The "Never Trump" coalition of Republicans fighting to oust President Trump from the White House is making a risky play, just as the president's lackluster poll numbers are raising concerns on the right -- they're going after Republican senators too.
The effort is being led by The Lincoln Project, a media-savvy outfit that spends most of its time hammering the incumbent president with scathing TV and digital ads.
But along with targeting Trump, The Lincoln Project is now weighing in on the races of GOP senators facing tough reelections this year.
“Governor Steve Bullock did a hell of a job for Montana and in the U.S. Senate, he’ll show them what Montana strong looks like,” says a new TV and digital ad the group unveiled last week in Montana, as they endorsed the Democratic governor’s Senate bid against Republican incumbent Sen. Steve Daines.
The spot characterizes Daines – who’s facing a tough reelection challenge from Bullock – as a “do nothing, say nothing politician.”
On Monday, The Lincoln Project took aim at Sen. Susan Collins of Maine over her controversial 2018 vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
“Kavanaugh tried to strike down a 4 year precedent, but instead strikes down Susan Collins' 24 year Senate career,” the group tweeted, noting Kavanaugh’s vote against a four-year-old precedent in Monday’s ruling on a Louisiana abortion law.
The group used the tweet to spotlight the predicament for Collins – who’s facing an extremely difficult reelection due in large part to her Kavanaugh confirmation vote. This year, the Lincoln Project has also targeted GOP Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Martha McSally of Arizona and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who are likewise fighting for their political lives.
But the attacks come as the GOP’s desperately trying to hold onto its Senate majority. The party currently controls the chamber 53-47 but is defending 23 of the 35 seats up for grabs in the chamber this November.
The strategy has some Republican strategists steamed.
“It’s ridiculous to claim that a Republican-backed effort would try to flip the Senate to the Democrats,” veteran GOP communications strategist Matt Mackowiak told Fox News. “There are basically zero Republicans in the country that want to see a Democratic Senate.”
“If they were just focused on Trump, that would be one thing,” said Mackowiak, who supports the president.
He charged that “to me, it proves that this is a Democratic-funded effort. These operatives are being used to advance the Democrats’ political agenda. They’re going to wrap themselves in moral superiority but the net effect of all this is that they’re giving Democrats everything they want and they’re spending Democratic donor money to do it.”
Brian Walsh argued that The Lincoln Project is “taking it too far. If you’re also grouping in Republican senators who could rightfully serve as a necessary check and balance if the White House changes hands in November. It’s hard to understand the strategy behind saying you’re inherently a Republican organization but you want to give full control of the government to the Democrats in November.”
“I think even for those who have concerns with the direction the president has taken the party in, that’s a step too far,” emphasized Walsh, a former NRSC communications director and former senior adviser to GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and a veteran of numerous Senate, congressional and gubernatorial campaigns.
Pushing back against the criticism, John Weaver, one of the co-founders of The Lincoln Project, pointed out that when they launched last December, the group announced that along with being “dedicated to defeating President Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box,” they would also target Republican lawmakers who supported the president.
“This president’s actions are possible only with the craven acquiescence of congressional Republicans,” the group wrote at the time. “Congressional Republicans have embraced and copied Mr. Trump’s cruelty and defended and even adopted his corruption. Mr. Trump and his enablers have abandoned conservatism and longstanding Republican principles and replaced it with Trumpism, an empty faith led by a bogus prophet.”
Weaver told Fox News that “if four or five members of the Republican Senate Conference had stood up to Trump on a whole host of issues, they would have corralled much of this.”
But he argued many Republican lawmakers are “afraid of being tweeted at and afraid of being given a nickname and in so doing, they’ve turned their back on everything they say they believed in. They’ve turned their back on a cogent national security policy, on trade policy, on the rule of law, on defending the Constitution, on character matters, they seemingly must not care about the importance of NATO or any number of other things because otherwise they would stand up to Trump.”
Asked about the criticism, Weaver said there’s “none that we care about.”
The Lincoln Project was formed late last year by well-known Never Trumpers. Among them are George Conway, the husband of White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway, and Republican consultants Weaver, Steve Schmidt and Rick Wilson. Weaver was also the top political adviser for then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump has slammed The Lincoln Project, calling it a “group of RINO Republicans who failed badly.”
The National Republican Senatorial Campaign (NRSC) – which is the campaign arm of the Senate GOP – stressed that “it’s sad to see the media treating this pathetic Democratic scam PAC seriously.”
“Just because a group of bitter, failed political consultants are lining their own pockets by ripping off donors, doesn’t mean they deserve any attention for their lies,” said NRSC spokesman Nathan Brand.
Mackowiak argued that The Lincoln Project’s efforts are “not going to have any practical effect.”
“They know they don’t have the money to run saturation level television in these battleground states or nationally. So they’re doing a media play so they can try to convince people that they’re really clever and they’re making a difference but they’re not,” he charged.