When a Democrat or Republican runs for president, there’s usually a stable of low-profile legal experts affiliated with the party who can help navigate the country’s thicket of ballot-access laws.
But if you were, say, music megastar Kanye West mounting a not-exactly-viable presidential bid under the banner of the not-exactly-serious “Birthday Party,” such a network of partisan legal experts might not be easily available.
Not so. Over the last couple of weeks, Republican-affiliated lawyers and strategists have been helping West file the paperwork necessary in several key states, in a small-scale effort apparently mounted in hopes of drawing Black voters away from Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, to boost President Trump’s reelection chances.
In the critical swing state of Wisconsin, local media reported that West’s qualifying paperwork was dropped off by Lane Ruhland, an attorney representing the Trump campaign in a lawsuit who had also done legal work for the Republican National Committee, former GOP Gov. Scott Walker and the state Republican Party on election matters.
In nearby Ohio, the paperwork was dropped off by an attorney from the Columbus law firm Isaac Wiles, which has reportedly received tens of thousands of dollars in fees from state Republican campaign committees since 2015.
West’s efforts in Colorado have gotten a boost from state GOP operative Rachel George, who emailed another Republican strategist asking, “Would you help me get Kanye West on the ballot in Colorado? No, I am not joking, and I realize this is hilarious,” according to a message obtained by Vice News.
George and the strategist did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Trump’s campaign. A spokesman for Biden declined to comment.
Having already missed too many state filing deadlines to remain even a mathematically plausible contender, West has hinted about his hopes to bleed votes from Biden. He told Forbes, “I’m not denying it, I just told you. To say that the Black vote is Democratic is a form of racism and white supremacy.”
To longtime political observers, there’s no mistaking what’s driving the institutional GOP support for West, who has been one of Trump’s most visible celebrity supporters through the Republican’s first term. West has visited Trump at Trump Tower and the White House, and the president has publicly thanked and complimented West in return.
“One of the oldest tricks in the political playbook is to run a third-party candidate to try and bleed support from your opponent,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who is not affiliated with the Biden campaign. “What’s different here is the third-party candidate is a hip-hop artist who has said nice things about the current president before.”
Organizing something similar in the old days would have been done in “the smoke-filled backrooms; they’d be sitting there on a bar or something,” said Manley, who called West’s candidacy “a farce, a joke.”
“I don’t believe African Americans are going to vote for Kanye simply because he’s on the ballot,” Manley said. “There’s simply too much at stake.”
So far, there’s no evidence to suggest that West might have even a marginal impact. One July poll of 2,000 registered voters by Redfield & Wilton Strategies only found 2% of support for West, and most respondents said they didn’t think West’s run was serious.
“West has been a supporter, in small ways at least, of Trump; I think most voters know that,” said Matt Hindman, an associate professor of political science at the University of Tulsa who has published research on third-party candidates and ballot-access laws. “We’re talking about a very small percentage of people who might vote for Kanye West,” and it’s not even a given that those voters might otherwise vote for Biden.
West’s very public mental health issues have also raised questions about his candidacy. After West held one erratic campaign event in South Carolina in July, West’s wife, Kim Kardashian West, said her husband has bipolar disorder and asked for compassion and empathy.
“Those that understand mental illness or even compulsive behavior know that the family is powerless unless the member is a minor,” Kardashian West wrote in a post on Instagram. “People who are unaware or far removed from this experience can be judgmental and not understand that the individual themselves have to engage in the process of getting help no matter how hard family and friends try.”
At his sometimes tearful South Carolina rally, West said his antiabortion plan was to pay parents $1 million for having a baby, and he said that abolitionist Harriet Tubman “never actually freed the slaves; she just had the slaves go work for other white people.”
Nathan Gonzales, the editor and publisher of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan guide to elections, thinks that in a tight race “it’s possible” that West could tip the balance from one candidate to another.
“But we’re still a long way from knowing whether Kanye will have any impact,” Gonzales said, pointing out that questions remain about which state ballots West will qualify for.
It’s not clear if West’s Wisconsin petition was dropped off in time; he fell short of the signatures needed to qualify in Illinois; he’s missed the deadlines in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Nevada, where a third-party candidate has the greatest ability to tip the balance. ABC News reported that West’s team couldn’t accumulate enough signatures to get on the ballot in California, the nation’s richest electoral prize, where he is unlikely to make any perceptible threat to Biden anyway.
“We don’t know how close the most important states will be. We don’t know if he will be on the ballot. And we certainly don’t know how many votes he would receive,” Gonzales said. “For people to say, ‘Oh, Kanye is Black so he’ll take Black voters from Biden’ is a gross oversimplification of a more complex situation.”