The unsolicited video submission to a group called Republican Voters Against Trump is just one small part of a broader “Never Trump” rebellion that began four years ago as a largely ineffective cadre of appalled Republicans, but which has transformed in recent weeks into a potentially disruptive force in this year’s presidential race.
Groups such as the Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump — which is focused on first-person testimonials like Josh’s — emphasize guerrilla tactics and scathing ads as they troll the president. The movement seeks to build a national political operation to oust both the president and his supporters in Congress, with a particular emphasis on persuading white suburban voters who consider themselves true Republicans to break from the president, according to interviews with more than a dozen anti-Trump advisers and allies who are involved in the planning, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.
Advisers to the Lincoln Project, which they say has about 30 employees and raised $16.8 million this quarter, will soon expand to include ground operations. They are coordinating over 2,500 volunteers in Michigan and plan to next target Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Thom Tillis (N.C.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), who they see as vulnerable after his challenger, Jaime Harrison (D), pulled in a staggering $13.9 million since April.
But most of the project’s efforts so far have been centered squarely on Trump — evidenced by their surgical strike ads airing on Fox News in Washington, which are aimed not at persuading disaffected Republicans but simply at needling the president.
One 45-second spot focuses on Trump’s health, featuring footage of the president walking haltingly down a ramp at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, with a narrator warning, “Something’s wrong with Donald Trump. He’s shaky, weak, trouble speaking, trouble walking.”
After the ad ran — helping to inject questions about the president’s fitness into the cable news cycle — Trump went off script for nearly 15 minutes to address his West Point performance at a rally in Tulsa, which was intended to reset Trump’s stalled reelection bid.
As the campaign unfolds, the movement’s influence will be tested, however, as many Republicans rally around the embattled president and as former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, becomes a more high-profile target of GOP attacks.
Two Republican officials who work on House and Senate races said the Lincoln Project and similar groups are more effective at rattling the president than affecting the electoral landscape. “They don’t have juice,” one of them said. A second added that groups aren’t spending “big money,” and that Trump — if the election were held right now — would face “a bloodbath” regardless of the groups’ various efforts.
The White House declined to comment on the record, although privately both administration officials and outside allies are dismissive of the groups — especially the Lincoln Project — which they deride as “scam PACs” run by “beltway swamp creatures whose candidates can’t win,” in the words of one senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share the administration’s view of the groups
Erin Perrine, a Trump campaign spokeswoman, was similarly critical.
“This is the swamp — yet again — trying to take down the duly elected President of the United States,” Perrine said in an email statement. “President Trump is the leader of a united Republican Party where he has earned 94 percent of Republican votes during the primaries — something any former president of any party could only dream of.”
And unlike in 2016, when many of them bandied around independent candidate Evan McMullin, whose campaign failed to dent Trump, their work this time is aimed on damaging Trump’s standing rather than on offering a Republican alternative or challenging Trump at the party’s convention.
Other groups in the anti-Trump wing include Right Side PAC, which is led by Matt Borges, former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, and advised by former Trump White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, a financier who has become a Trump critic. And there is 43 Alumni for Biden, formed by officials who worked in the George W. Bush administration.
The Lincoln Project was founded by Republican strategists John Weaver, Rick Wilson, Steve Schmidt and former New Hampshire Republican Party Chair Jennifer Horn. Lawyer George T. Conway III, who is married to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, is also involved.
Republican Voters Against Trump, which was founded by longtime conservative and self-described “Never Trumper” Sarah Longwell, has concentrated almost entirely on sharing testimonials from traditional Republicans who voted for Trump in 2016 but are planning — sometimes reluctantly — to support Biden in November.
The group also includes William Kristol, a conservative commentator; Tim Miller, a Republican operative who worked on Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign; and Mike Murphy, a longtime Republican strategist.
Longwell said she spent most of the three years after Trump’s election trying to understand what happened and conducting focus groups with voters who supported Trump in 2016 but now rate his performance in office as “somewhat bad” or “very bad.” As her group began testing ads, they quickly realized that slick commercials were often less persuasive than raw testimonials from fellow Republicans with similar doubts about the current president.