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Joe Walsh’s Third Act

A conversation with Walsh Campaign Manager Lucy Caldwell.
February 8, 2020
Joe Walsh’s Third Act

Longshot GOP presidential candidate Joe Walsh called his campaign quits on Friday saying there was no hope of winning the primary and that the GOP had become a “cult” under Donald Trump. That doesn’t mean he’s giving up, though.

Barreling down the New Jersey Turnpike while making her way back from New York to Washington, Walsh campaign manager Lucy Caldwell is determined. She told me by phone that the campaign had taught her that while most committed Trump voters weren’t willing to listen to their message, there were many other Republicans out there who wanted to support someone other than Trump. And, that’s what Walsh and his team intend to help them do going forward. “The biggest danger is people who feel homeless and sit it out altogether,” she said.

What does that mean? It means convincing reluctant Republicans and Republican-leaning independents to cross the aisle and vote Democrat. Although many see some of Walsh’s past tweets and statements as problematic, Caldwell contends there is value in Walsh, who she describes as a “Tea Party, pro-life, 2nd Amendment, border hawk who has been a fixture of conservative talk radio” in speaking out against the current president. She said that Walsh is “someone who used to get flack for being too conservative, now saying he will support any Democrat. That says pay attention, and maybe this is a bigger crisis than they realize. That’s what we want to awaken in people now.”

Throughout the campaign, Walsh compiled an email list Caldwell describes as being well into the “hundreds of thousands” strong. She hopes to reach out to voters who have told her they are Republican but “don’t want to support a Democrat” and will use the list to spread information about how people can participate in upcoming Democratic primary contests.

Caldwell, a 2009 Harvard graduate who describes her conservatism as a “birthright” bestowed upon her by father, the writer Chris Caldwell, is a techie at heart. After working in the field doing grassroots advocacy and organizing ballot initiatives for the Goldwater Institute, she focused on learning how technology could help spread the messages. She joined Crowdskout, a platform for powerhouse campaigns and non-profits, which included the Republican National Committee and several presidential campaigns, and worked her way up to chief strategy officer. In that position, however, she said she couldn’t “speak out about how terrible Trump is and how terrible his enablers are.”

After the company sold in 2018, Caldwell started her own company, MockingbirdLab. And she knew she didn’t want to stifle her politics any longer. “I never want to hear an investor say ‘Could you not trash Trump so much?’ Or, ‘Could you not speak out about your support for the #MeToo movement?'” Instead, she wanted to use her tech skills in a way that matched her politics. She told friends she was interested in “attempting to build a data set about NeverTrump Republicans and persuadable voters.” Lo and behold, there was a campaign manager position for a Republican who wanted to talk to those very voters: Joe Walsh.

It hasn’t been easy, but over her time on the campaign trail, Caldwell saw the usefulness in attempting to have conversations with people who didn’t want to hear their message. Because often their reluctance stemmed from the fact that other people were listening. For instance, Walsh was shouted down during an Iowa caucus by Trump supporters last week. He couldn’t even speak. But, the video clip generated lots of positive feedback from people who weren’t in the room being pressured by the mob.

“Watching him be shouted down for saying we should expect our president to be honest and decent? They weren’t booing him. They were booing that concept,” Caldwell says. She received an outpouring of positive messages and email signups from that video alone.

Although Walsh’s candidacy was short-lived, the numbers show that there is still an appetite for a Trump alternative. Before Walsh dropped out, a Florida Atlantic University Business and Economics poll found that 14 percent of Florida Republican primary voters were willing to vote for Walsh. That’s nothing to laugh at, considering that Walsh never even campaigned in the state.

Which is why the effort to stop Trump will continue. While there is no shortage of conversations about the problems Trump poses to the GOP, the problem, as Caldwell sees it, is “I don’t see people going into these communities.” Walsh was undoubtedly in a class by himself as one of the few people who have ventured outside media green rooms, into the field to directly challenge Trump’s standing as leader of the GOP.

“It’s important to see this through November,” Caldwell says. “I could not possibly walk away from this now. We are seeing an unbelievable number of signups and new donations, and I’ve concluded this is a list of people who are really, really concerned, and despise Donald Trump.”

If Caldwell is successful, her efforts could tip the scales of the 2020 election.

In 2016, Trump secured his Electoral College victory by winning the swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania by fewer than 80,000 collective votes. In that same election, third-party Independent candidate Evan McMullin, who appealed to disaffected Republican voters, collected 26,504 votes and Green party candidate Jill Stein netted more than 132,000 votes in those states. All of these third-party protest-type votes could be swept into the Democratic column this time around.

So, while there weren’t enough votes to propel Walsh to victory, there might just be enough to deprive Trump of his next one, if Lucy Caldwell has anything to say about it.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.