The surgical hit that drew the president’s anger — helping the spot garner 17 million views overall, its makers said — was the work of a small band of veteran political operatives who worked for past Republican presidential candidates and are now aiming to defeat the incumbent GOP president.
Their super PAC, the Lincoln Project, has a much smaller war chest than other independent groups going after Trump. But it is aiming to make the most of its unique position by directly antagonizing the president, who appears particularly piqued by the involvement of lawyer George T. Conway, who is married to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.
This week, Trump called him “a deranged loser of a husband.” George Conway quickly used the attack to question the president’s fitness for office, in a Washington Post opinion column.
“I didn’t necessarily think going in that this would be the ad that would trigger him, because we have things under discussion that would be much more pointedly directed at him individually,” Conway said in an interview.
“We obviously got a lot of attention thanks to the president, and we’re very grateful to him for that,” he added.
Conway declined to comment on his wife’s reaction to the spot. Kellyanne Conway did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a Thursday interview on Fox News, she criticized the group, saying its leaders have all “failed.”
“They never succeeded the way I did as campaign manager,” she said, “and they never got their candidate where my candidate got.” She said Trump “wanted to expose, I think, a number of people in that group who act like they’re so dignified and holier-than-thou than everyone, but nobody ever says that their track record is.”
The group’s ad, called “Mourning in America,” criticizes Trump’s handling of the pandemic, focusing on the skyrocketing unemployment rate and death toll. “If we have another four years like this, will there even be an America?” asks the narrator.
After the group spent just $10,000 to produce the commercial and $5,000 to run it in the Washington market on Fox News, the ad went viral. On Thursday, Joe Biden’s campaign released a new ad with a similar message and tone.
Within days, the Lincoln Project received about $2 million from 25,000 new donors — money it is now using to air the spot in three battleground states, super-PAC officials said.
“We were trying to reach one person. It was $5,000 well spent,” said John Weaver, a strategist for then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign who also worked on Sen. John McCain’s White House bids in 2000 and 2008. “The ad was great. It spoke the truth. But sometimes, you have to be lucky, too.”
The Trump campaign issued a lengthy statement in response to the spot, saying it inaccurately depicted the federal government’s handling of the outbreak and calling those involved “scumbags” and “scam artists.” (PolitiFact rated as false one of the ad’s claims that the bailout has not helped Main Street, an assessment disputed by the group.)
“The Lincoln Project is nothing but a transparent way for political bottom feeders to make easy money,” the Trump campaign said. “The Trump campaign encourages all Democrats to light their money on fire by sending money to line these losers’ pockets.”
Trump piled on, telling reporters: “They should not call it the Lincoln Project. It’s not fair to Abraham Lincoln, a great president. They should call it the ‘Losers Project.’ ”
Donors to the super PAC said the group’s leadership — which includes longtime GOP strategist and admaker Rick Wilson, former McCain strategist Steve Schmidt and former New Hampshire GOP chairwoman Jennifer Horn — appears uniquely positioned to rattle Trump.
“I think things that come from right-leaning former Republicans actually move him more than stuff coming from the traditional opposition,” said Andrew Redleaf, a former hedge fund manager from Minnesota who gave the group $25,000. He described himself as a “libertarian conservative,” adding, “So at this point, I’m an orphan.”
The Lincoln Project is also drawing support from some Democratic donors, such as venture capitalist Ron Conway, who contributed $50,000. (He is not related to George Conway.)
“Our country is in crisis because of Donald Trump, and regardless of our policy differences, he must be held accountable this November,” said Ron Conway, who added he is urging donors from all political backgrounds to “give generously to efforts like the Lincoln Project” and support former vice president Biden.
After launching in December, the Lincoln Project raised $2.5 million in the first three months of the year, making it a small player compared with Democratic super PACs such as Priorities USA, which has amassed tens of millions in 2020.
Lincoln Project officials said they see themselves playing a niche role — targeting Republicans and independents in swing states who could tip the election.
The group’s focus is “a narrow lane,” Weaver said. “It’s not the most expensive lane. And if we’re effective, then it helps guarantee that we won’t have to sit back on Election Day and say, ‘Oh but for 77,000 votes Trump wouldn’t be in his second term.’ ”
The “Mourning in America” ad is now running on television in Wisconsin, Ohio and western Florida, officials said. The group said it plans to launch new ads aimed at swing voters.
“We’re going to take the additional resources, which are considerable,” George Conway said, “. . . and we’re just going to keep repeating that over and over as much as we can to get the message through.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.