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Kanye West’s presidential bid bolstered by Republican operatives in at least five states

President Trump responded during an Aug. 5 briefing at the White House to a reporter's question about efforts to get rapper Kanye West on presidential ballots. (Video: The Washington Post)

One elector trying to get rapper Kanye West on the presidential ballot in Wisconsin is married to a former chairwoman of a Republican county committee and was photographed with President Trump at his inaugural.

In Arkansas, a Republican operative who signed West’s ballot petition was at one point interviewed to be Trump’s campaign manager for his 2016 bid.

And West’s ballot petition in Ohio was signed by a lawyer who has previously represented state Republican campaign committees.

West’s presidential effort has largely sputtered since he formally filed to run as an independent candidate representing the “Birthday Party” in July. He has held just one campaign rally last month in North Charleston, S.C., where he appeared onstage wearing a bulletproof vest and broke down in tears, prompting his wife, Kim Kardashian West, to post messages on Instagram asking for the public’s “compassion and empathy” as he struggles with bipolar disorder.

Kim Kardashian addresses Kanye West’s mental health, asks for ‘compassion and empathy’

But in at least five states, Republican activists and operatives — including some who have publicly supported Trump and a lawyer who has worked for his 2020 campaign — have been involved with efforts to try to get rapper on the November ballot, according to an examination by The Washington Post of public filings and social media posts. Their involvement raises the specter that his candidacy is being propped up by a GOP-driven effort to siphon votes from presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Trump told reporters this past week he had “nothing to do” with helping West get on the ballot but added that he likes West “very much.”

Jason Miller, a senior campaign adviser, also said the Trump campaign was not involved in helping West get on the ballot.

But rather than discouraging the effort to put another competitor on the ballot, Miller added that he believes West’s efforts on behalf of prison sentencing reform have been “admirable.”

“ ‘All of the Lights’ is a great song. The full extended mix of ‘Runaway’ might actually be my favorite. That’s one of my jams,” Miller said when asked about the West effort.

A spokesperson for West’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment. Asked by a reporter for Forbes Magazine this past week if his goal was to take votes from Biden, West said in a text message he was “walking . . . to win.” Told he could serve as a spoiler in the race, West responded, “I’m not going to argue with you. Jesus is King.”

West’s shoestring campaign appears to consist solely of a bare bones website that until Saturday featured only a hand-scrawled message from the performer, asking supporters to sign a petition to help him get on the South Carolina ballot. He did not ultimately submit paperwork in that state, where he held his sole rally, before the July 20 deadline.

His newly updated site features a montage of disparate images, including a picture of Jesus and a photograph of Earth from space, along with 10-point policy platform that includes restoring prayer to the classroom, reducing household debt burdens and criminal justice reform — along with an invitation to donate to his campaign.

West’s campaign has so far filed petitions to appear on the ballot in 10 states, but some of those submissions, as in New Jersey, have been found insufficient by state officials.

Others are still being reviewed. On Friday, officials in Illinois found that 60 percent of the signatures the campaign submitted there were invalid, leaving West without the required 2,500 signatures to appear on the ballot. The campaign can still challenge the finding.

Despite his campaign’s struggles, there has been a flurry of activity by GOP operatives to get him on the ballot in recent weeks.

The effort has been particularly striking in the swing state of Wisconsin, where Trump defeated Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by less than 23,000 votes in 2016. Studies have shown that turnout among Wisconsin’s Black voters dipped significantly that year, likely contributing to Clinton’s loss. They are expected to play a key role in the presidential vote again in November.

On Tuesday, as local reporters watched, West’s ballot petition was delivered to state regulators by Lane Ruhland, a Madison lawyer who is the former general counsel for the state Republican Party.

Just weeks ago, Ruhland was listed as an attorney representing the Trump campaign on a document filed in a lawsuit against a local television station, according to court records. She did not respond to requests for comment.

To get on the ballot, Wisconsin law requires a candidate to submit signatures from between 2,000 and 4,000 state residents and identify 10 people who would serve as electors should the candidate win the state.

Of the 10 electors listed on West’s petition, The Post found at least six appear to have ties to the Republican Party.

They included Fred Krumberger, whose wife, Marian, is the immediate past chairwoman of Wisconsin’s Brown County Republican committee. According to pictures she posted on Facebook, the two attended Trump’s inauguration in 2017 and were photographed with the new president at an event, standing in front of the U.S. and Wisconsin flags as Trump flashed his signature two thumbs up.

Another West elector, JM McKoy, is listed as an officer on the website of the Young Wisconsin Republicans. The Facebook page of a third West elector, Terri Steinbecker, features a banner that includes Trump’s name and a bald eagle and a profile picture featuring the slogan of the conspiracy movement QAnon.

A fourth, Jordan Wieland, has tweeted that he is the brother-in-law of Joe Fadness, the campaign manager of Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s unsuccessful 2018 reelection bid.

Neither Fadness nor any of the electors responded to requests for comment.

Alesha Guenther, a spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, did not answer questions about whether the party played a role in compiling West’s petition and, if so, why.

But she said in a statement that it appeared “the Kanye West campaign made a smart decision by hiring an experienced election attorney.”

“We welcome Kanye West and all other candidates who qualified for ballot access to the race, and look forward to delivering Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes to President Trump,” she added.

The effort to get West on the ballot was decried by David Crowley, a Democrat who took office in May as the first Black executive of Milwaukee County. Crowley said the effort appeared aimed at peeling off minority voters to boost Trump.

“This is the Republican Party really trying to take advantage of someone’s mental state,” he said, referring to West’s bipolar disorder. “It’s appalling. It’s insulting. Quite frankly, I can’t believe they’re really doing it.”

Crowley said that he believes Black voters would see through the effort.

“We want them to know we will not be tricked,” he said. “If he is on the ballot, we will tell the community what this strategy is and not let them be confused by the Republican Party and Donald Trump.”

Two formal challenges to West’s candidacy were filed on behalf of five Wisconsin voters on Friday, arguing among other things that his forms were filed just past a 5 p.m. deadline on Tuesday and that they failed to include West’s home address, as required by state law.

One included signed affidavits from people who had signed the petition for his candidacy but said afterward that they were misled about its purpose. One said he was told only that it was related to voting. Another said she was told she should sign simply to indicate that she was registered to vote.

“Kanye West would not get my vote, and I think it’s a joke that he’s running for president,” the voter swore.

West’s campaign has until the end of the Monday to respond. State officials will decide likely later this month whether he has qualified for the Wisconsin ballot.

Before declaring his candidacy, West repeatedly praised Trump, saying the two shared “dragon energy.” In October 2018, West visited Trump in the Oval Office at the White House, a surreal scene in which the rapper sat across the Resolute Desk from the president, rattling on incoherently about the 13th Amendment, American manufacturing and his own mental health, dropping profanities in the process.

He wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat and repeatedly complimented Trump, who nodded, speechless for once, as reporters and TV cameras looked on.

West behaved so erratically that even Trump was taken aback, asking aides afterward, “What was up with him?” according to a former senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private conversation.

Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner argued that hosting West and Kardashian West, who worked closely with the White House on an effort to reform criminal sentencing rules, could improve the president’s standing with Black voters, according to the official, who said Trump was swayed by the electoral argument.

Not long before West announced his candidacy, the host committee for Trump’s convention in Jacksonville discussed inviting the rapper to perform a “revival-style” concert on the eve of the GOP convention, according to a person familiar with the discussions, a sign that Trump’s staff have in recent weeks viewed the rapper as an ally and asset.

It is unclear if West still felt that way.

Shortly before he formally entered the race, West said that the campaign was his way of “taking the red hat off,” telling Forbes that he did not like that Trump “hid” in a White House bunker during social justice protests in June.

Kanye West breaks with Trump, claims 2020 run is not a stunt

That has not stopped Republicans from working to get him on the ballot.

In Arkansas, West’s petition was signed by Gregg Keller, a longtime Republican operative who is the former executive director of the American Conservative Union.

Sam Nunberg, a former Trump adviser, said he brought Keller to meet with Trump twice beginning in late 2014, hoping Keller would become campaign manager. The Post reviewed a memo prepared by Nunberg and given to Trump that laid out Keller’s qualifications for the manager job.

“Trump liked him,” Nunberg said.

Keller did not respond to requests for comment.

In Colorado, Vice News obtained an email written by Republican strategist Rachel George, a former aide to GOP Sen. Cory Gardner, seeking fellow Republicans to serve as West electors.

“I have the most random favor to ask of you ever . . . would you help me get Kanye West on the ballot in Colorado?” wrote George, who did not respond to requests for comment.

“No, I am not joking, and I realize this is hilarious,” she added.

As New York Magazine first reported, George’s husband also leads a Republican strategy firm that was paid more than $92,000 by the Republican National Committee earlier this year.

Some clues about who is behind the effort could come Aug. 20, when West is required by law to report his fundraising and spending for the month of July to the Federal Election Commission.

Polls show that Black voters are overwhelmingly opposed to Trump. But his campaign has repeatedly worked to try dampen support for Democrats in the African American community. In the last election, Trump’s campaign circulated social media memes highlighting that Clinton had supported harsh criminal sentencing rules enacted while her husband was president in the 1990s.

In recent days, Trump has been hitting Biden for an interview in which the former vice president said “unlike the African American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community with incredibly different attitudes.”

The suggestion that Black voters have monolithic opinions — which Biden said later he did not mean — prompted Trump to tweet Friday, “After yesterday's statement, Sleepy Joe Biden is no longer worthy of the Black Vote!”

Trump campaign pollsters have told other advisers they do not know how a West campaign would affect the White House contest.

But Nunberg, who worked for Trump for four years as he prepared his presidential run before they had a falling-out in 2015, said the effort to get West on the ballot was the kind of political scheme that would both appeal to Trump — and potentially help him.

“Does the Biden campaign want Kanye West campaigning in Cleveland, in Cincinnati, in Milwaukee?” he asked. “I don’t think they do.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.