Opinion writer

Mindy Finn, right, at Mitt Romney’s campaign headquarters in 2007. (John Mottern For The Washington Post)

Unlike Donald Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who continues to enable a world-class misogynist, independent conservative Evan McMullin’s running mate, Mindy Finn, is actually doing something positive to make center-right politics more attractive to women, especially millennials. Before joining up with McMullin she had been a respected conservative tactician who founded Empowered Women, worked on the Hill and the George W. Bush and Mitt Romney campaigns, pioneered use of new media (earning her a spot on the 2011 “50 Politicos to Watch”) and was a prominent figure in the #NeverTrump movement. Now, at the ripe age of 35, she is running for vice president and carrying an optimistic message about opportunity and respect for all Americans.

Finn is poised and articulate, exuding a sense of maturity and authority greater than you’d expect from a 35-year-old. Indeed, it’s her relatively young age and technological sophistication that give her insight into the millennial voters — and perhaps the future of the GOP. She notes the ticket overperforms with millennials, proving younger voters will support the right type of conservative.

In the last week or so McMullin has moved suddenly in the polls into contention in Utah. His crowds there and elsewhere went from dozens to hundreds. (Last weekend in a small Idaho town he drew 1,000 people, with some driving from as far away as Seattle.) “It’s a snowball effect,” she says. McMullin was born and went to college in Utah, but that alone doesn’t account for his remarkable success so far.

The groundwork laid over weeks is now, finally, panning out. She reveals during an interview in the campaign’s D.C. office that the campaign has been in frequent contact with Mitt Romney. “We’ve been in conversations from the beginning. He’s been helping,” she explains. “We got access to his [fundraising] list.” After polls started showing McMullin was competitive in Utah, the “Access Hollywood” video surfaced. “[The] Billy Bush video put a lot of people over the edge,” she says, referring to Republicans who decided they couldn’t stomach voting for Trump. For those disgusted by Trump’s behavior and character, McMullin offers an attractive alternative, a sincerely religious candidate who worked for the CIA, stresses character and public service and who emphasizes national unity.

McMullin is in some ways a natural choice for conservatives in Idaho and Utah, two states where Trump lost in the primary. “These are conservatives for whom faith is really more important than party,” she says. Moreover, given the strength of Mormon communities, once a candidate makes inroads spreading the word is easier than in larger, less cohesive voting blocs. Finn, who is Jewish, postulates that Trump set off alarm bells with certain minority groups. Mormons, Jews and Catholics (groups where Trump had done and continues to do poorly) have a cultural memory of persecution and discrimination. Then along comes Trump. “Banning an entire religion [from entering the U.S.]?” she observes. “That’s frightening.”

Finn and McMullin are focused on making a mark in the 2016 race. “We’ve already been success as an independent getting on the ballot,” she says. Nevertheless, she and her running mate are well aware that if they can win even one state and run up their vote total they will go a long way toward demonstrating — with only a three-month campaign — the potential for a new movement or party.

Quite plainly, Finn does not think their effort ends on Election Day. “There is a hunger from conservatives — but not just from conservatives — for a new generation of leadership,” she says. She speaks passionately about a movement focused on individual liberty, constitutional government and strong international leadership. However, she stresses that there has to be an “attitudinal” shift as well. The perception that the GOP is (still) hostile toward women, minorities, immigrants, gay people and even science is killing the party at the presidential level where tone, attitude and overarching principles play a much greater role than, say, in a gubernatorial or House race.

She candidly acknowledges a “civil war” raging in the GOP. “I don’t see a happy ending.” Capturing a more inclusive, idealistic spirit that McMullin and Finn have exemplified may be a bridge too far for the aging, male-dominated and overwhelmingly white crowd that bought into Trump’s nativism, anger and know-nothingism. “One path is certainly a new party,” she acknowledges.

What about the Republicans who didn’t have the nerve to stand up against Trump? “Everyone, in my view, is going to have to do a job of showing their character is intact,” she says. “Everyone is going to have to answer for themselves.”

Watching the debates, Finn says, is painful, not just because they would have liked to be on the stage making rational arguments and offer concrete proposals. “It makes me sad. It breaks my heart,” she says of the spectacle. The race between two uniquely disliked major-party candidates is downright depressing. “It’s sad, it’s pathetic,” she acknowledges.

On that she’ll get little argument from the majority of voters. The experience as a candidate — seeing volunteers take it upon themselves to create materials and wanting to talk about issues — in a decentralized, bare-bones organization has been eye-opening for her. The pressure and grueling pace has made her more empathetic toward candidates, and more appreciative of those who run for noble reasons.

For the rest of the center-right, the potential for an alternative sort of party — more youthful, dynamic, inclusive, idealistic, transparent, decentralized and participatory — may be the only positive sign in the short term. Having interviewed both Finn and McMullin, I find it it evident that these are serious people who don’t come across as Donald Trump — or Mitch McConnell or Ted Cruz — Republicans. They think they can transform center-right politics. Well, they sure picked the right time to try.

In the spring of 2016, Republican Evan McMullin spoke to the University of Pennsylvania's Washington semester program about his views on the United States' ideological foundations. McMullin announced Aug. 8 that he's running for president. (Penn in Washington)