Republicans' anti-Trump effort flounders as the former president cruises ahead

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CHARLESTON, S.C. — This state could be the last dam holding back Donald Trump from bulldozing his way to his third Republican presidential nomination — yet so far, none of the rival campaigns or their related super PACs have devoted significant advertising dollars to explicitly attacking him.

There is no major anti-Trump super PAC or significant donor financing a push to topple him as the party’s leader, and there is concern that, at this point, spending financial or political capital to undercut Trump is a fool’s errand.

In fact, the two major outside political organizations running ads urging voters to move away from Trump have so far not lived up to the mass anti-Trump spending campaign that some in the party had hoped for.

Five months out from the primary here, the anti-Trump effort is fragmented and weakened as no other Republican presidential candidate is able to even come close to the former president in the polls, despite his legal troubles.

And it’s not just South Carolina. Nationally, the hypothetical anti-Trump cavalry within the Republican Party has yet to materialize, and GOP strategists tell NBC News that it may be too late.

Even when a conservative group does try to hit Trump, it’s often nothing more than a glancing blow and focused on concerns about his ability to beat President Joe Biden. In fact, one spot this summer from one of those groups started with a voter saying, “I love Donald Trump.”

“Where were all these people who were speaking a big game [about stopping Trump] when it came time to put rubber on the road?” said one frustrated adviser for a non-Trump presidential campaign. “The bare minimum they could have done was make sure he was so damaged that he wasn’t sitting at 50% in the polls. But because they sat on their hands, they’ve essentially ceded the nomination to him, and it’s through inaction.”

Money that never showed up

Two major conservative groups, Americans for Prosperity Action and Club for Growth, vowed earlier this year to fight Trump’s ascension to the party mantle again.

Club for Growth convened a donor retreat in Florida in February as it sought to boost a non-Trump Republican ticket. Five GOP presidential candidates showed up, including businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

But so far, the organization has spent just $6 million, according to data from the ad-tracking firm AdImpact.

Its ad campaign has essentially screeched to a halt as well. In August, Club for Growth’s affiliated political action committee, Win It Back, spent $2.5 million on anti-Trump ads in Iowa, according to AdImpact. But so far in September, it has run just $5,000 in ads.

Club for Growth did not respond to NBC News for comment or to discuss its future plans.

“It’s a totally insignificant amount of money,” said Lucy Caldwell, a political strategist who served as campaign manager for Republican Joe Walsh in 2020 in an underdog effort to primary Trump. “The anti-Trumpers, by and large, are not even getting engaged in the Republican primary this year,” she added.

In February, the conservative donor network founded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch said it would wade into the 2024 Republican presidential primaries in an effort “to turn the page” and “write a new chapter for our country.”

“The best thing for the country would be to have a president in 2025 who represents a new chapter,” Emily Seidel, a senior Americans for Prosperity adviser, wrote in a memo at the time. “The American people have shown that they’re ready to move on, and so AFP will help them do that.”

Bill Riggs, a spokesman with AFP Action, told NBC News the group has spent $11 million on ads (as well as reservations for future spots) that tell Republicans the best way to defeat Biden is to pick a nominee other than Trump.

“If you’re looking for AFP to be the tipping point, they’re not,” said another Republican operative working for a rival primary campaign to Trump.

A spokesman for the group pushed back on suggestions that it’s not committed to the cause to help elevate a conservative alternative to Trump and argued that focusing on Republicans’ concerns about Trump’s ability to beat Biden is the most effective line of messaging. The group has a new ad calling the chaos around Trump “exhausting.”

“We continue to find that Trump’s support is soft — he is the weakest candidate against Joe Biden, and a significant number of his supporters are open to an alternative. Those are the voters we’re focused on persuading,” Riggs said. “To them, Trump’s baggage and electability are the issues they’re most concerned about — and they should be. Joe Biden’s approval rating is about as low as you can get, and Trump still loses the key battleground states.”

The group also says it has knocked on the doors of 4.3 million potential primary voters this year as part of its effort on the ground in key battleground states.

Some Republican fundraisers around the country, however, have also expressed skepticism that there is any opening remaining as Trump’s standing in the polls this summer firmed.

Shiree Verdone was once the campaign manager for the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as well as the finance chair for Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns in Arizona.

She said, however, that she was “open minded” about which candidate to support in 2024 because she was “mad” about the former president’s endorsements in 2022 and the numerous GOP midterm defeats. DeSantis was particularly intriguing, since his campaign wooed her to help fundraise for his 2024 effort, she said.

But now, Verdone said she is squarely behind Trump again.

“I honestly think [Trump] is going to win the primary, and the reason [donors are] not coming out is that they’re afraid to touch it with a 10-foot pole,” she said. “How am I asked to put in money toward someone when I don’t think they’re going to win? I need a viable candidate.”

Waiting for the primary field to shrink

A national Republican operative not involved in any of the presidential campaigns said the still-crowded field must consolidate before more notable outside spending ramps up. The person added that they weren’t surprised by a lack of significant anti-Trump spending because “nobody has given them a reason” to invest.

A strategist working for another one of Trump’s rivals predicted, similarly, that there is a window closer to the Iowa caucuses after “a few candidates drop” and questioned whether direct attack ads against Trump using imagery from the Capitol attack or his four indictments would actually harm his current standing with the primary electorate.

As for the candidates’ actual campaign operations, the field is virtually ignoring Trump’s pending criminal trials and his actions surrounding the 2020 election and the subsequent attack on the U.S. Capitol. The issues mainly come up from voter or reporter questions when they are mentioned — Trump’s rivals have largely defended him on the legal cases, and offer some criticism about his conduct around the election -- and aren’t a main fixture on the campaign trail for Trump’s top challengers.

Just a small smattering of outside groups -- including Tell It Like It Is PAC (the pro-Chris Christie super PAC), a pro-Pence super PAC, former Rep. Liz Cheney’s group and the Lincoln Project -- have referenced those issues in paid advertisements. Trump’s mug shot from his Georgia arrest appeared for one second in a pro-Christie super PAC TV ad that aired in New Hampshire, and a Win It Back PAC ad includes a former Trump supporter briefly waving at the political complications related to his multiple indictments.

Christie, Asa Hutchinson and Will Hurd — the three explicitly anti-Trump candidates who would be the most likely to run such an offensive effort against Trump — have raised limited funds, preventing them from mounting such a forceful ad-focused campaign. Christie has sought to elevate his criticisms against Trump, particularly in network television interviews, but he remains unpopular within his own party. Hutchinson is also in danger of missing the second debate because he hasn’t been polling high enough and Hurd couldn’t meet the lower thresholds to make the party’s first debate.

The biggest political organization going against Trump is the DeSantis-aligned super PAC Never Back Down. But its millions of dollars spent in ads have heavily focused on promoting DeSantis, not attacking Trump.

Notable elected officials have also avoided levying serious criticisms of Trump. DeSantis has not received an endorsement from a member of Congress in over four months, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley still has just one congressional backer, Republican Ralph Norman, who endorsed her at the time of her campaign kickoff in February. Nearly two-thirds of Republican members of Congress have remained on the sidelines, declining to cross Trump and endorse one of his opponents.

Other prominent anti-Trump Republicans have stayed out of the fight as well. The Bush family has not endorsed any Trump alternative, and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney has remained quiet about the field.

Cheney said upon her exit from office last year that she would “do whatever it takes to ensure that Donald Trump is never again anywhere near the Oval Office.” An aide to Cheney says she will remain a vocal critic of the former president when she releases her memoir in December. Her PAC used footage of the Jan. 6 attack in an anti-Trump TV ad that aired in New Hampshire this summer.

And the much-talked-about Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin — heralded as the potential white knight for the party against Trump with a possible late entrance into the crowded field — has not mounted any notable national effort, and looming ballot deadlines make it unlikely he’d be able to jump into the race and defeat Trump himself.

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