A small but vocal group of Republicans has been stepping up its efforts to help Joe Biden defeat President Donald Trump in November, leading some on the left to wonder what it is that they want, exactly.
“I want to be unequivocal,” Florida Republican consultant Rick Wilson said. “I don’t have a policy objective. I don’t have people I want hired in the Biden administration. I just want Trump gone.”
“Throw me some good seats at the inauguration,” he added. “That’s all I want.”
Wilson is the president and co-founder of The Lincoln Project, a super PAC of “Never Trump” Republicans that creates videos going after the president that are extremely popular on social media and have gotten under Trump’s skin.
With Biden solidly ahead of Trump in the polls, Wilson said he’s increasingly getting the question of what he wants if Biden becomes president. But he insists that a Biden victory, as well as a loss of Trump’s Republican enablers in the Senate, is necessary both for the good of his party and the good of the country.
Fellow Lincoln Project founder George Conway, a courtroom litigator currently better known for being the husband of top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, had a three-word answer for what he wants.
“Trump gone. Period,” he said. “And I’m obviously not trying to lower my marginal tax rates.”
As a super PAC, The Lincoln Project cannot legally coordinate with former Vice President Biden or his campaign. But coordinating with other super PACs opposing Trump is allowed and has been happening already.
Steve Schale, with the pro-Biden Unite the Country super PAC and a longtime Democratic consultant, said he has been speaking with Wilson about the presidential race and their strategies.
“We can talk about research, we can share ad testing, things that make us all better. And obviously Rick and I have this Florida relationship,” said Schale, who guided former President Barack Obama’s successful campaigns in that state in 2008 and 2012. “We certainly talk to those guys.”
The Lincoln Project isn’t the only group of Republicans trying to defeat Trump. There are at least two groups started by officials who worked for GOP presidents, as well as Republican Voters Against Trump, which shares first-person testimonials of people who voted for Trump but now plan to back Biden.
Reaching disaffected Republicans is also a central part of the work of American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super PAC that focuses on opposition research. Its paid media program is focused on identifying and persuading the small number of voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 but then flipped to Trump in 2016.
“While we don’t ever believe we’re going win back this segment of the electorate 51% or higher, we do recognize that if we can cut into Trump’s margins, it will have an outsized impact on the Electoral College,” said Shripal Shah, vice president of American Bridge.
Bridge did polling before it started spending on radio, TV and digital ads last November, finding that there was an opportunity to reach voters on the issues of health care and the economy. But starting in March this year, the focus has, not surprisingly, shifted the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly every ad has featured a testimonial from a voter who regrets backing Trump in 2016.
The Biden campaign has also highlighted its support from Republicans.
On Thursday, it hosted a Hispanic-focused virtual event in Florida featuring Ana Navarro, the GOP commentator and frequent Trump critic. Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, is expected to get a coveted speaking spot at the Democratic National Convention next week.
And on Monday, the Democratic National Convention announced that there would be at least two Republicans speaking at the event. One is a farmer from Pennsylvania who decided to switch from Trump to Biden after seeing the effect of the president’s trade war on his family farm, and the other is a lifelong Republican from Arizona who decided to support Biden after experiencing the benefits of the Affordable Care Act.
A Biden aide said the campaign will be rolling out more formal initiatives reaching out to Republicans in the coming weeks.
The Kasich news, in particular, was greeted with significant skepticism and disappointment by some on the left. Not only did they wonder why someone like Kasich ― who put into place anti-union and anti-abortion policies as governor ― should get a prominent spot at the Democratic convention, but they questioned whether he and Never Trumpers actually bring any real voters along with them.
It’s a doubt that The Lincoln Project has already had to face. Some Democratic strategists and ad-makers are skeptical of the group’s effectiveness, noting that many of its lines of attack were tested by the party in the past and found to be less than effective. Their ads also aren’t running in many places.
Democratic strategists concede that the group gets media attention (and money) and ruffles Trump’s feathers, but it may not necessarily move voters. And once again, there is the nagging question of what it is that they want post-Trump.
“I’m starting to feel that all of this crowding of the airspace and fundraising space by Never Trump Republicans is by design,” wrote Elie Mystal, a writer for The Nation. “The best outcome for lifelong Republicans who hate Trump is that Biden wins but is too hobbled by a GOP-controlled Senate to get anything done. Republicans, even ‘former’ Republicans, always play to win.”
To be fair, The Lincoln Project is also spending money to defeat Republican senators, including going after Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), who is known as one of the most moderate GOP members of the chamber.
But they certainly have taken up a fair amount of airspace, and that might be what they want. After all, exposure like that leads to more money ― both in donations and lucrative TV contracts. Cable networks can’t resist moderate Republicans, and they were given plenty of time in the primary to warn against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) with the perspective of what could and could not appeal to Republicans who dislike Trump.
It seems likely that they’ll also get a similar platform in a Biden administration, but with Trump gone, the question will be what they would use it for.
Former Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer half-jokingly predicted that The Lincoln Project will start “running ads attacking President Biden for raising taxes on oil companies in early 2021.”
John Weaver, a co-founder of the group, insisted to The Washington Post that they won’t do that.
“He will have a mandate to clean up the mess that Trump has created with the help of his enablers,” Weaver said. “That shouldn’t be held up. We intend to do all we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
As one of the most moderate candidates in the field, Biden was not the choice of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. He has a long reputation of being proud of his work reaching across the aisle and making deals with Republicans and conservatives.
But he has taken steps to bring progressive voters on board since locking up the nomination. He worked with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) in crafting his economic plan, rolled out an ambitious climate change plan and set up task forces with allies of Sanders to come up with policies meant to unite the ideological factions of the party.
Biden may end up governing in ways that are more moderate ― or revert to cutting deals with Republicans to pass big pieces of legislation ― but at the very least, Democrats say they doubt Biden will feel so indebted to Republicans that he’ll try to put some in his Cabinet. (Obama initially tried to put three in the top tiers of his administration. Former Sen. Judd Gregg, however, withdrew from consideration as commerce secretary before being confirmed because he admitted that he really didn’t like some of the Democratic economic ideas.)
“There would be a revolt if he did that,” said a Democratic strategist who requested anonymity to speak openly. “I don’t know if that person could get confirmed with our caucus in the Senate. I don’t see it happening. ... Times have changed too much.”