Organizers said they plan to begin purchasing television and digital ads in January.
“Our efforts will be dedicated to defeating President Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box and to elect those patriots who will hold the line,” Conway and Schmidt wrote in the editorial, also signed by Republican operatives John Weaver and Rick Wilson. “Our many policy differences with national Democrats remain, but our shared fidelity to the Constitution dictates a common effort.”
The tone of the op-ed, filled with grandiose appeals to the nation’s values, echoed the political call-to-arms made by “Never Trump” Republicans in 2016. The Lincoln Project organizers warned that Trump lacks the proper “temperament” to serve and is bereft of the “moral compass” needed to lead the country.
But Trump trounced such GOP critics in his upset victory in 2016, dismissing them as an out-of-touch and self-interested part of a Washington establishment — or “swamp” — that was threatened by his populist rhetoric. Since taking office, the president has continued his assault, driving some of the loudest Republican critics in Congress from office and freezing out many once-influential GOP figures from his administration.
As he consolidates his grip on the GOP, the president has weaponized the “Never Trump” label, using it in a bid to discredit those within his administration who have testified in the House Democrats’ impeachment hearings.
Dan Eberhart, a major Trump donor, professed skepticism that the Lincoln Project would gain inroads with Republican donors — or among Democrats, who would presumably support their party’s candidates directly.
“As an activist or donor, aligning yourself with a Never Trumper super PAC is a recipe for oblivion,” Eberhart said. “All the action is inside the tent in the Republican Party right now, and you see that in the House and the Senate not breaking on impeachment, you see that in Trump having an extremely high rating within the party, and you see that within the current level of donors. The donors are with Trump; the base is with Trump.”
Doug Deason, another Trump backer, predicted the Lincoln group will backfire “100 percent” by rallying more Republican donors around keeping the Senate.
Schmidt — who served as campaign manager of the 2008 presidential bid of the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) before renouncing the GOP last year — acknowledged that “the fight against Trump and Trumpism has largely been waged ineffectively” by Republicans. He pointed to a recent campaign ad from Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, which argued that the world was laughing at Trump, as the most effective message so far.
But he also noted that Republicans have lost several key elections since Trump took office, losing control of the House in the 2018 midterms and losing gubernatorial elections in Kentucky and Louisiana this year. Those signals, Schmidt said, suggest Trump is not invincible.
“We don’t propose to communicate through letters to the American people as we move forward in this effort,” Schmidt said, when asked how their strategy would differ from the “Never Trump” movement in 2016, which included a pair of anti-Trump public letters from scores of GOP national security figures.
“But all elections fundamentally are about a choice,” he said. “Our goal will be to help frame a choice and to frame a choice we hope from a unique perspective [as Republicans] that is able to penetrate parts of the tribal bubble.”
Trump has sought to accentuate the partisan divide, playing repeatedly to his conservative base and helping drive out more-moderate Republicans, including former senators Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.), who have criticized him. Two-thirds of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents (67 percent) strongly approved of Trump in a Marist poll this month, while just 5 percent said they strongly disapproved.
“This is a pathetic little club of irrelevant and faux ‘Republicans,’ who are upset that they’ve lost all of their power and influence inside the Republican Party,” Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director, said of the Lincoln Project founders.
Trump and his aides have verbally attacked Conway, who is married to White House counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway. On Tuesday, George T. Conway wrote on Twitter that “the Republican Party apparatus defines Republicanism and conservatism as meaning one thing — unwavering fidelity to the incompetent narcissistic sociopath in the White House.”
Lincoln Project officials said they are aiming to sway a small slice of the electorate in swing states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that were crucial to Trump’s electoral college margin.
Conway, who has more than 836,000 Twitter followers, and the other organizers have a significant social media audience — but one that includes a healthy percentage of Democrats. Weaver said the group intends to make a broad fundraising appeal to donors of all political stripes.
Before launching, the group approached right-leaning donors and garnered enough seven-figure pledges to go ahead with the official announcement, Weaver said. Publicity on Tuesday led to a flurry of online donations, Weaver added, though he declined to disclose how much the group had raised or its overall fundraising goals.
Some of the Republican Party’s biggest donors, who gave large amounts of money to GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, sat out Trump’s election in 2016. It is unclear whether the Lincoln Project will be successful in wooing them, especially given that a super PAC is required to reveal its donors.
The super PAC had first registered in early November under the name Rough Riders for America, according to federal filings. Organizers amended the name to the Lincoln Project in early December, a reference to polls that found many Republicans view Trump as a better leader than the 16th president, Weaver said.
Bryan McGrath, a retired naval officer who helped organize the first “Never Trump” letter in 2016, said he was hopeful the Lincoln Project’s focus on raising money would make more of an impact. He said he had informal discussions with fellow national security experts about mounting another public campaign against Trump, but those talks died as Democrats made the national security case for impeachment over the president’s dealings with Ukraine.
Besides, McGrath said, “I feel like everyone who was persuadable has been persuaded. I sometimes get a little disappointed in myself for the shrillness of the things I write — not because I don’t think they’re right, but I wonder how helpful they are to anything. There isn’t a lot of margin of persuadable voters left.”
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.