‘Trumpaverse’ Republicans mobilize, strategize
The dilemma for President Trumploathing Republicans: Do you vote for a Republican who supports him?
It’s a question that hit home to Never Trumpers in California this week when Rep. Mike Garcia was sworn in to the House. Garcia is the Republican who won a special election in Southern California to replace scandalridden Democratic Rep. Katie Hill, who quit last year. His victory was a big deal because Garcia is the first Republican to flip a House seat in California since 1998, and the president endorsed him again and again on Twitter — putting him firmly on Team Trump.
Now the dilemma: Garcia has to run again in November for a full term. Republicans would love to reclaim the House. That would be a bit easier to do if Garcia wins. So if you’re a Republican operative, it’s a nobrainer, right? Back Garcia. Except. Veteran California GOP consultant Mike Madrid loathes Trump so deeply that he won’t back any Republican candidate who supports him.
Trying to push Trump out of office is Madrid’s job as one of the advisers to the Lincoln Project, a super PAC led by GOP expats who are raising millions to flip the White House and oust any Republicans, especially senators, who support Trump.
Rob Stutzman, another “Trumpaverse” top California
GOP operative, disagrees. Stutzman, who is not in the Lincoln Project, says he would vote for just about any nonTrump Republican short of Rep. Devin Nunes — including Garcia.
“Otherwise,” Stutzman told The Chronicle’s “It’s All Political” podcast, “what we get left with when Trump is gone are a bunch of people that are just his little ‘MiniMe’s,’ because every other reasonable Republican or legacy Republican essentially has either quit or been pushed out of office.”
Madrid wasn’t deterred by Garcia’s decisive victory. Don’t look at a lowturnout election in the Los Angeles suburbs for a sign of Trump’s strength, Madrid said. Instead, look at what’s going on in Arizona — a state that has backed a Democrat for president just once in 70 years.
Joe Biden is on track to be the only Democrat the state has supported other than Bill Clinton in 1996, according to an OH Predictive Insights poll this week of likely Arizona voters. It showed Trump trailing the former vice president by seven points. More bad news for the GOP from that poll: Republican Sen. Martha McSally is losing to Democrat Mark Kelly, 51% to 38%.
And Arizona stands to be a huge deal in November: It could be the state that decides not only who wins the White House, but which party will control the Senate.
One of the reasons Trump is trailing in a state that he won four years ago is that white voters with a college degree are turning on him, according to the survey. Four years ago, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by six points in Arizona among those voters, according to exit polls. Now, he trails
Biden by 11 points among those same Arizonans.
The Lincoln Project is focusing on those voters. It’s trying to convince collegeeducated suburban Republicans that Trump not only has been a failure, but that he doesn’t represent conservative values.
This month, the super PAC dropped its latest video ad, a takeoff on Ronald Reagan’s iconic 1984 reelection ad, “Morning in America.” The Lincolners called theirs “Mourning in America,” and filled it with images of maskwearing people to show how Trump has botched the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“There’s mourning in America,” the ad’s narrator says. “And under the leadership of Donald Trump, our country is weaker and sicker and poorer. And now Americans are asking: If we have another four years like this, will there even be an America?”
The ad struck a nerve. Not only has it been seen 20 million times across all platforms, according to the group — it also got under Trump’s skin. The president derided the Lincoln Project in a latenight Twitter fusillade as RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) and “losers” who are embittered because he didn’t hire them to work on his campaign.
Donations poured in, too — more than $2 million in the first week after the ad’s debut, almost as much as the super PAC raised through March, according to federal campaign finance reports.
This week, the Lincoln Project is airing the ad in Philadelphia, Lansing, Mich., and Sioux City, Iowa, three key markets in battleground states. The week before it ran in TV spots in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida.
Next to Trump, the group’s top target has been McSally, a former twoterm House member whom Republican Gov. Doug Ducey appointed last year to fill the seat that had been held by the late Sen. John McCain. The Lincoln Project has pounded McSally in ads as a “Trump hack” whom Arizona rejected in 2018 when she lost to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema for the seat vacated by GOP Sen. Jeff Flake.
“Arizona rejected you in 2018 and you know why: You were too close to Donald Trump,” the ad says. “Now you’ve gone full Trump again.”
The ad — and, of course, the $31 million that Kelly’s campaign has raised — have dragged down McSally’s poll numbers. Soon, the project will be going hard after Maine Sen. Susan Collins, another Republican facing a tough election battle.
Madrid is unapologetic about taking on GOP senators. He compares Trumpism to “a cancer that’s metastasized, and it needs to be cut out. And so unless you’re actively working against it, it’s going to continue to grow.”
Stutzman agreed that Trumpism is plaguing the GOP, but doesn’t want Republican incumbents replaced by Democrats. And he disagrees with deriding senators like McSally as “hacks.”
“Who is that supposed to be persuading?” Stutzman said. “If we want to save the party and turn this around, we have to start persuading the 95% of Republicans who say that they support the president. And that takes a whole lot more nuance and intentionality than just beating the living crap out of these sitting senators, who essentially are doing what their base voters would want them to do.”
Madrid said a positive, uplifting message might have swayed some of Trump’s supporters in another year. But Trump didn’t get into office using an uplifting message, he said. Any campaign that doesn’t punch just as hard as he does is guilty of political “malpractice,” the consultant said.
“That is uncomfortable,” Madrid said. “But it is the only tactic that has worked. The idea that somehow we can take a higher road while this guy goes immediately to the gutter? People are following him.”