There’s a new group of old faces in town. The Lincoln Project is a conservative political action committee seeking to reclaim the helm of GOP leadership from its present occupant. For its initial salvo, the group has recently announced four Republican targets in the Senate: Susan Collins (ME), Thom Tillis (NC), Martha McSally (AZ) and Cory Gardner (CO).
The Project’s leadership is comprised primarily of people who find themselves homeless within the modern Republican Party. Among them are some of the most well-known names of the “Never Trump” movement: lawyer George Conway, political operative Steve Schmidt, human volcano Rick Wilson.
The Lincoln Project’s aim is to defeat both Trump and “those candidates who have abandoned their constitutional oaths.” But the Project seems insistent on viewing all actions of any Republican through the lens of Trump and Trump alone, whether they mask this intent with the Constitution or otherwise.
Each of their targets are moderate Republicans who are facing tough re-elections in purple or soon-to-be purple states and should be some of the most receptive to the types of initiatives and messages the Project purports to support.
What their actions are most likely to do is not defeat but empower Trumpism. Beyond culling the Republicans most likely to stand up to Trump’s constitutionally questionable behavior, it sends a clear message to vulnerable Republicans: fall in line with Trump, or even moderate Republicans won’t support you.
Where once a Jeff-Flake-type could tack toward the middle and hope to accrue non-Trump Republicans and more moderate Democrats, they now have the most notable and financially viable group of NeverTrumpers acting as a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wing targeting precisely those voters.
If they truly wanted to have it out with Trump and Trumpism, they would run anti-Trump primary challenges against unpopular incumbents. They’d be organizing a grassroots conservative movement that’s aghast at what Trump is doing. They’d be mobilizing young people. They’re not.
One of the more compelling reasons that many of the contributors to the Project have every reason to support its tactics but not the broader goal is that, should the mission actually succeed, they would likely be out of a job. Without Trump running roughshod over the Republican Party, CNN would have no cause to book them as “former Republican strategists” to bemoan how Trumpism has run roughshod over the Republican Party.
And the Project is certainly paying someone’s bills, based on a quick review of their FEC filings. So far, they’ve spent about $100,000, despite having raised about $650,000.
Of the money they’ve spent, fully half of it, $50,000, has gone to Tusk Digital for digital advertising. Tusk is run by Ron Steslow, a Lincoln Project founder. Jennifer Horn, another founder, was paid $5,000 for communications services. Another $2,500 went to James Lynch Communications, a firm run by a former colleague (on both the 2008 John McCain and 2020 Howard Schultz presidential campaigns) of founder Steve Schmidt.
Other than two payments for fundraising consulting and compliance totaling $13,000, the rest of the money spent by the Project has been dedicated to building their website, a total of just under $30,000 paid to a company called Anedot.com, run by Paul Dietzel II, former CEO of a conservative fundraising platform whom the GOP threatened legal action against for improperly using their logo. And these are only what is available from the FEC filings. The Project has also spent money on television ads, at least one of which, totally $15,000, appears to have been paid entirely to Summit Strategic Communications, also owned by a Project founder, Reed Galen.
The Lincoln Project, beyond lining the pockets of its leadership, provides them an opportunity to remain relevant in a town where relevancy is key. The last time Rick Wilson won an important election for a Republican, America’s biggest threat was Y2K. It’s unlikely that many people would be paying him much attention otherwise.
As someone who often feels similarly rootless in the present political environment, I can sympathize with many in this group. But this discomfort can not be used as an excuse to bend principle – isn’t that precisely the point of The Lincoln Project? – nor is it a valid reason to pretend that defeating moderates will staunch Trumpism.
The members of The Lincoln Project, with their decades of campaign experience at the highest levels of Republican campaigning, surely know this well. They probably know it better than anyone.
But of course, there’s no shortage of TV spots for an aggrieved former conservative willing to self-flagellate for the good viewers of mainstream cable news. Surely people will remain curious, at least for a time, about what all happened to the Republican Party, and how so many people abandoned their principles and values in a moment of crisis.
This is a conversation worth having. It should probably be conducted by a collection of men and women who aren’t guilty of the same charges they level at those on the other side.
Drew Holden is a public affairs consultant in Washington, D.C. and a former Republican congressional staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives.