The Lincoln Project
|Named after||Abraham Lincoln|
|Founded||December 17, 2019|
|Type||Political action committee|
|Purpose||Prevent the reelection of Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election|
The Lincoln Project is an American political action committee formed in late 2019 by several prominent current and former Republicans. The goal of the committee is to prevent the reelection of Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election and defeat his supporters in the United States Senate. In April 2020, the committee announced their endorsement of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
The committee was announced on December 17, 2019, in a New York Times op-ed by George Conway, Steve Schmidt, John Weaver, and Rick Wilson. Other co-founders include Jennifer Horn, Ron Steslow, Reed Galen, and Mike Madrid.
Conway is an attorney and the husband of Kellyanne Conway, an advisor to Trump; Schmidt managed John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, Weaver oversaw McCain's presidential campaign in 2000, and Wilson is a media consultant. All four are outspoken critics of Trump; Schmidt left the Republican Party in 2018. Jennifer Rubin, in a Washington Post op-ed, described the four founders as "Some of the most prominent NeverTrump Republicans." Horn is a Republican operative and former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party, Steslow is a marketing strategist and political consultant, Galen is an independent political consultant, and Madrid is a former political director for the California Republican Party. Galen serves as the Lincoln Project's treasurer.
The committee is named for Abraham Lincoln. On February 27, 1860, Lincoln gave a famous speech during his campaign at Cooper Union to be the first Republican president. Several members of the committee—Schmidt, Wilson, Horn, Galen, Madrid, and Steslow—spoke in the same venue on the 160th anniversary of that talk, from the same lectern that Lincoln had used. The group was outspoken in their criticism of Trump and the current divide in the Republican party, with Madrid saying that "two views cannot exist in one party" and Steslow saying he will "vote blue no matter who." Schmidt warned that a second term with Trump would be "unrestrained and validated."
The members of Lincoln Project's advisory board—Conway, Schmidt, Weaver, Wilson, and Reed Galen—published another op-ed in The Washington Post on April 15, 2020, endorsing the presidential candidacy of former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, writing: "We’ve never backed a Democrat for president. But Trump must be defeated." The op-ed argued that Trump was unqualified to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ensuing economic downturn.
Stuart Stevens announced, on May 28, 2020, that he had joined the project. Stevens had previously been the chief strategist for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in 2012. Prior to that, he had worked for George W. Bush and Bob Dole. Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, is an adviser to the project.
The Lincoln Project has produced a number of anti-Trump and pro-Biden television advertisements. The Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin called the project's ads "devastating for several reasons: They are produced with lightning speed, and thereby catch the public debate at just the right moment; they hammer Trump where he is personally most vulnerable (e.g., concerns about his vigor, concerns about foreign corruption); and they rely to a large extent on Trump himself—his words and actions." About two-thirds of the group's television advertisements focus on the 2020 presidential election, but the Lincoln Project has also created ads backing Democrats in other races, such as an ad in Montana promoting Governor Steve Bullock's Senate candidacy against incumbent Republican Steve Daines. Additionally, they have released videos attacking Republican Senators Cory Gardner, Martha McSally, Thom Tillis, Susan Collins, Joni Ernst and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, all of whom are up for reelection in 2020, as enablers of Trump.
On May 4, 2020, the group released Mourning in America, a video styled after Ronald Reagan's Morning in America 1984 campaign ad. It focused on Trump's handling of the coronavirus crisis, and asserted that the country was "weaker and sicker and poor[er]" under President Trump's leadership.[note 1] On June 1, 2020, the Lincoln Project released another ad, Flag of Treason, that blasted Trump's record on race relations in the U.S., highlighted the use of the Confederate battle flag by Trump supporters at Trump rallies, and emphasized the support Trump has received from white nationalists. Both ads ran on television in crucial swing states.
In early June 2020, the Lincoln Project released an ad, Mattis, that repeated criticisms of Trump by former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, following the Lafayette Square and Saint John's Church attacks against protesters, and asked viewers, "Who do you trust: the coward or the commander?" The ad also criticized Trump for having "dodged the draft" and for hiding "in a deep bunker—firing off tweets."
On June 17, 2020, the Lincoln Project released two ads. The first, entitled #TrumpIsNotWell, ran 45 seconds and showed a video of Trump walking slowly and haltingly down a ramp at West Point, and a video of Trump appearing to struggle to lift a glass of water, with narration suggesting that Trump was physically unfit. The ad's voiceover said, over images of Trump: "He's shaky, weak, trouble speaking, trouble walking. So why aren't we talking about this? The most powerful office in the world needs more than a weak, unfit, shaky president. Trump doesn't have the strength to lead, nor the character to admit." The ad was controversial: some observers viewed it as appropriate in light of Trump's past comments and mockery about the health of his rivals, while disability rights activist Rebecca Cokley of the Center for American Progress criticized the ad as ableist. The second ad released on June 17, Tulsa, criticized Trump for planning a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma (the site of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre) on Juneteenth, a holiday marking the abolition of African American slavery.
On June 18, 2020, the Lincoln Project released an ad entitled Chyna, attacking Trump on his China policy, with narration saying "They know who Donald Trump is: weak, corrupt, ridiculed, China beats him every time. No matter what he says, China's got his number." The ad attacks Trump for his handling of the trade war with China and makes reference to Ivanka Trump's business dealings in China, including the Chinese government's grant of trademarks to her. The project released the ad just after Trump's former National Security Adviser, John Bolton, published an excerpt from his memoir, in which Bolton wrote that Trump asked Chinese leader Xi Jinping to assist him in getting elected and had told Xi that he should continue building internment camps detaining Uyghurs. The ad makes reference to Bolton's book The Room Where It Happened.
In late June and early July 2020, the Lincoln Project released two ads, entitled Bounty and Betrayed, attacking Trump for failing to respond to U.S. intelligence reports of a Russian bounty program targeting U.S. troops in Afghanistan. In Bounty, a narrator says, "Now we know Vladimir Putin pays a bounty for the murder of American soldiers. Donald Trump knows too and does nothing." In Betrayed, a former Navy SEAL and emergency room doctor Dan Barkhuff says that "any commander-in-chief with a spine would be stomping the living shit out of some Russians right now—diplomatically, economically, or, if necessary, with the sort of asymmetric warfare they're using to send our kids home in body bags." Barkhuff calls Trump "either a coward who can't stand up to an ex-KGB goon" or "complicit." The ad entitled Fellow Traveler says in Russian with English subtitles that "Comrade Trump" has once again the blessing of Russia. The ad features communist imagery such as the hammer and sickle, as well as photographs of Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and Soviet leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev.
The group has on occasion released collaborations with noted figures of the TV and film industry: the ad "Debt" was written by John Orloff, while the ad "Wake Up" was written and directed by Jon Turteltaub.
Fundraising and expenditures
From its creation to the end of March 2020, the Lincoln Project had raised $2.6 million in contributions and spent $1.4 million of that sum. Although the Lincoln Project has raised and spent far less than other PACs, the group has achieved success in having its ads go viral and with its "nontraditional strategy of playing mind games with the president." The group has few major donors. The top contributors are hedge fund manager Stephen Mandel, who gave $1 million; Silicon Valley investors Ron Conway, Michael Moritz and Chris Sacca, Hollywood producer David Geffen, financier Andrew Redleaf, Walmart heiress and philanthropist Christy Walton, Martha Karsh, who is married to billionaire financier Bruce Karsh, and Continental Cablevision CEO Amos Hostetter Jr. About 59% of the group's total fundraising comes from small donors ($200 or less). The group's expenditures are mostly in producing, buying, and placing ads.
The Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-finance watchdog group, wrote that (like most PACs) most of the Lincoln Project's money went to pay subcontractors, "making it difficult to follow the money" to vendors, and that "almost all" of the money raised went to firms run by the group's board members, specifically Galen's Summit Strategic Communications and Steslow's Tusk Digital.
Politico noted that the Lincoln Project "successfully established itself as a squatter in Trump's mental space, thanks to several factors: members each boasting hundreds of thousands of social media followers, rapidly cut ads that respond to current events and a single-minded focus on buying airtime wherever Trump is most likely to be bingeing cable news that day, whether it's the D.C. market or his golf courses across the country." Quoting co-founder George Conway as saying that the project takes advantage of Trump's narcissistic reactivity, inability to take criticism, and inability to think ahead, Roxanne Roberts wrote in The Washington Post that the project's ads are "specifically designed to trigger the president" so that he "talk(s) about things he shouldn’t be talking about", in effect "raising millions of dollars...for the Lincoln Project".
Joanna Weiss of Northeastern University's Experience magazine wrote in Politico that most of the Lincoln Project's ads "pack an emotional punch, using imagery designed to provoke anxiety, anger and fear—aimed at the very voters who were driven to (Trump) by those same feelings in 2016", citing scientific research indicating that fear-mongering ads might be effective with Republican voters. Project co-founder Reed Galen described the strategy as "(speaking) to Republican voters with Republican language and Republican iconography".
In addition to targeting the Washington media market and thus Trump himself, the project has also targeted swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, and has spent money against Republican Senate candidates in Arizona, Iowa, Montana, and other states.
Project co-founder Reed Galen has said some of the ads are meant for an audience of one: Trump himself. The Lincoln Project's feud with Trump enhanced its national profile, including through earned media, and the group said it raised $1.4 million after Trump's tweets responding to the May 4, 2020 Mourning in America video.
Characterizing the project's ads as "brutal", political science professor Lincoln Mitchell wrote on CNN that "they seem to have been successful at getting inside Trump's head" and that their work is "attracting attention across and beyond the political spectrum". However, Mitchell said that the project's expenditures (July 2020) are nowhere near enough to buy enough airtime on television—still America's most popular news source—to reach uncommitted voters, and that it is uncertain whether the ability to trend on social media will translate into votes for Joe Biden.
In an interview with MSNBC's Brian Williams, Democratic strategist James Carville praised the group for being more efficient and aggressive than Democratic PACs, saying: "Let me tell you, the Lincoln group and The Bulwark, these Never Trumper Republicans, the Democrats could learn a lot from them. They're mean. They fight hard. And we don't fight like that."
Writing in the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin said the Lincoln Project stood "head and shoulders above all the rest in the hard work of beating back President Trump and Trumpism" and wrote of the group's founders: "They made their careers helping to elect Republicans, but in the era of Trump, they have put partisanship aside in the cause of patriotism and defense of American democracy. Their ads have been the most effective and memorable of the presidential campaign, singeing Trump in a way Democrats have not quite mastered." Author and columnist Max Boot praised the Lincoln Project for "turning out brilliant videos at a relentless pace that puts most political organizations to shame" and for seeking to demolish "the Trumpified GOP" and replace it with "a sane and sober center-right party in America." Boot wrote that the Lincoln Project's founders, by "leading the charge against the Republican Party, ... have shown greater fealty to conservative principles than 99 percent of elected Republicans."
The Lincoln Project was criticized by former Mitt Romney campaign staffer Oren Cass. Writing in The Atlantic, Andrew Ferguson described the ads as "personally abusive, overwrought, pointlessly salacious, and trip-wired with non sequiturs." Jeet Heer wrote in The Nation that "To the extent that the ads articulate any political vision, it is a desire to return to the hard-line military aggression of the George W. Bush era."
- Source transcripts differ slightly on wording.
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