On Tuesday, two days before Nevada’s “first-in-the-West” Republican caucus, only one presidential candidate was in Las Vegas. It wasn’t Donald Trump, the front-runner, who was orchestrating chaos in the Senate and among Republican National Committee leadership from his estate in Florida. It wasn’t Nikki Haley, who was busy barnstorming South Carolina, gearing up for her home state’s late February primary.
It was Ryan Binkley.
Binkley, a businessman and pastor from Texas, has self-funded a campaign for the Republican presidential nomination for the better part of a year. He proudly rattles off the other Republican hopefuls he’s outlasted: a senator, a congressman, two governors, two ex-governors. He’s come to accept that few have any idea who he is — in a last-ditch attempt to garner social media traffic, he proudly uses the hashtag #WhoIsRyanBinkley.
But on Tuesday, at a boutique hotel near the Las Vegas Strip, most attendees at the Nevada Republican Club’s monthly luncheon seemed to know who he is. At the very least, they recognized his name, given that only Binkley and Trump will appear on Thursday’s caucus ballot. The other Republican left in the race, Haley, opted out of the party-run caucus in favor of the state-run primary; she took second place behind “none of these candidates.”
So it was Binkley, not Trump or Haley, who gave the Nevada GOP heavyweights a final pitch. “Trump doesn’t need your vote, but I do,” he told them. By the look of it, at least a handful are open to it — he spent half an hour after his speech shaking hands and taking selfies, asking each of them to tell their friends, and tell those friends to tell their friends.
But the obvious question remains: why is Binkley still running? His support nationwide is so minuscule it doesn’t register in most national polls. In Nevada, he hovers around 1%. When I last interviewed Binkley just before the Iowa caucuses, he told me he’d have to finish “top three or four” there to justify continuing his campaign. He finished fifth.
Yet somehow, as I trudge along covering the front-runners, Binkley manages to keep reappearing. In New Hampshire, at an early-morning meeting with pastors, I looked up and saw Binkley standing in the corner, like an immortal being. He went on to finish seventh, with less than 0.1%, behind four candidates who’d already dropped out. After that, I thought, he’d have to call it quits.
And yet here he was, rhapsodizing to the Nevada Republican Club about fiscal responsibility and government corruption, proudly assuming the role as Trump’s lone opponent in Thursday’s caucus. When I asked him why he’s still in the race, he flipped through the politician’s answers: he has a message to share; the field has narrowed; if he can just get enough people to listen, he’ll catch fire and shoot up the polls.
But then, for a moment, he let Pastor Binkley come out. “I just felt called,” he told me. “I prayed about it some more. I felt like I’m supposed to come here and share with people in Nevada our story and what we’re doing.”
That story, as Binkley puts it, is something like this. Binkley, a father of five (including two teenagers still living at home), had a successful business and a strong church. Eight or nine years ago, he began having dreams about the state of the country and felt an urge to run for president. “I was like, ‘God, is that symbolic, or is that literal?’” he told me. The dreams kept coming — about the U.S. economy, about our national culture, about corruption in Washington. He’d awake and see the economic state of the country — the rich getting richer, the poor poorer, and few fiscal conservatives in Washington trying to help. He was troubled by the country’s massive debt and worried about the future he’d be leaving to his posterity. He was repulsed by the partisanship and unwillingness to compromise coming out of Washington. So, he decided to run for president.
He missed the polling requirement for the first debate, knee-buckling his chances at introducing himself to voters nationally, perhaps irreversibly. But he has carried on. “I know what the odds are,” he said. “I know it’s a slingshot in the hand of God. But I feel led to keep sharing.”
When he speaks with undecided voters, he encourages them to pray about it. I asked him if he thinks God would actually tell a voter they should vote for Ryan Binkley, or for Trump, or Haley, or any other candidate. “I believe God will lead us all,” he said. “I’m not saying God’s going to tell everybody, ‘Hey, vote for Ryan.’ What I’m saying is it’s important we start praying, certainly, and asking God, what would you have me to do? What am I supposed to do?”
Binkley says he disagrees with Trump on several issues. He thinks Trump relied too heavily on executive orders to push his agenda. And he views Trump’s efforts to torpedo this week’s border negotiations as shameful.
“I think it’s a mistake to go, ‘OK, I hate Biden’s border plan,’” he said. “I do too. But what’s your counteroffer? Nothing?”
For Binkley, should Trump be the eventual Republican nominee, he feels like he’s supposed to support Trump. He says he won’t mount an independent campaign — he’ll drop out — and endorse the former president.
I asked if he sees any paradox in that decision. Binkley is a pastor, a man dedicated to teaching morality. His biggest campaign message is fiscal responsibility and paying back our country’s debt. The Trump administration added more to the federal deficit than any other four-year term in history.
“I think this: I mean, President Biden’s doing the exact same thing,” Binkley said, in regard to the president’s spending. “I do think President Trump would do a better job.” Energy independence would help boost the economy, Binkley reasoned. “(Trump) hasn’t really talked about balancing the budget or anything like that, but I think he’d be a much better president than President Biden would be,” he continued.
It’s that softball approach to Trump that has earned Binkley a space, albeit a small one, in these Republican circles. Haley has unleashed a scorched-earth campaign against the former president, calling out his morality, his age and his record. She’s now a pariah among Trump’s followers. Yet Binkley — by consistently reminding voters that he’s not running against Trump, but for his own message — still gets him welcomed at club lunches and Republican rallies. Maybe they view him as less of a threat. Maybe they don’t know who he is.
As Binkley lingered after the lunch and greeted attendees, I asked a few of them what they thought. Laura Urgaro, a local attorney, said she liked his “good, pastor message” but wishes he delivered it “with more oomph.” Flemming Larsen, a candidate for Congress, said he delivered a “very inspirational” speech. “He’s in it for all the right reasons,” Larsen said.
But is there any concern that Binkley could steal votes from Trump in the Nevada caucuses? Larsen smiled. “Absolutely not,” he said. “Trump will win the caucus. There’s no question.”