The Lincoln Project Got Attention but These Never Trumpers Got Results

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Photos Twitter; Getty Images
Photos Twitter; Getty Images

The Lincoln Project doesn’t do subtle.

The smashmouth, Never Trump super PAC, run by a renegade band of Republican strategists, produced some of the most scathing attacks on the 45th president of the last four years. That’s not compared to just the other Never Trump political groups. That’s compared to all groups, of all political persuasions.

The Lincoln Project spots were acutely personal and had little to do with any policy differences. Much the way Trump mercilessly assaulted his political opponents and other critics, the group’s ad makers put Trump’s character flaws under a microscope—and flayed him. In one digital ad, the Lincoln Project blamed Trump for deaths caused by the pandemic. “Donald Trump has recovered from COVID-19. But more than 200,000 Americans will never recover from Donald Trump,” the group charged in the spot, which was posted online in October 2020 after the president was discharged from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he was treated for the coronavirus.

Because of the money the Lincoln Project raised (more than $85 million in less than two years), the notoriety of its founders, a splashy feature by CBS News’ 60 Minutes, plus the viral videos, the group cast a long shadow over other Never Trump outfits. Indeed, in the eyes of many rank-and-file voters, the Lincoln Project came to embody what they thought of when they thought of a Never Trump Republican. Democratic voters loved their ads. So did Republicans who had totally rejected Trump and weren’t going to come around—no matter what.

However, some of the most important players in the Never Trump movement didn’t think much of the Lincoln Project’s strategy, questioning its effectiveness with coveted, fence-sitting Republican voters who appreciated Trump’s policies but were disgusted by his behavior. But on balance, the Never Trump movement gave the Lincoln Project two thumbs up. The founders of the group were so high-profile, some were even public figures in their own right. The Lincoln Project’s very existence acted like a gigantic permission slip for lifelong Republican voters who wanted to throw Trump overboard but were unsure whether they could bring themselves to pull the lever for a Democrat for president.

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In other words: If Stuart Stevens, the chief strategist for 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign, could do it; if Steve Schmidt, the campaign manager for 2008 Republican nominee John McCain, could do it; if George Conway, veteran Republican lawyer and husband of Kellyanne Conway, deputy campaign manager for Trump’s 2016 campaign, could do it . . . You get the picture.

Some weeks after the 2020 election, as the Lincoln Project took a victory lap, group cofounder Reed Galen acknowledged publicly what by then was painfully obvious: “At this point, we’re as much Never Republican as we are anything else,” he told Politico’s Laura Barron-Lopez and Holly Otterbein.

Trump hadn’t been the Lincoln Project’s only target. The group distinguished itself from other Never Trump organizations by declaring the entire GOP to be party non grata. Even pragmatic Senate Republicans, like Maine’s Susan Collins, had to go, the Lincoln Project claimed, because she was a Trump enabler. So the group waged an ultimately failed effort to exterminate the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate. Yes, Republicans lost control. But credit for the two devastating runoff losses in Georgia that turned the chamber over to the Democrats belongs to Trump.

In any event, there’s a word for Never Republican—Democrat—and a whole political movement dedicated to the proposition that Republicans should never hold power. It’s usually referred to as the Democratic Party. Galen, accidentally or not, had revealed not just what the Lincoln Project was, but where, politically, the group belonged—and it sure as heck wasn’t the center-right.

Then again, they may not be accepted anywhere on the spectrum of American politics at this point, if there’s anything left of them by the time voters head to the polls again in 2022, never mind 2024.

Before Trump had cleared out of the White House to make way for Biden, the Lincoln Project began to unravel. First, after being exposed in press reports, cofounder John Weaver admitted that he had been using his position to sexually harass young men. Top officials with the Lincoln Project—those who hadn’t already headed for the exits—professed ignorance amid allegations that they were fully aware of Weaver’s behavior. Next, Federal Election Commission filings revealed the fact that the Lincoln Project had become a cash cow for its most senior founders, with their preexisting businesses—and, presumably, their personal bank accounts—reaping tens of millions of dollars in revenue from advertising and other political services the organization funded from donations. That tawdry revelation begat infighting over who was getting paid what. It was all very messy, all very public, and all very Trump-like. One by one, many of the Lincoln Project’s most prominent founders and advisers stepped away, with some calling for the organization to fold. The Lincoln Project, George Conway tweeted March 8, 2021, “should shut down . . . I know LP’s supporters want to continue to fight against Trumpism, and I urge them to do so in some other way.”

In retrospect, the hatchet men over at the Lincoln Project were obvious. Media savvy and versed in the dark arts of political combat, this battalion of Never Trump Republicans would almost inevitably take the road most traveled and join forces for a no-apologies campaign operation to cut off Trump’s second-term prospects at the neck. And they would inevitably attract the most attention. Sarah Longwell was the surprise.

Other than a stint as board chairwoman of the Log Cabin Republicans, a refuge for Washington’s small but influential community of politically active gay Republicans, Longwell didn’t really do trench warfare politics. Longwell’s specialties were policy and public relations, crafts she honed under Washington super-lobbyist and Republican advertising maven Richard Berman. Longwell was a lifelong Republican who overlooked the party’s historic opposition to same-sex marriage and latent hostility to gays and lesbians because she believed the GOP was a responsible governing party committed to Reagan-era, reformist conservatism on most of the critical issues that animated her personal politics.

Trump displayed no particular animus toward same-sex marriage, by now declared the law of the land by the U.S. Supreme Court. Trump would even appoint the very capable Richard Grenell, a gay Republican passed over for prominent foreign policy posts over the years because of his sexual orientation, as ambassador to Germany, a key ally of the United States. Trump also made Grenell acting director of national intelligence.

Longwell wasn’t interested. Trump was not conservative. He was making a mockery of the Republican Party. Absolutely worst of all, the president threatened to undermine American democracy—the fear that fueled the Never Trump movement. Longwell was catalyzed. By the time Biden found himself limping through the early primary states of the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential primary, Longwell had launched and overseen a variety of political organizations that existed solely to oust Trump.

With one group, Longwell tried to turn the Russia investigation into an albatross for Trump. The federal probe into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign was led by former FBI director and special counsel Robert Mueller. It didn’t work.

Longwell tried to recruit prominent Republican critics of Trump to challenge him in the 2020 Republican presidential primary. Most visibly, Longwell and collaborator Bill Kristol pitched Maryland governor Larry Hogan. Didn’t work.

Longwell figured Trump’s blatant attempt to hold American military aid to Ukraine hostage in exchange for dirt on Biden and his family to undercut the former vice president’s White House bid would finally elicit pushback from Republicans in Congress. She approached the impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives and subsequent trial on two articles of impeachment in the Senate with a sense of optimism. Didn’t work.

Notwithstanding the very real rebuke Trump suffered in the 2018 midterm elections, the forty-fifth president weathered the controversy, emerging with his political standing remarkably stable and within striking distance of reelection. But amid those failures, a few of the projects Longwell pursued bore fruit. She assumed the role of publisher of the Bulwark, the online Never Trump publication she cofounded with Kristol and other Weekly Standard expats after the indispensable home for neo-conservative thought was closed by its owners.

Longwell also got into the focus group business. To escape the Beltway media bubble and figure out what drove support for a politician she could not imagine supporting under any circumstance, Longwell held dozens of sessions with swing-state voters who supported Trump in 2016—particularly women. First it started out as a form of therapy, and an open-ended research project. “What the heck had happened in 2016?” Longwell wanted to know. As she formulated a strategy to impact the 2020 election, the information Longwell collected in those focus groups became the building blocks for a messaging campaign she would use to subvert Trump among the very voters who put him in the White House in the first place.

But first . . . Biden needed a little help. It was January 2020. Sanders was surging in the Democratic presidential primary and the former vice president was sputtering, holding out hope the South Carolina primary on February 29 would salvage his third White House bid and save him from an embarrassing hat trick. Team Trump was rallying for “Crazy Bernie,” trying to give the socialist Vermont senator a boost in a bid to extinguish the one viable, mortal threat to the incumbent’s reelection.

In fact, if Democrats were serious about electability, they’d nominate the guy who actually won primary contests and proved he can play David to Goliath in key places four short years ago. Sanders bested Clinton in 22 states in 2016, including battlegrounds such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, while earning more than 13 million votes and 1,800 delegates.

— Kellyanne Conway, adviser to President Trump, writing in the Washington Post on January 23, 2020, thirty-seven days before the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary

The Crooked DNC is working overtime to take the Democrat Nomination away from Bernie, AGAIN! Watch what happens to the Super Delegates in Round Two. A Rigged Convention!

— Donald Trump, writing on Twitter on February 18, 2020, eleven days before the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary

Their meddling gave Longwell a germ of an idea. If Team Trump could interfere in the Democratic primary, so could she—but on behalf of Biden, who stood a better chance against the president in the general election. Or, to be more precise, stood any chance. Tim Miller, the veteran Republican consultant turned outspoken Never Trump political operative, helped transform Longwell’s idea into an executable game plan. Miller, who is gay, spent what seemed like a lifetime in Republican politics in Washington as a pithy, slice-and-dice communications strategist with a sharp eye for narrative: spokesman for the Republican National Committee; spokesman for former Utah governor Jon Huntsman’s 2012 presidential campaign; spokesman for former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign; original cofounder of America Rising, a Republican super PAC that concentrates on digging up, and weaponizing, opposition research against the Democrats. After Bush’s White House dreams faded, Miller pivoted to Our Principles PAC, possibly the first of the anti-Trump groups, in a bid to block the Republican front-runner from the nomination. Miller, then, was more than a Never Trump gun for hire; he was a true believer.

Skip ahead four years. Miller had left Washington and decamped to the Bay Area of Northern California. With the first votes of the 2020 presidential primaries about to begin, Miller and his like-minded circle of Republican expatriates were talking about what they were going to do. They weren’t voting for Trump—obviously. But with a remotely viable GOP challenger failing to emerge to give them another Republican option, what to do? Should they vote in the Democratic primary? Could they? If they wanted to, and if they could, how would that work, logistically?

All of that got Miller thinking that there might be a lot of Republican voters, or independents who regularly participated in Republican primaries in states with open nominating contests, who were like him and his friends: contemplating voting Democrat for the first time in their lives but with no idea how to go about it.

Together, through Center Action Now, a political nonprofit they founded, Longwell and Miller married the ideas of giving Biden a leg up in the Democratic primary by playing in states that allowed non-Democrats to participate, boosting the participation of disaffected Republicans and center-right independents. The plan was to generate votes for Biden by encouraging registered Republicans, conservative independents, and swing voters opposed to Trump to support a so-called moderate alternative to Sanders—and educating them how to do so. Longwell and Miller had a pretty good idea of who these voters might be, too.

Between the approximately three hundred thousand people who had signed up to support Republicans for the Rule of Law, the group Longwell and Kristol started to support the Russia investigation, plus subscribers to the Bulwark, she had amassed a decent list of prospective voters, many of them living in the suburbs, who identified as moderates, Republican-leaning independents, and soft Republicans who tended to be unhappy with Trump’s leadership and open to supporting his 2020 Democratic challenger. With the purchase of additional voter lists and bolstered by knowledge of the electorate gained through her focus group work, Longwell and Miller ran a very robust but very under-the-radar digital campaign, text messaging and the like, targeting these voters. It wasn’t a persuasion advertising campaign. Center Action Now was not specifically advocating for Biden. It was simple electioneering: show up and vote. Longwell and Miller figured if their target audience participated in the Democratic primary, they were more likely to punch the chad for Biden; former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg; or Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar than they were for Sanders (and by extension, über progressive Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren). And that was good enough.

In New Hampshire, where the effort started, Sanders still won. But Buttigieg and Klobuchar finished a close second and third. In South Carolina, where Longwell went next, Biden resurrected his campaign with a resounding victory. There, she focused on turning out voters in suburban Greenville, in the upstate region. Next, Longwell took her turnout game to suburban Dallas and Houston, in Texas, as well as Virginia. Both Super Tuesday states helped Biden solidify what was then a growing lead in nominating delegates. This effort was the progenitor of Republican Voters Against Trump, the group Longwell and Miller would unveil next to elect Biden, the eventual Democratic nominee who they had a hand in boosting at a critical time.

As much as Longwell and Miller despised Trump, they learned something along the way that some of his detractors, especially the Democrats among them, couldn’t come to terms with. He had won in 2016 because so many Republican voters who would never countenance a racist, or an authoritarian, or a crook, didn’t think he was any of that. Was Trump the dictionary definition of “moral rectitude”? Obviously not. Personally offensive and given to hyperbole? Obviously yes. But the country was broken and maybe this pragmatic businessman provocateur could fix it. And that was the thing—in the swing states that matter in presidential elections, a majority of voters didn’t see Trump as particularly ideologically threatening. This image, and pure, unadulterated distrust in and distaste for Clinton, helped the 2016 Republican nominee hold on to traditional Republican voters while expanding the GOP tent by adding a bunch of white working-class Democrats and former Democrats. This crucial community of traditional Republican voters was not tiring of Trump because of the record number of conservative judges he appointed to the federal bench, or because he moved the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, or because he championed a historic $1.3 trillion overhaul of the federal tax code.

No, what gave them pause was his conduct (the frothing, impolitic tweets and public utterances): the chaos in Washington that he fomented, that he thrived on, of which the most troubling aspect was his seeming lack of command over the government response to the coronavirus and his penchant for spraying gasoline on the fire of racial unrest that gripped the country in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Longwell and Miller figured out how to reach those voters, and where they could make a difference—states like Arizona, North Carolina, Pennsylvania. (Biden won two out of three.) They listened to disappointed Trump voters in focus groups and tested advertising. Mean spots that hit voters smack in the face with the litany of Trump’s supposed failures, the stuff the Lincoln Project was peddling, were a turn-off. This is the sort of politics Trump practiced that they were, theoretically, trying to get away from. So instead, they asked Republican voters who pulled the lever for Trump the first time but wouldn’t do so again in 2020 to record testimonials and send them in to Republican Voters Against Trump. These became the ads the group ran in major advertising campaigns in key swing states, raising and spending more than $10 million from July to November. The clips commissioned by Longwell and Miller even showed up at the virtual Democratic convention that nominated Biden as a part of the former vice president’s strategy to appeal to disaffected Republican voters.

With Trump defeated, Longwell was preoccupied with one question: Now what? Trump was out but Trumpism still lurked. The GOP made gains down ballot; nonwhite support for Trump increased over 2016, and defections among women were fewer than expected, providing Republicans in Washington little motivation, or really, any logical reason, to abandon the forty-fifth president’s brand of antagonistic populism.

She was right. When Trump allies filed a specious lawsuit at the Supreme Court to overturn the results of the presidential election, 126 Republicans in the House of Representatives—well over half of them—signed a legal brief in support. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the first- and second-ranking Republicans, respectively, signed on. Some of the signatories quietly disagreed with the effort but were too afraid to cross Trump.

But Longwell was wary of becoming addicted to resistance politics. Burning it all down—meaning the Republican Party—wasn’t appealing either. The last time that was tried, by a faction of Tea Party insurgents and allied conservative groups, the GOP, and the country, ended up with Trump.

Longwell preferred to be proactive. She would embrace Republicans she believed showed potential as responsible actors—in the U.S. Senate, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, and Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Through Center Action Now and her umbrella of political groups, Longwell would support center-right Republicans and center-left Democrats in competitive primaries, with the goal of elevating pragmatists and kneecapping hyperpartisans on both sides of the aisle. And she would advocate for good-government, “democracy” reforms that might, through federal legislation, hold the worst aspects of Trumpism at bay. Longwell had in mind laws that might prohibit a president from installing his or her children into key, paid roles in the federal government; laws that might prohibit a president from using his or her presidency to enrich his business interests; laws that might codify the custom of major party presidential candidates releasing their tax returns, a custom followed by every major party nominee since Richard Nixon—until Trump.

Excerpted from the forthcoming IN TRUMP’S SHADOW: The Battle for 2024 and the Future of the GOP. ©2021 David Drucker and reprinted by permission from Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group.

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