“It is incredibly important that we all head into the upcoming elections with a level of humility and fresh eyes about what the political landscape is going to look like,” Petkanas added. “It would be a mistake to know for certain who is easier to beat than somebody else. We’ve all seen this movie before and they occasionally have a twist ending.”
Officials working for the Lincoln Project contend they’re simply being practical — even shrewd — about the new political climate, in which Trump is likely to be the GOP nominee anyway and brass-knuckle tactics are now the norm.
President Joe Biden even called one of the Lincoln Project co-founders Steve Schmidt after the 2020 election to say thank you for the group’s work helping him get elected, according to a person familiar. The White House did not comment.
But a year after delighting liberals with their insistence on bringing guns to a gunfight, operatives across the spectrum now say the group is, at best, ineffective and prodigal, at worst, counterproductive. In particular, fellow never-Trumpers and moderate Republicans have recoiled at Lincoln Project co-founder Rick Wilson’s recent encouragement of a Trump presidential run in 2024.
“I think this is the mother of bad ideas,” said conservative commentator and Trump critic Charlie Sykes. “But also the father, brother, sister, and cousin of a truly bad idea. [It] ignores the fact that Trump could actually be elected again, and you would’ve thought we had all learned our lesson from playing games with that possibility the last time.”
Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist and Trump critic who started Defending Democracy Together, joined in a chorus of other anti-Trump Republicans baffled by Wilson’s strategy.
“It would be a high-impact event on our democracy if Trump were reelected and you want to do everything you can to keep him from getting one step closer,” Longwell said. “The best way to ensure Trump doesn’t win the election 2024 is to make sure he doesn’t become the nominee.”
In an interview with POLITICO, Wilson defended his position by arguing that Trumpism was a greater problem now than just Trump himself. He pointed to his response on Twitter and added that the idea that he actually wants the 45th president to run again is “risible.”
“It’s not that I want [Trump] to be here, I’d love for him to be eaten by a shark tomorrow,” Wilson said. “I want Trump to run to destroy the people who are more sophisticated than Trump. I want to use Trump’s psychological problems to weaken him because I think the most dangerous thing we face is Trump with an Ivy League degree. All the abrasive authoritarianism and nationalism and none of the obvious deficits.”
The Lincoln Project was started in 2019 by a number of prominent Republican operatives who opposed Trump’s presidency and feared the direction their party was taking. They faced charges of self-dealing and ineffectualness — both of which they heartedly dismissed. And along the way, the group raised tens of millions of dollars, in large part because of the splashy web and TV ads it ran going after the sitting president and his family in visceral, personal ways.
The post-Trump presidency has been a more difficult era. The group was rocked by the allegations that co-founder John Weaver sexually harassed young men, and finger-pointing over the fallout has lasted for months. A law firm, Paul Hastings LLP, hired by the Lincoln Project found “no evidence that anyone at The Lincoln Project was aware of any inappropriate communications with any underage individuals at any time prior to the publication of those news reports.” Critics have questioned the independence of that inquiry.
There are questions about who remains in the group and directs day-to-day strategy. There have been internal frustrations over resources being put toward things such as an online streaming show. After the scandal involving Weaver went public, one of the co-founders, Jennifer Horn, as well as fellow officials or advisers Kurt Bardella, Ron Steslow, Mike Madrid, and George Conway all resigned, with some publicly calling for the group to be permanently shuttered.
Currently, the group’s website names co-founders Rick Wilson and Reed Galen, Tara Setmayer, Stuart Stevens and Steve Schmidt as involved in the project, although it is unclear how involved some remain. Two people close to the group said there have been internal tensions and disputes with Schmidt, who resigned from the board of the Lincoln Project after the sexual misconduct charges against Weaver surfaced.
Ryan Wiggins, a spokesperson for the Lincoln Project, said the streaming shows “garner hundreds of thousands of viewers each week and provide a unique, innovative connection to our millions of supporters. Also, the podcast has over 1 million downloads/month.”
“There’s no question as to who runs the day-to-day or the strategy. Rick Wilson, Reed Galen, [Stuart] Stevens and Joe Trippi run the strategy. The day-to-day is managed by our incredible team. Anyone who doesn’t know that doesn’t spend anytime watching and/or listening to us,” Wiggins said.
Schmidt reappeared months later vowing for the group to fight on. But he also tore into the organization for being “recklessly stupid” and “dishonest” for the stunt involving actors posing as Charlottesville white nationalist protesters at a stop made by incoming Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
A McAuliffe adviser conceded that the Lincoln Project’s ads in the governor’s race were solid, but echoed Schmidt’s assessment, saying the Charlottesville stunt backfired so spectacularly — at least in the cable news-social media bubble — that the group’s involvement was altogether unhelpful.
More broadly, Democrats who once saw the Lincoln Project as a helpful compliment to their efforts to defeat Trump now view the group as a distraction and a drain of broader campaign funds.
“When it first started, I was like, ‘This is so great. I love it,’” said Tim Lim, a veteran Democratic digital strategist. Now, Lim added, “Most of the left is not sure why they’re still around. That’s the prognosis in story after story, and it’s been brutal for them.”
With fewer allies and Trump off the ballot, the Lincoln Project has suffered financially. In the first half of 2021, the most recent figures available, the group raised $4.8 million and spent $8.7 million, an exceedingly high burn rate. But digital strategists predicted that the organization, with its robust email list, could survive down cycles. The idea that it’s so far been able to withstand so much scandal and infighting has surprised people familiar with the dynamics, including several who believe the Lincoln Project long exceeded its expiration point.
Still, the group has a formidable online following, boasting just as many Twitter followers as the Republican National Committee at 2.7 million followers, for example. And those involved with the group say their daily work and mission is simply different without Trump on the ballot right now.
The group has made the case for its relevance by getting involved in down-ballot races. It tried, unsuccessfully, to tie Youngkin to Trump and has gone after lawmakers who have spread election fraud lies. But they’ve also continued going after the 45th president as part of a campaign it often describes as political psy-ops. The group also aired ads in Trump’s getaways of Bedminster, N.J., and Palm Beach, Fla., taunting him, and they have plans to play an active role in the upcoming midterm elections.
Even though Trump has not officially announced any plans to jump in the 2024 race, Wilson said the group remains relevant because they understand “how to attack the vertical power structure of Trump in the Republican Party.”
“No one is here because it’s comfortable and fun or a great way to make new friends, we work a hard job against very tough people and bad guys who spend a lot of money attacking us and the individuals inside the Lincoln Project,” Wilson said. “Are we perfect? Of course not and we own those mistakes but what we do is fill a gap in the pro-democracy movement and we show people how to fight.”
In interviews, two big Republican donors to the organization defended its work, both contending that the mere threat of Trump returning to the national stage — and the likely impacts on American democracy itself — make their support worthwhile. One stressed that Lincoln Project’s work on so-called moveable voters — college-educated people and suburban women — went far beyond the TV and digital ads. But two operatives with insight into its operations said it’s mostly surviving off of small-dollar donors, thanks to that massive email list and its ability to generate internet buzz.
Despite the intense focus on rattling Trump, people close to the former president say he hasn’t been moved by Lincoln Project’s recent attacks. But he and his allies still delight in taking digs at the organization.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Trump said the Lincoln Project was a “sad group.” “Democrats are abandoning the group not just because they’ve been terribly ineffective, but because they are worried that the last shoe has not dropped. Yikes!”
There is an obvious self-interest to Trump world’s gloating over Lincoln Project’s troubles. But the general criticism — that the organization has veered from its overall mission and is beset by controversy — is shared elsewhere, including by those once involved with it. Now, some never-Trumpers wonder where their efforts fit in the broader Republican party.
“As far as never-Trumpers are concerned, it’s a problem, people like us are without a home, we don’t have influence in the party, and even the best people who are taking a stand are taking huge political risks, like Liz Cheney, who wasn’t even a never-Trumper until Jan. 6,” said former Lincoln Project leader and vocal Trump critic George Conway. “Forming a third party is a non-starter because the research has all shown a third party would help Trump. So it’s a conundrum, and I don’t know how it’s going to play out.”