Lincoln Project: Meet the Republicans campaigning to defeat Donald Trump

·6 min read
There is less than six months left before voters decide whether to re-elect Donald Trump -  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
There is less than six months left before voters decide whether to re-elect Donald Trump - REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Jennifer Horn’s first reaction to being singled out in a tweet by the US president was frustration.

“It’s outrageous that he anger-tweets in the middle of the night about the slightest little thing,” she remembers thinking. “It is just an example of how unfit for office he is.”

But then the former Republican congressional candidate was struck by a second, more prescient thought. “This is going to help us make some money.”

The trigger for Donald Trump’s ire had been a campaign advert. It riffed on a famous Ronald Reagan re-election video, dubbed ‘Morning in America’, which asked voters if they were better off than four years ago.

The new one was called ‘Mourning in America’. “Today, more than 60,000 Americans have died from a deadly virus Donald Trump ignored” the voice-over declared, over footage of a body being pushed by masked healthcare workers.

With the election now less than six months away and Covid-19 dominating debate, such harsh political attacks are to be expected.

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But this was not produced by the campaign of presumptive Democrat nominee Joe Biden, or indeed anyone from that party. It was made by Republicans.

The group behind the video is called the The Lincoln Project, named after the party’s most famous US president and launched with one goal in mind - to stop Mr Trump winning a second term.

Ms Horn is one of eight founders. Others include a man who helped run John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, a former strategist to George H W Bush and the husband of one of Mr Trump’s most well-known advisers.

Since launching in December with a New York Times opinion piece headlined “We Are Republicans, and We Want Trump Defeated”, the group has produced more than a dozen adverts targeting the president.

But it was not until close to 1am last Tuesday that the founders knew they had gotten under Mr Trump’s skin, courtesy of four tweets sent from the president declaring them “RINO Republicans” - short for Republicans In Name Only.

Jennifer Horn, a former Republican congressional candidate, speaking in 2016 - Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Jennifer Horn, a former Republican congressional candidate, speaking in 2016 - Darren McCollester/Getty Images

“I didn’t use any of them because they don’t know how to win and their so-called Lincoln Project is a disgrace to Honest Abe,” Mr Trump said, referring to the political advisers and his past political campaigns.

After name-checking some of the individuals and mocking their “many failures”, he finished with a flourish: “They’re all LOSERS, but Abe Lincoln, Republican, is all smiles!”

Ms Horn, a former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman who ran for Congress in 2008, was said by the president to have been “thrown out” of the party. (Not true, Ms Horn says - she is still a Republican member.)

She was also proved right. By putting the group in his cross hairs so publicly, Mr Trump also increased awareness of it, not just to his 80 million Twitter followers but the millions more who saw coverage of the criticism.

Within 24 hours The Lincoln Project had raised $1 million - equal to total donations in their entire first month. Before the tweets, the advert had been played a million times. Now, the group says, that is above 14 million.

Newly flushed with cash, the group will next week air the advert in the election battleground states of Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida. “Please express to the president my gratitude," Ms Horn jokes.

The 55-year-old’s story is familiar to many of The Lincoln Project’s founders. She is a politico who has spent a substantial chunk of her life fighting the Republican corner only to now feel abandoned by the party’s leadership.

“I am still a Republican," Ms Horn says. “My principles have not changed. I’m still the same person who embraced the core values of our parties‘ founder.”

Even though the party has changed, she is not yet abandoning it.  “I will not be bullied and pushed around by the likes of Donald Trump and his goons,” Ms Horn says.

The focus of The Lincoln Project, and thus its political danger to the president, is on convincing Republican voters specifically to abandon Mr Trump.

Ron Steslow, one of the group’s younger founders at 36, said the ambition was to get between two and four per cent of Republican voters in key areas of swing states to switch.

Ron Steslow, co-founder of The Lincoln Project -  The Lincoln Project
Ron Steslow, co-founder of The Lincoln Project - The Lincoln Project

Mr Steslow spent more than a decade working for various parts of the Republican machine - local campaigns, Senate battles, positions in Congress - but quit the party after Mr Trump became its nominee in 2016.

“I realised the story I’ve been telling myself all those years - that I could do more good to help change the party from the inside than the outside - was no longer true,” Mr Steslowsays. He is now registered as an independent.

“The underlying motivation is that each one of us sees a grave danger to the Republic if Donald Trump has another four years in public office,” he says of the founders’ actions.

“This transcends party lines. What’s at stake is no less than the future of the country."

Among the group’s more high profile founders is George Conway, husband of Mr Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway. Another is Steve Schmidt, a strategist best known for his role in Mr McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Some are prominent cable TV news pundits, meaning their messages reach millions. They also have a deep understanding for Republican voters, hard-earned from scores of election campaigns, that helps their cause.

It was the group’s decision to pay to run their ‘Mourning in America’ advert in a break during Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News - reportedly one of the president’s favourites - that they believe led to it being seen by Mr Trump, triggering the tweets.

The group has wholeheartedly endorsed Mr Biden - going further than some other anti-Trump figures on the Right- and knows winning over Republican voters, the vast majority of whom polls suggest are still with Mr Trump, will not be easy.

There is only one measure of success, they argue - whether there is a second Trump term. But even given this, one benefit has already been seen by going after the president so publicly, according to Mr Steslow.

“Part of the problem with the whole Trump machine, the Republican brand now, is there is no room for disloyalty,” Mr Steslow says.

But, he adds, there are scores still in the party who privately long for another leader. “Those people can now feel they’re not alone."