The surprising reports that "Never Trump" Republicans could turn to conservative writer David French to launch an independent bid for president left many Washington insiders with some urgent questions.
Chief among them: Who is this guy, and where did he come from?
Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who has been spearheading the effort to recruit an alternative to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump defends indicted GOP congressman House to vote Thursday on holding Bannon in contempt Youngkin calls for investigation into Loudoun County School Board amid sexual assault allegations MORE, whet the appetites of anti-Trump Republicans over the weekend with the promise of an “impressive” candidate who would have “a strong team and a real chance to win.”
Many believed Kristol would produce a candidate from the Republican bench of current and former lawmakers, governors or retired four-star generals would ride to the rescue.
So it was a surprise when French, a Tennessee-based conservative lawyer and writer for the National Review who has little name recognition outside of elite conservative media circles, was floated as the potential independent candidate.
But interviews with those close to French reveal the areas where Kristol and others see potential.
French, who is in his late 40s, was awarded the Bronze Star after leaving a comfortable legal career to serve in Iraq in 2007. He’s a Harvard-educated lawyer and former Constitutional professor at Cornell University, a former evangelical organizer for Mitt Romney’s two presidential campaigns, and a father and husband with a multi-racial family.
When French returned from serving in the U.S. Army’s JAG Corps in Iraq, he and his wife Nancy — herself a best-selling conservative author who co-wrote Bristol Palin’s memoir, as well as an Ann Romney memoir that was never published — added to their family by adopting a baby girl from Ethiopia. They also have an adolescent son and daughter together.
Kurt Keilhacker, a California venture capitalist and GOP donor who raised money for both of Romney’s presidential runs, described French as an understated intellectual with a deep understanding of foreign affairs who joined the military because he was alarmed by the rise of terrorism.
Keilhacker, who says he would support French’s presidential bid and help him raise money, says French has arrived at this point because he’s again considering the best way to serve the nation.
“He’s the last person in the world who would raise the starter flag like this just to draw attention to himself,” Keilhacker said. “I think he sees a situation where someone has to stand up and say we can do better than Trump or Hillary. Everyone else is ducking and running.”
It’s a surprising turn of events for French, who until Tuesday was not even one of the National Review’s top personalities or opinion leaders.
French is not on television regularly or a must-read in conservative circles, although he’s become well-known in his short time with the magazine.
“He’s prolific,” said Oren Cass, who served as domestic policy adviser to Romney in 2012. “Anyone who checks the National Review’s website or magazine regularly will recognize his byline.”
In recent columns French has been banging the drum for an alternative to Trump.
Last month, French wrote about the need for conservatives to fight back against a candidate “who combines old-school Democratic ideology, a bizarre form of hyper-violent isolationism, fringe conspiracy theories, and serial lies with an enthusiastic flock of online racists to create perhaps the most toxic electoral coalition since George Wallace.”
He also keeps up with sports and pop culture and writes reviews about the HBO fantasy drama “Game of Thrones” for the National Review website.
But French’s foray into politics began long before his writing career.
In 2008, French and his wife became unofficial ambassadors on behalf of the Romney campaign to the evangelical community.
“Gov. Romney’s Mormon faith was a much bigger hurdle for him during that first presidential run,” said Ryan Williams, a former Romney spokesman. “They did what they could to build a core of evangelical support for him.”
The Frenches launched a website that is still up today — EvangelicalsForMitt.org — and generally helped Romney with organization and outreach.
Here, the Frenches became close friends with Keilhacker and John Kingston, a former executive at the $9 billion company, Affiliated Managers Group, who was also a Romney donor and would likely support French if he launches a presidential bid, a source with knowledge told The Hill.
If French does enter the race, he will be starting with almost zero name recognition and will have to immediately raise tens of millions of dollars to compete with Trump and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump defends indicted GOP congressman GOP lawmaker says he expects to be indicted over FBI investigation Why it's time for conservatives to accept the 2020 election results and move on MORE.
He’ll badly need to tap into Romney’s deep network of fundraisers, and Keilhacker and Kingston could help in that regard.
"David and Nancy need to make the decision," said Keilhacker. "But the moment they do, I'll work as hard as I can on their behalf."
But few believe French has a real shot at the White House, and insiders dismissed his potential candidacy as a massive let-down after Kristol's monthslong build-up in which he sought higher profile candidates, including Romney.
French will also face a monumentally difficult task just to get on the ballot in all 50 states.
The deadline to get on the ballot in Texas has already passed, although French could seek an extension by challenging the deadline in court.
Deadlines also loom in four other states this month, with North Carolina, Illinois, Indiana and New Mexico each requiring between 15,000 and 90,000 signatures to get on the ballot.
Elections expert Josh Putnam told The Hill that it’s not technically too late to get on most state ballots but that logistically, it’s highly unlikely that a candidate with French’s profile could hope to make it on to the ballot in a majority of states at this late date.
Still, French has already succeeded in rallying Republicans to his defense after the media piled on him Tuesday.
Social media exploded with mockery at reports that French might enter the race, and reporters dug through the archives of French’s writing looking for controversy.
Several reporters made fun of an agreement French and his wife reached about her abstaining from online discourse with other men while he was serving in Iraq. Republicans have been quick to get his back.
“The discussion about how he and his wife decided to jointly handle their marriage while he served in armed forces overseas was unfortunate and disgraceful,” said Williams. “For them to say those things about him while he’s fighting for our freedoms is disgusting.”
Romney, who many believe would be the most formidable potential candidate who could still enter the race, got the ball rolling in French’s direction, calling him “an honorable, intelligent and patriotic person.”
“I look forward to following what he has to say,” Romney tweeted.
French and Kristol have taken to Twitter to warn skeptics against underestimating another outsider.
Here in Israel, reading about possible @DavidAFrench candidacy, thought of Herzl: Im tirtzu, ein zo agada. If you will it, it is no dream.— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) June 1, 2016
All the normal political rules apply. The conventional wisdom has been right. An underdog can't win. Right?— David French (@DavidAFrench) June 1, 2016
And conservative pundit Erick Erickson, another influential figure involved in the search for an independent alternative, is already on board, albeit with a deeply pessimistic qualifier.
“It is a nearly insurmountable improbability,” Erickson wrote. “And still I would vote for David French or even write him in.”