GOP-run 'Never Trump' PAC aims to help Democrats in midterms

IIt didn’t take long after Congresswoman Liz Cheney lost her seat in Congress last month to announce what she would do next. The day after the Republican primary in Wyoming, she launched The Great Task, a political action committee with the express purpose of preventing Donald Trump from ever stepping foot in the Oval Office again.

Her organization was the latest entrant in a small universe of groups run by prominent Republicans who are now working to defeat their party’s standard-bearer and the candidates who follow in his footsteps. These include Country First, PAC I’m running by her fellow “Never Trump” Republican on the committee since Jan. 6, resp. Adam Kinzingerand two of the former president’s fiercest institutional antagonists: The Lincoln Project and the Republican Accountability Project.

Together, these groups work to prevent Trump from making a successful return to electoral politics and weaken his party’s embrace of him. Next year and beyond, that could mean opposing a third Trump presidential bid. For this fall, however, that means big costs to defeat the most Trump-friendly Republicans, especially in states that could prove crucial in blocking potential nullification efforts in the next presidential election.

“We’re going to focus on the races that we think are most critical to democracy,” said Greg Minchark, a spokesman for the Lincoln Project.

But even with tens of millions of dollars in their coffers, the Never Trump PACs pick their targets with extreme care, a tacit acknowledgment that most Republicans aren’t buying what they’re selling.

In the past few months, MAGA candidates have won elections from Carrie Lake and Blake Masters in Arizona to Doug Mastriano and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Tim Michels in Wisconsin and JD Vance in Ohio.

None of the Never Trump PACs got involved in those races, perhaps knowing their efforts would be futile in primaries where candidates are defined by their allegiance to Trump.

Still, Kinzinger’s Country First, which launched in January 2021, did influence some other GOP primaries and came away with some bragging rights. It worked to galvanize Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, who opposed Trump’s call to “find 11,780” votes that won re-election against a Trump-backed contender. The group also targeted Congresswoman Madison Cawthorne of North Carolina — a young MAGA brand that has polarized the GOP — with ads, emails and text messages. Cawthorn himself recently suggested on social media that the group’s efforts proved effective.

Read more: Why Madison Cawthorne lost her race

Now that the general election is underway, Never Trump PACs plan to ramp up their efforts, targeting voters who will ultimately decide the balance of power in Washington and state capitals for the next two years. At the same time, they seek to expand national efforts to root out Trumpism from American politics.

Sarah Longwell, founder of the Republican Accountability Project, says the organization will take a similar approach to far-right GOP candidates for election this year, as it did against Trump in 2020.

“We’re finding all these former Republicans or current Republicans who are going to refuse to vote for Carrie Lake and Doug Mastriano, and we’re turning them into ad campaigns,” she told TIME, referring to the GOP gubernatorial candidates in Arizona and Pennsylvania, respectively. “We make sure they talk to the media. This is our strategy for defeating the anti-American and anti-democratic Republicans in 2022.

Last month the group started a A $3 million ad buy in a handful of swing states to remind voters of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack in hopes of wooing Trump voters.

Cheney has become the face of anti-Trump Republicans since the House committee investigating the January 6, 2021 attack began hearings this summer and she played a leading roledelivering brilliant opening and closing statements that became the most ubiquitous soundbites in the days and weeks that followed.

Read more: How Benny Thompson and Liz Cheney turned the January 6 hearings into must-see TV

The appearance of The Great Task, which takes its name from the last sentence of the Gettysburg Address, comes at a time when she is not only considering a run for the White House, but when such a group could have maximum impact.

Despite Trump’s long record of surviving scandal after scandal, he has perhaps never been more vulnerable, both legally and politically. The Department of Justice recently introduced a filing in federal court, which said Trump “likely hid or removed” classified documents from a storage facility at Mar-a-Lago, a move former federal prosecutors said showed that increased opportunity he will be charged with obstruction of justice. The former president had a small victory Monday when a federal judge approved his request for a special master, which will delay the criminal investigation.

Meanwhile, there are signs that his political standing may be weakening. NBC research last month found that respondents were more concerned about “threats to democracy” than inflation or the economy. And with the Jan. 6 commission set to resume hearings soon — dates for the next proceedings are still unknown — and release a long-awaited report, media coverage of his attempts to cancel the 2020 election will only intensify.

“There are a lot of groups that are unhappy with the former president, and they want to build a base of support for disgruntled Republicans and others to help create some kind of political movement,” Charlie Dent, former Pennsylvania House Republican, says TIME. “I think that’s pretty much what they’re about right now.”

No Trump groups have emerged during the 2020 campaign. The Lincoln Project and the Republican Accountability Project, formerly known as Republican Voters Against Trump, have focused almost exclusively on opposing Trump in hopes of helping Joe Biden.

In the 2020 cycle, only the Lincoln project collected and spent over $80 million. The group reported raising $24 million from April to June of this year, while Country First raised $7.6 million and the Republican Accountability Project raised $5.1 million over the same period, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Cheney’s group is the latest to enter the fold, so it doesn’t have as much of a fundraising history, but it transferred funds from its congressional campaign account to the Big Task after its primary loss. The exact amount is unknown, but according to her FEC filings, her account had roughly $7 million on hand at the end of July.

Her group, she said, will try to prevent the former president from re-ascending the White House. Jeremy Adler, Cheney’s spokesman, tells TIME that the PAC will “educate the American people about the continuing threat to our republic and mobilize a united effort to oppose any campaign by Donald Trump for president.”

If the Kinzinger and Cheney groups were to play a role in preventing his return to office and undermining his movement, they might see it as a form of poetic justice. Each was ousted from office by his own party. The former resigned after redistricting made his re-election unlikely, and the latter suffered an uproar defeat last month, losing his primary to a Trump-backed opponent by 37 percentage points.

Taylor Budovitch, a Trump spokesman, dismissed any suggestion that Cheney could influence Republicans going forward. “Liz Chaney didn’t even win the Wyoming Republican primary,” Budovitch emails TIME. “The idea that she still matters within the Republican Party is complete media fiction, perpetuated by bias and lazy reporters who don’t care about fair reporting.”

Read more: Liz Cheney loses Wyoming Republican primary

While Kinzinger and Cheney may be political martyrs, they seem determined not to become complete political outcasts.

“Today, you can be a political force without being in office,” Reed Gallen, a veteran political strategist and co-founder of the Lincoln Project, told TIME. “Tucker Carlson has never held office. Steve Bannon has never held office. Most of the people who run these proxy groups have never held office, but wield enormous political power.

Historically, it has been difficult for politicians to stay in the news after leaving office. But if they start running an effective political operation, they can find a way to exert influence.

“It’s a question of what they think their next step will be,” Longwell says. “They need a place to pay for research, understand the landscape and have a team. A lot of them are just practical.”

Meanwhile, Never Trump PACs are targeting MAGA Republicans in the midterm elections, which means helping Democrats. Kinzinger said his group will support Democrats against Republicans who pose a threat to the health and stability of American democracy. A spokesperson for Country First tells TIME that the organization will target this year’s secretary of state races, positions that will have enormous power over the administration in the 2024 presidential election.

In several states, candidates denying that Biden properly won the presidential election are the GOP nominees for secretary of state, such as Mark Finchem in Arizona, Jim Marchant in Nevada and Audrey Trujillo in New Mexico. Kinzinger hopes to prevent a similar situation in the next cycle, saying “a plan is being developed for 2023 and 2024 to ensure that we hire and train excellent pro-Democrat, pro-real candidates.”

Of course, part of the challenge for these groups will be reaching truly undecided voters, especially Republicans, and not just galvanizing Democrats or moderates who are already leaning toward Trump’s policies. According to Gallen, when the Lincoln Project analyzed the party affiliation of its donors late last year, it found that they were roughly 50 percent Democratic, 25 percent independent and 25 percent Republican.

It is fair to suspect that both State First and The Big Task will attract a similar mix of donors. As Cheney said in his concession speech last month, “Now the real work begins.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Kinzinger. “I’m looking forward to taking a deep breath after the Congress,” he tells TIME. “But I will continue to be involved in racing and in building this movement.”

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