They are cold, calculating consultants — Republican strategists who’ve spent their entire political careers making Democrats uncomfortable.
They’ve successfully painted Democratic candidates as big spenders, high taxers and soft on crime and defence. But not this year. Several high-level former Republican operatives are giving Democrats a pass. In fact, they’ve turned their full arsenal of political tactics and warfare against their own party and their own president, Donald Trump.
“We have a particular set of skills,” said Rick Wilson, quoting Liam Neeson’s character from the movie, Taken, “skills that make us a nightmare for people like Donald Trump.”
Wilson was introducing the Lincoln Project to an audience in New York in February. It includes Wilson, and some 18 senior partners and advisers with 200 years experience electing Republicans, according to the group’s website.
The goal is to help elect Joe Biden by doing their part to take down Donald Trump. They’re even targeting vulnerable Republican Senators, convinced the Grand Old Party needs to be sidelined entirely from governing because it has enabled a man that the Republican defectors believe is unfit and unworthy of occupying the Oval Office.
WATCH BELOW: These political operatives don’t play nice. This YouTube ad from The Lincoln Project questions Donald Trump’s health
And they don’t play nice. In one of the ads the group has produced, images of Trump are edited to make him look feeble and unsteady — he holds a glass of water with two hands, he gingerly walks down a ramp, all as the narrator observes with concern,
“Something’s wrong with Donald Trump. He’s shaky. Weak. Trouble speaking. Trouble walking.”
“We fight very hard,” Wilson said.
“Sometimes you might think we fight a little dirty,” he paused and the audience laughed, “But that’s the battle we’re in today.”
It’s a battle none of them ever expected to wage, but Steve Schmidt leaves no doubt about his conviction that Trump is the worst American President ever: “There’s never been a leader who’s failed more spectacularly history’s test than has Donald Trump.”
Schmidt was senior advisor to John McCain’s 2008 Presidential campaign. And if you’ve seen the fact-based motion picture, Game Change, about the rise and demise of Sarah Palin as McCain’s vice-presidential running mate, it was Schmidt, as portrayed by Woody Harrelson, who urged McCain to pick Palin.
The real-life Schmidt has admitted it was a colossal mistake on his part. For the next decade, though, he remained in the Republican party, that is until 2018.
It was around the time the Trump administration separated children from their immigrant parents who were seeking asylum. Schmidt called the housing “internment camps for babies,” and renounced his membership in a party he deemed “corrupt, indecent and immoral.” It had taken just two years of Trump for Schmidt to abandon 30 years with the Republican party.
Since then, Schmidt has become a regular on MSNBC and a favourite with its left-wing viewers. He is, perhaps, the highest-profile member of the Lincoln Project. He doesn’t seem to answer any question in less than two minutes, but his oratorical prowess never misses a beat.
In May, Schmidt was asked about a new Lincoln Project ad called “Mourning in America” that accuses Trump of failing in his response to Covid-19.
“His leadership has been profoundly deficient,” Schmidt responded. “This is somebody who ran for president promising to make America great again, and his legacy will be one of death, suffering and economic collapse. And the scenes we’re seeing play out all over the country did not have to be.
“The job of the president is to protect the country. Donald Trump has been completely derelict in his duty.”
And that was only a fraction of his answer. If you’re a Democrat dealing with a four-year Trump migraine, Schmidt is a four-minute sedative.
Some 36 years later, the new ad’s tone is anything but reassuring. “There’s mourning in America,” says the narrator. “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.”
It is a hard-hitting message, and it is through their ads that the Lincoln Project hopes to reach a narrow slice on America’s demographic pie chart: those who haven’t made up their minds about whom they’ll cast a ballot for in November.
It’s very possible more voters are settled on that question than in any presidential election cycle in recent history. Trump’s base seems as solid as concrete. And those who’ve left Trump or were never with him seem increasingly baked in, as well.
So who’s left?
“They’re really trying to send a message to suburban Republicans,” said Robert Costa, the moderator of Washington Week on PBS.
“Republicans who voted with their wallets in 2016, even if they didn’t like the president’s behaviour … traditional Republican voters who liked it when the stock market was up.”
Can they give those voters any pause? Costa adds, “You do have the Lincoln Project saying repeatedly to those Republicans, do you really want to stick with this president for four more years?”
Chloe Thurston, a political Scientist at Northwestern University, is also convinced the target audience isn’t large.
“They’re certainly not going to persuade (Trump’s) base to change their voting behaviour,” Thurston told Global News. “But at the margins, it might matter a lot. Right now American politics and elections are decided by slim margins.”
The Lincoln Project isn’t alone in this effort. Other Conservatives have also gathered together. “Republican Voters Against Trump” was organized just this spring. Co-founder Sarah Longwell suggested to CNN that a Biden victory will force a necessary reckoning inside the G.O.P.
Bill Kristol is among those on board. He’s a never Trumper, so he’s been at this for a while. But it is still hard to get your head around one of America’s pre-eminent Conservative commentators so openly preferring the Democrat.
Republican Voters Against Trump also produces ads and videos — mostly around a simple formula showing raw testimonials from average, right-wing Americans describing their change of heart. It now has hundreds of them on its website, and what comes across is how agonizing the transition has been for many of them.
It’s also clear that none of them is wavering. In one unsolicited video, Josh from North Carolina is shirtless, smoking a cigarette and as if confessing says, “I voted for Donald Trump. (pause) My bad, fam.”
“If the DNC runs a tomato can, I will vote for the tomato can, because I believe the tomato can will do less harm than our current president,” he says.
What rings authentic in all of the statements are the unpolished presentations.
“So I just wanted to throw that out there. And if anybody sees this, you know, I hope, ah, everybody’s good. Black Lives Matter. Peace. I’m out,” Josh concludes.
It’s been viewed well over one million times. Which does raise a question. Who are those one million viewers? Doubtless, many people clicking and tuning in were already anti-Trump Democrats who enjoy listening to the converts describe their new-found misgivings.
But the Republican consultants offer something else to Democrats — a style of political attacks that many Democrats are more accustomed to defending than launching.
One Lincoln Project Ad features the Confederate Flag as a symbol of treason and asks, “Why does it keep showing up today at events supporting Donald Trump?” On a podcast, Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher joked “Democrats would never do this ad.” He also said he’s contributing to the Lincoln Project’s fundraising.
James Carville, a hard-nosed strategist from the Bill Clinton campaigns, has heaped praise on the Never Trumpers. “The Democrats could learn a lot from them. They’re mean. They fight hard. We don’t fight like that.”
Republicans still have a deep bench when it comes to hardball politics. One pro-Trump ad running now asks matter of factly, “Does Joe Biden have dementia?” Clearly, Republicans can still sling mud with the best of them.
WATCH BELOW: A video from a pro-Trump group called the Committee to Defend the President asks, ‘Does Joe Biden have dementia?’
But the Lincoln Project has succeeded in getting Trump’s attention, like a fastball up and in, with ads that disparage and mock him. Trump called some members of the Lincoln Project out by name, adding “They should be called the Losers’ Project.”
It’s all been like a lottery win for Democrats, who would have dreamed that Republicans would be so effective and committed to helping them. Not only is damage being inflicted on Trump, but Democrats are picking up support, if only by default, from plain-talking GOP defectors speaking out on their smartphones.
With more than three months to election day, it would be a mistake for Democrats to relax and assume victory is at hand thanks to Republican reinforcements.
But in 2020 Democrats at the highest levels must feel some relief that this one time a coalition of hot-shot Republican strategists isn’t gunning for them.
Eric Sorensen is Senior National Affairs Correspondent for Global News.