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Kanye West’s Nearly $7 Million Presidential Bid Has Hit Some Legal Snags

Kanye West during his infamous White House appearance in 2018. Photo: Ron Sachs/Getty Images

So far, Kanye West has spent nearly $7 million of his own money on what continues to be one of the most befuddling presidential bids in the history of American politics.

An overdue campaign-finance report filed with the Federal Election Commission on the Friday of the holiday weekend provided new insight into what, exactly, the rapper is doing. So far, those millions have made West likely to appear on the ballot in at least 12 states — including swing states like Minnesota and Iowa.

There is also ongoing litigation in five other states where he still hopes to make the cut. The most remarkable case is in Virginia, where a number of electors for West were unaware that they had signed paperwork to be his electors. In what was almost certainly a first in American history, two electors for West successfully sued to have the candidate removed from the ballot in the state on Thursday. In a statement to Intelligencer, Gregg Keller, the top strategist for the West campaign, described the decision as “a typical, tired political show trial” and insisted the campaign would appeal.

The issues were slightly more pedestrian in the swing state of Arizona, where West was also thrown off the ballot Thursday after a local judge ruled that the rapper’s Republican voter registration in Wyoming disqualified him from running as an independent presidential candidate in the Grand Canyon State as a matter of state law. The West campaign’s lawyer in Arizona, Tim LaSota, has since appealed the decision to the state supreme court.

In defiance of the court order, the West campaign submitted further signatures to the Arizona secretary of State on Friday afternoon after the secretary of State was enjoined from accepting more petitions from the rapper. This prompted a letter sent to LaSota from the secretary of State asking that the West campaign “please spare us any further publicity stunts.”

There also was a protest held outside the secretary of State’s office on Friday afternoon. A reporter for NBC News tweeted that the protesters were paid signature-gatherers for the campaign’s effort in Arizona and that showing up was a precondition for them to get paid for their work. However, a source familiar with the effort said that the protest consisted only of those signature gatherers who had volunteered to do it and were motivated by frustration that their weeks of effort had been nullified by a court decision.

As to the question of who is paying these workers and how much, the campaign-finance reports filed by West show three firms receiving the bulk of the campaign’s spending. Atlas Strategy Group, the firm run by Keller, was paid nearly $1.3 million. Arizona-based Fortified Consulting was paid $1.5 million, with another $1.2 million owed to it in outstanding debt, and Long Island–based Millennial Strategies was paid $2.6 million.

It’s unclear how much of this money was paid directly to these entities and how much was simply used to pass through to other vendors. The first two firms have deep Republican ties. Keller is a longtime Republican operative in Missouri who is the former executive director of the American Conservative Union and worked for Senator Josh Hawley. Fortified Consulting shares a mailing address with an established Republican firm Lincoln Strategy Group — and Meghan Cox, a partner at Lincoln Strategy, was with the Kanye West protesters on Friday. Millennial Strategies is a firm that’s worked for Democrats and was paid money for a variety of services, including $444,000 for polling and $205,000 for “campaign website services.”

The campaign has also spent over $260,000 on lawyers, most of whom have Republican ties. Lane Ruhland, who has represented Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in federal court, filed on behalf of West’s presidential campaign in Wisconsin. Ruhland’s firm, Husch Blackwell, was paid $10,000 by the West campaign. In his efforts to get back on the ballot in West Virginia, he is being represented by Mark Adkins and Richie Heath, who represented Donald Trump Jr. in a 2019 lawsuit. The RNC paid its law firm, Bowles Rice, nearly $17,000 in May. West has paid the firm $20,000.

The West campaign’s lawyers don’t represent its only ties to the GOP. Starting from Keller, who once interviewed to be Donald Trump’s campaign manager, down to electors with longstanding ties to the Republican Party, there has been a consistent — although not exclusive — trend of Republicans flocking to the West campaign. The exceptions include Isaac Ford, whose father and brother were both Democratic congressmen from Memphis; he was paid $25,000 by the West campaign.

The Republican ties, combined with West’s previous support of Donald Trump, have nonetheless prompted action by Democrats to thwart the rapper’s campaign. Democratic super-lawyer Marc Elias represented the plaintiffs in the successful effort to boot West from the ballot in Virginia, and in Arizona, there were “blockers” who attempted to impede the efforts of signature-gatherers for West.

While Democratic operatives have expressed skepticism about whether West’s candidacy actually takes more votes from Joe Biden than from Donald Trump (as some Republicans seem to believe), West’s campaign has also sparked opposition based on principle. After all, it is natural for Democrats to believe that the presidential candidacy of a celebrity who is publicly struggling with mental illness, has worn a Make America Great Again hat in the Oval Office, and has boasted of his friendship with Jared Kushner is not based on the purest motives. Further, there is a latent desire to oppose anything that even has the slightest hint of a Trumpist effort to cause chaos in November.

The final lineup of states where West will appear on the ballot was set on Friday when West filed to appear on the ballot in Kentucky and Mississippi. The Kentucky effort was marked by an effort targeting students at college campuses, with a particularly strong presence at the University of Louisville, where signature-gatherers tried a variety of sales pitches — including deceptive ones. Andrew Baldleon told Intelligencer that he was approached on campus while waiting for a university shuttle bus to “sign a petition to get Kanye off the ballot.” Baldleon said “I don’t know how to say no” and signed after the person gathering signatures insisted that West was “a nutcase on social media.”

A.J. Yarbrough, a junior at the school, said that someone approached him simply asking about “trying to get an independent candidate on the ballot.” He said that he didn’t realize it was Kanye West until he finally noticed the rapper’s name at the top of the form. Yarbrough then asked the signature-gatherer about a pitch being given to students about the rapper potentially coming to campus. She simply said, “Maybe.”

Although West had also gathered signatures in North Dakota, the campaign didn’t file there because the state requires candidates to submit personal financial disclosure forms. The obstacle there was not the rapper but his running mate, biblical life coach Michelle Tidball. A source familiar with the effort said that Tidball was hesitant to file that paperwork.

West’s campaign is expected to take more concrete form now that the filing deadlines have passed. So far, he has only held one campaign event, a peculiar July rally in South Carolina where he donned a bulletproof vest and criticized Harriet Tubman. The rally was held as part of his unsuccessful effort to gather sufficient signatures to appear on the ballot in the state, including — according to the campaign’s FEC filing — paying various businesses and churches in the Charleston area to allow signatures to be gathered on their premises.

Per the campaign’s finance reports, the Chucktown Bar & Grill in North Charleston was paid $3,900 by the West campaign. That establishment’s owner told Intelligencer at the time that his radio sales representative had approached him about allowing his business “to be a place where citizens could come out to petition for [West] to be on the presidential ballot.” New Bethel Sounds of Praise, a church where the woman answering the phone at the time said that there was no such effort taking place, was only paid $1,000 by the West campaign. The South Carolina effort was promoted by the only press release ever sent out by the West campaign — to reporters in the state based on a press list provided by C.J. Westfall, a local Republican operative and fan of the rapper.

Since then, the West campaign’s public-facing communication has been almost entirely limited to Keller’s Twitter account and legal briefs filed in various court cases as the rapper has attempted to secure ballot access. However, that seems likely to change over the next two months. West, of course, still has plenty of money to spend. He told Nick Cannon in a recent interview that he had spent $50 million on Sunday Service, an elaborate mix of prayer circle and musical performance that West regularly holds on Sundays.

In other words, the nearly $7 million spent so far could just be the tip of the iceberg for what West might spend over the last two months of the 2020 presidential election.

This post has been updated to include additional reporting about the Arizona protest.

Kanye West’s Nearly $7 Million Campaign Hits Legal Snags