The most blistering voices in the campaign to defeat Trump are so far not coming from Democrats, but rather from Republicans — and, in some cases, former Republicans — who are delivering a dizzying stream of ads to needle the President and castigate his actions.
“He has done harm to the nation,” Jack Spielman, a 33-year Army veteran and Michigan Republican who voted for Trump in 2016, told CNN. “Just as what happened with the Reagan Democrats, now it’s the Republicans’ turn to become Republican Democrats or Biden Republicans and return the favor. The nation needs us right now to get on a corrective course.”
Spielman is among those offering a testimonial in ads from Republican Voters Against Trump, which is one of the groups challenging the President. The Lincoln Project is another leading voice of the Never Trump movement, producing some of the most scorching spots ever to run against a sitting President. Both groups are pledging to spend several million and scrambling to raise more, but even a successful fundraising effort will yield only a fraction of what candidates are investing in the race.
“The most powerful office in the world needs more than a weak, unfit, shaky President,” a narrator said in a recent Lincoln Project ad, which sharply questioned Trump’s fitness for office. “Trump doesn’t have the strength to lead, nor the character to admit it.”
The television and digital campaign, along with acerbic tweets, is essentially designed to give Trump a dose of his own medicine. But it’s also aimed at seeing whether a broader swath of Republicans may be more receptive to making Trump a one-term President, given his handling of the coronavirus crisis, the wounded economy and racial injustice in America.
A spokesman for the Trump campaign declined to comment about the Never Trump movement. The President’s aides have previously dismissed the movement as “irrelevant” and “sad.”
‘Our focus in 2020 is really thinking about real people’
“It’s not that Donald Trump just gives us material for the ads,” said Sarah Longwell, strategic director of Republican Voters Against Trump. “It’s about Donald Trump not being fit to be President, and everybody is seeing that now.”
Longwell, a longtime Republican strategist who has been working to defeat Trump since before he was elected, has conducted focus groups with hundreds of Republicans who supported the President. Those conversations led her to believe that many voters are looking for a permission structure — or, perhaps, in need of a little like-minded nudging — to abandon Trump.
“In 2016, he got nominated, everybody sort of panicked and we all tried to beat him and obviously we failed,” Longwell said. “One of the things we did at the time was a bunch of elites from the Reagan and Bush era signed letters, talking about why they didn’t like Trump, but so much of the support for Trump was an anti-elitism play. So our focus in 2020 is really thinking about real people and real voices and how they’re thinking about Donald Trump after seeing him be President for the last four years.”
Women will be at the center of that movement, Longwell said, just as they were during the 2018 midterm elections. And the President’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and the racial unrest this year has awakened a sentiment that no previous Trump controversy or scandal has, she said.
“I think women are going to cost Donald Trump this election,” Longwell said. “Now what we’re seeing is not just a get a gender gap. It is a gender chasm with women, especially suburban women are walking away in droves.”
Republican Voters Against Trump is targeting voters through an initial $10 million campaign in North Carolina, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — all states that Trump won in 2016. The group is taking testimonials from voters across the country and hopes to expand to other states.
Tim Miller, the political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and a former adviser to Jeb Bush, said this effort marks one of the first persuasion campaigns against the President. The group is trying to reach voters who identify as conservative or Republican and encourage them to support Biden over Trump or a third-party candidate.
“There was not a formal campaign to defeat Trump because no one really thought he would win,” Miller said. “Now he’s been the President. Things that were offensive about him before didn’t impact people’s lives. Now they really are impacting people in a negative way.”
‘Does he have a base?’
One of the biggest differences between the Never Trump movement of 2020 versus 2016, he said, is that Hillary Clinton was not seen as an acceptable choice by many Republicans, but Biden is.
Less than four months before the election, other Republican groups have also come out in support of the presumptive Democratic nominee.
A new group, made up of alumni of the George W. Bush administration, has joined the fray, with a slogan: “We worked for W. We support Joe.” Another group, Right Side PAC — led by former Ohio GOP Chairman Matt Borges and Anthony Scaramucci, who worked as White House communications director for 10 days in the Trump administration — is also targeting voters in key battleground states.
It is ads and videos from the Lincoln Project that have gotten the most attention — including from the President himself, who attacked the organizers in a post-midnight tweet as “RINO losers.” The group, which places ads on Fox News when it thinks Trump is likely to be watching, is made up of top advisers to the campaigns of former President Bush and former GOP presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney.
George Conway, whose wife, Kellyanne Conway, serves as counselor to Trump, is a co-founder of the Lincoln Project. He vehemently opposes the President, a point he makes clear on social media, but he declined to comment about the group’s ads or mission.
Still, even as worry rises among Republican officials about their prospects of holding the White House and the Senate, the lifeblood of the opposition to Trump still comes from Democrats and independents, not Republicans. It remains an open question what influence, if any, the Never Trump movement will yield in November.
The Republicans involved in the groups are well aware that Trump controls the Republican Party, but they insist that cracks are growing in their party and the resistance movement is quietly growing.
“There’s always going to be a core of support that’s never going to walk away from Donald Trump,” Longwell said. “Does he have a base? Of course. But you need bigger political coalitions to win elections. His political coalition is shrinking by the day.”