Home » Operatives with GOP ties are helping Cornel West get on the ballot in a key state

Operatives with GOP ties are helping Cornel West get on the ballot in a key state

Documents obtained by NBC News show operatives connected to a Colorado-based GOP firm helped the far-left presidential candidate in North Carolina.

Cornel West’s independent presidential campaign is broke. His former campaign manager says he knows nothing about ballot access. And he spent more on graphic design than petition-gathering in his most recent campaign finance report.

But tens of thousands of signatures have been gathered on behalf of the famed left-wing academic in key states thanks to self-organized grassroots volunteers — and some help from outside operatives tied to a Republican consulting firm.

Democrats fear West’s potential to siphon votes from President Joe Biden in places where he is on the ballot in a close election, and some Republicans are publicly discussing ways to boost West and other minor candidates like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the Green Party’s Jill Stein in the hopes of splitting the anti-Donald Trump coalition. 

In North Carolina, for example, a prominent Republican activist was spotted in April outside a Trump rally gathering signatures for West, telling rallygoers it “helps take away votes from Joe Biden.”

Meanwhile, a new party formed in the state to get West on the ballot announced Monday that its “all-volunteer effort” had submitted more than 30,000 signatures, despite having virtually no oversight and receiving not “a cent” from West’s campaign.

“Without this grassroots effort, there’s no way we could have done it,” Drew Lischke, a co-chair of the Justice for All Party of North Carolina, said at a news conference. “This was a very low, low, low budget operation.”

But internal emails obtained by NBC News, social media posts and other evidence suggest someone from the outside — though it’s unclear who or how much, if anything, they spent — was trying to help West get on the ballot in North Carolina, even if his grassroots allies were not fully aware of it.

Emails from elections officials, obtained through a request under North Carolina’s Public Records Law, show the pro-West Justice for All Party authorized three people to pick up and drop off signatures for them statewide — and all three are current or past employees of a Colorado-based Republican political firm called Blitz Canvassing.

Blitz Canvassing has worked for numerous Republican House and Senate candidates and took in more than $14.6 million in payments working for Never Back Down, the main super PAC that supported former GOP presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, according to campaign finance reports.

“In the same way that Republicans have quietly pushed ballot access for the Green Party across the country for years, there’s concrete evidence — not rumors, but evidence — in North Carolina and in other states of an organized Republican effort to get Cornel West on ballots, using Republican consultants and vendors that the West campaign is not paying for,” said Pete Kavanaugh, who founded Clear Choice Action, a new Democratic super PAC working to combat third-party candidates.

West campaign spokesperson Edwin DeJesus said the campaign was “not aware of these particular individuals being involved with a Republican firm” and so it did “not have any specific comments since we are not familiar with them or their affiliations.”

“However, it’s important to note that our volunteer base encompasses a broad spectrum of political affiliations,” DeJesus added.

‘We haven’t paid them one cent’

On May 7, a top official at the North Carolina State Board of Elections emailed colleagues with some “important updates and reminders” about various upcoming deadlines and events, according to a redacted copy of the email, which was shared with NBC News after being obtained via a public records request by Clear Choice.

Included on the list was an update about the pro-West Justice For All Party’s petition efforts. The email alerted other officials that the party’s “chairperson has authorized the following representatives to drop off and pick up petitions” throughout the state: Jacob Smith, David Mills and Charisma Harris.

Smith is listed as project manager on Blitz Canvassing’s website, and the cellphone number listed in the email matches one given for Smith in a Michigan GOP fundraising email that pointed recipients to him if they had questions. Mills says on LinkedIn that he is employed full time as a project manager for Blitz. And Harris says on LinkedIn that she currently runs her own canvassing firm but served as regional political director for Blitz until January. Before that, she was a campaign manager for Blitz, where she started working in 2022.

Italo Medelius, a co-chair of the Justice for All Party and its official representative to election officials, acknowledged to NBC News that he authorized the three to work on behalf of the campaign, saying he did so because they were familiar with the intricacies of petitioning procedures.

But he had no idea they worked for Blitz and had never heard of the company, saying their names were included on a list of potential volunteers sent over by West’s campaign, with a notation that they had experience in petition gathering.

“I know Charisma, Jacob and David as volunteers,” Medelius said. “We haven’t paid them one cent.”

He said he had known Harris for years and worked with her on the 2020 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, but said he only became aware of Smith and Mills after they appeared on the West campaign’s volunteer list. 

“We did talk about, from the beginning of this operation, that there might be infiltrators trying to get into the campaign,” Medelius said. “If there are people that infiltrated or whatever, it could be true, I guess, but I never really had a hint from these folks.”

Smith, Mills and Harris did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Alyssa Zambrano, a manager at Blitz, told NBC News in a brief interview that she had “no idea” why the three were working on behalf of the Justice for All campaign and said her firm was not doing any work for West. 

“We have nothing to do with that,” Zambrano said. “We’re not working for them.”

Follow-up emails and text messages asking for more clarification from Blitz went unanswered.

‘Beyond fishy’

Before the consultants’ roles were known, the geography of the Justice for All signatures raised alarm bells among local Democrats. 

The pro-West party received large batches of signatures from Republican-leaning counties like Brunswick and New Hanover, while there were proportionally fewer than expected from more Democratic-leaning counties and ones with large university campuses, where West’s progressive and proPalestine messaging would be likely to resonate.

“It’s beyond fishy,” said Doug Heyl, a North Carolina-based Democratic strategist. “It seems very likely that a lot of these are Republican signatures that want Cornel West on the ballot to help Trump.” 

Separately, a high-profile Republican activist who focuses on early voting was spotted gathering signatures for West outside a planned rally for former Trump in April in Wilmington, North Carolina. 

“This helps take away votes from Joe Biden,” Scott Presler told a rallygoer, according to a video posted by a Washington Post reporter. “We’re helping the Trump team who’s trying to get him on there,” added a woman by his side. The rally was later canceled due to bad weather. 

Documents obtained by NBC news suggest this was not just a stunt or idle talk.

Hundreds of pages of petition signatures submitted by the Justice for All Party, also obtained through a public records request, show dozens of registered Republicans signed petitions to get the pro-West party on the ballot on the same day as the Trump rally and in the same county.

On the social media platform X, where Presler has 1.5 million followers, he put out a call ahead North Carolina’s ballot deadline saying, “We are working on getting Dr. Cornel West on the ballot in North Carolina. If anyone is interested in helping, let me know.”

Asked about Presler on CNN in April, West said he had never heard of the right-wing influencer and did not want his help. 

“No, no, I don’t think so, if it’s just manipulative,” West said. “If people are just going to use this candidate for X and Y, no, not at all.”

West campaign struggles

These efforts are happening on the sidelines of a campaign that has struggled in its own efforts.

Getting on the ballot is the biggest challenge for any independent or third-party candidate — and also a place where outside forces have a history of meddling — but West’s campaign has stumbled trying to meet that challenge.

West’s most recent campaign finance report showed he entered May with just $18,000 in cash and more than that — $28,000 — in debt. Campaign finance expert Rob Pyers noted the report showed West’s campaign spent more on graphic design in April than it spent on petitioning services for ballot access. 

By comparison, Kennedy spent more than $2 million on a single company specializing in ballot access for his own independent campaign, according to his own FEC report covering the same time period. 

“There’s a Kennedy presence in North Carolina. There’s no West presence here,” said Heyl.

In late April and early May, West’s campaign listed 70 volunteer events across the country, but none were in North Carolina.

Before running as an independent, West was on track to claim the nomination of the Green Party, which has existing infrastructure and ballot lines he could have used. But West abruptly left the party last fall, stunning Green Party officials like Jill Stein, who was managing his campaign and is now expected to once again be the Greens’ nominee in his absence. 

“You can’t do ballot access on your first time out,” Stein told left-wing podcast host Briahna Joy Gray in a recent interview. “He’s talking about running as a write-in candidate in Texas, but he doesn’t know that Texas won’t count write-in votes! And that’s true in many states.”

West and Stein have been feuding after he accused her of being “addicted” to running for president and said he had lost “all respect” for her.

Stein said West has refused to discuss the issue with her and explain why he left the Green Party, adding that he’s a “political novice” and that it was “hard to give him advice” about the mechanics of ballot access and running a campaign.

“There is absolutely no pathway forward for Dr. West,” Stein said.

Nevertheless, some people are working to clear a path for him.

Source: NBC News