom, equality and self-governance are a good foundation for unity.

At a time when 50% of American voters identify as independents and the majority say the two-party duopoly no longer represents them, McMullin sees a circumstance ripe for change. Granted, not all independents want unifying leadership, and not all those disillusioned by partisan politics would latch onto a new movement. But McMullin and Taylor envision an America craving something newer, something fresher, something more representative than a pair of parties catering to the extremes. They see people buying into fundamental American principles, free of partisan agendas.

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McMullin and Taylor don’t care where those principled Americans come from, or who they supported previously. “I don’t blame people for having voted for Donald Trump,” Taylor said. “We have to acknowledge that there are millions of Trump voters across America who do want a better future. And we’ve got to create a GOP that doesn’t punish people for supporting Trump, but says it’s time for us to move on.”

“You can have strong conservative or liberal views and still recognize the vast amount of common ground Americans have.” — Evan McMullin

Moving on may prove difficult. Trump remains the early frontrunner for the GOP’s 2024 nomination, and polling shows majority Republican support for the former president if the primary were today. But McMullin and Taylor think a return to principle, not pure opposition, is the path forward. Opposition to Trump prevented his reelection. Building off of freedom, equality and self-governance will help America rebuild.

It’s a much bigger issue than just reforming the Republican Party or uniting disillusioned conservatives. McMullin envisions a new movement that can alter the political landscape — “an alternate vision for American leadership” — that builds upon shared principles, not parties or platforms.

“These are the same kinds of issues that our national ancestors fought for independence, to establish and to protect,” McMullin said. “And we’ll start there.”

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