Kanye West’s secretive political operation has no shot of landing him a spot in the Oval Office, but he and the Republican operatives propping him up could still wreak havoc in a handful of battleground states come November.
“Kanye West will not garner enough voters to become president. But he can garner enough voters to determine the outcome of this election,” said Terrance Woodbury, a Democratic pollster and partner at HIT Strategies.
Any third-party candidate can pose a risk in a tight election, and strategists say that’s even more true when the candidate comes with name recognition and nationwide fan base. West isn’t holding campaign events or even filing required financial disclosures. He’s keeping his campaign organization under wraps. And aides are focused almost entirely on getting his name onto the ballot.
So far, the music mogul has only made the ballot in 10 states, making it mathematically impossible for him to become the next president. But those states include potential battlegrounds like Colorado, Iowa and Minnesota.
West’s campaign took two blows on Thursday. A judge booted him from the ballot in Virginia, saying the campaign fraudulently or improperly collected signatures. And in Arizona, a judge blocked West from appearing on the ballot.
Political operatives on both sides of the aisle said West’s campaign appears to be little more than an effort to skim support from Democratic nominee Joe Biden and boost President Donald Trump’s reelection odds. One source told CNN that GOP operatives believed they had the Trump campaign’s blessing to aid West’s efforts.
“I think, unfortunately, he’s being used by these Republicans,” said Quentin James, founder and president of The Collective PAC, which aims to elect more Black candidates. “It’s really sad and, you know, we wish Kanye the best in getting his mental health under control. But again, this is not what we want to see in politics. We want to see Black voters and their voices heard at the ballot box. Not by voting for Kanye West, who has no shot right to bring forth new ideas to win the White House.”
When a reporter from Forbes recently pointed out to West that he has no shot at the Oval Office and appears to be a spoiler candidate, West replied, “I’m not going to argue with you. Jesus is King.”
Critics said the effort to prop up West’s campaign looks particularly unseemly given West’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The disorder is marked by swings between mania and depression and the rap superstar has said publicly he does not take medication for his illness.
“Taking this man who needs help and propping him up for their own good and for their own gain, it’s disgusting,” said mental health advocate Bassey Ikpi, who is the author of “I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying,” and lives with bipolar disorder. “That’s what they’re doing with Kanye. They’re not considering him a human being. They’re considering him a pawn.”
A representative for West did not respond to a list of questions from CNN regarding West’s campaign.
The Birthday Party
West announced he was running for president on July 4 and declared to Forbes he was running as a member of the Birthday Party, “Because when we win, it’s everybody’s birthday.”
His South Carolina campaign kickoff immediately raised concerns about the rapper’s wellbeing.
West, who appeared wearing a bullet-proof vest, jumped from topic to topic before he broke down crying while discussing abortion and his family.
“Running for president will not contribute to his wellbeing,” said Katherine Burdick, an associate professor of psychology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who has studied bipolar disorder for decades. “It will put him under an enormous amount of stress regardless of the outcome.”
The people who are most successful at treating the illness tend to take medication and pay close attention to changes in their mood, sleep, diet or stress, she said.
‘Life is weird’
As mental health advocates have looked on with concern, the West campaign has cobbled together Republican operatives and attorneys – most of whom refuse to discuss their work with the campaign – who could help the campaign play catch up.
West’s late entry into the presidential fray put the fashion and music mogul well behind in the scramble to get on the ballot, a complicated effort that varies state by state.
Half a dozen GOP political operatives said Gregg Keller – a Republican and a former executive director of the American Conservative Union – is at the heart of West’s campaign effort and has helped recruit other Republicans across the country to help.
Keller, a prolific Tweeter on the twists-and-turns of the campaign’s ballot access efforts, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. In a recent Instagram post – a screenshot with a section of the Vice story reporting Keller’s involvement with the West campaign – Keller added the caption, “Life is weird.”
Mark Jacoby, an executive at a company called Let The Voters Decide, is also helping the West campaign collect signatures in multiple states. Jacoby has previously pleaded guilty to voter registration fraud related to his work for the California Republican Party.
A representative for the company said, “This years-old misdemeanor charge had nothing to do with any political campaign or voter, Let The Voters Decide, voter registrations, elections or any other matter and any ongoing focus on it is misplaced and irresponsible.”
Still, the West campaign has been dogged by allegations of improperly or fraudulently obtaining signatures, which led to West being kicked off the Virginia ballot this week.
Local GOP operatives are also popping up to aid West in potential battleground states where the singer is aiming to appear on the ballot.
In Wisconsin, longtime Republican lawyer Lane Ruhland dropped off West’s paperwork to appear on the ballot, just missing the deadline, according to state election officials.
Ruhland is also doing legal work on behalf of the Trump campaign, which prompted a watchdog group to file a complaint about her with the state bar. Ruhland did not respond to a request for comment.
The West campaign is still suing to try to get on the ballot in Wisconsin
An attorney representing West in the Wisconsin lawsuit, former Minnesota GOP official Erick Kaardal, said, “I’ve been instructed not to comment” when asked how he came to represent West.
When asked who instructed him not to comment, he said, “I really can’t comment.”
In Colorado, Republican operative Rachel George emailed another GOP strategist asking to help get West on the ballot. “No, I am not joking, and I realize this is hilarious,” she wrote, according to a copy of the email obtained by Vice News.
George did not respond to requests for comment.
‘I got more money than Trump’
West’s campaign has also raised suspicion that it’s little more than a spoiler effort in light of the hip hop star’s public support for the President and longtime friendship with Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
Back in 2016, West told a crowd that he didn’t vote in the election, but if he had, he “would have voted for Trump.” He later visited Trump in the White House in 2018, partly to talk about criminal justice reform, which is an issue his wife, Kim Kardashian West, has also worked on closely with the White House. During his Oval Office visit, West told Trump that wearing a MAGA hat made him feel like “Superman.”
This year, as West decided to run for President, he told Forbes, “I am taking the red hat off.”
In an interview on the Cannon’s Class podcast, Nick Cannon asked West about rumors that he is in “cahoots” with Republicans and being paid to run in 2020.
“Bro, can’t nobody pay me,” West responded. “I got more money than Trump.”
West’s campaign has so far failed to file its required financial disclosure forms, so it’s not publicly known who is bankrolling his campaign or who his campaign is paying.
Both the Trump campaign the President have denied playing any role in West’s presidential bid.
“Kim Kardashian, she’s got a good heart, a very good heart and I like Kanye very much,” Trump said, when asked about West in a press briefing last month. “I have nothing to do with him getting on the ballot. We’ll see what happens, but I’m not involved.”
Last month, Kushner confirmed that he met up with West on a trip to Colorado, and said they’ve been friends for a decade.
“We both happened to be in Colorado and so we got together and had a great discussion about a lot of things,” Kushner said during a White House press briefing last month. “He has some great ideas for what he’d like to see happen for the country.”
Living with bipolar disorder
In recent years, West has simultaneously courted controversy – including in his support for Trump – and openly addressed his diagnosis with bipolar disorder.
“S— could get menacin’, frightenin’, find help / Sometimes I scare myself, myself,” West sings on Yikes from his 2018 album “ye.”
On the same track, he calls bipolar disorder his “superpower.”
Ikpi, the author who lives with bipolar disorder, said, “It’s naïve to say don’t give him attention,” but people need to better understand the illness he’s living with.
She added: “There has to be a conversation about grace. There has to be a conversation about empathy, not just about Kanye West.”
After West’s South Carolina campaign stop, West’s wife asked the public for just that.
“We as a society talk about giving grace to the issue of mental health as a whole,” Kardashian West wrote, “however we should also give it to the individuals who are living with it in times when they need it the most.”
CNN’s Fredreka Schouten, Kristen Holmes and Ethan Cohen contributed to this report.