Jack Spielman has been a Republican his whole life. But over the past four years, he has come to two realizations.
Increasingly upset by President Donald Trump’s “appalling” behavior, his cozy relationships with dictators and the ballooning national debt, Spielman says his first epiphany was that he couldn’t cast a ballot for Trump again. But for the retired Army cybersecurity engineer, the final straw was the President’s retaliation against impeachment witness Lieut. Colonel Alexander Vindman, who retired in July after Trump fired him from the National Security Council in February. Spielman decided he had to do more than just vote for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden; he had to persuade others to do the same. So Spielman filmed a video for a group called Republican Voters Against Trump (RVAT), explaining his views. “I want to do some part,” Spielman tells TIME, “to try to correct the wrong that I did in voting for this man.”
RVAT, which launched in May, is among a growing number of Republicanled groups dedicated to making Trump a one-term President. Since December, longtime GOP operatives and officials have formed at least five political committees designed to urge disaffected conservatives to vote for Biden. The best known of these groups, the Lincoln Project, has since forming late last year gained national attention for its slick advertisements trolling the President. Right Side PAC, led by the former chair of the Ohio Republican Party, launched in late June; a few days after that, more than 200 alumni of George W. Bush’s Administration banded together to form an organization called 43 Alumni for Biden. There’s also the Bravery Project, led by former GOP Congressman and erstwhile Trump primary challenger Joe Walsh. And plans are in the works for a group of former national-security officials from Republican administrations to endorse Biden this summer.
Since 2015, pockets of the party have bemoaned Trump’s Twitter antics, his divisive rhetoric and key elements of his platform, from the Muslim travel ban to his trade tariffs to his family-separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border. But with the President’s approval rating in the party consistently around 90%, and GOP lawmakers terrified to cross him, the so-called Never Trump faction has proven largely powerless, with a negligible impact on federal policy.
Now, in the final stretch of the President’s term, the Never Trumpers could finally have their revenge. Four years ago, Trump won the Electoral College by some 77,000 votes scattered across Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. If even a small slice of disillusioned Trump voters or right-leaning independents defect to Biden in November, it could be enough to kick Trump out of office. “They are the constituency that can swing this election,” says Sarah Longwell, a longtime Republican operative and founder of RVAT.
This constituency now appears more willing to vote for Biden than they were six months ago, in no small part because of Trump’s faltering response to the corona-virus, which has killed more than 140,000 Americans and ravaged the economy. Between March and June, according to a Pew Research poll, Trump’s approval rating among Republicans and Republican-leaning voters dropped seven percentage points, to 78%. A June 25 New York Times/Siena College survey found that Biden has a 35-point lead over Trump among voters in battleground states who supported a third-party candidate in 2016. “Any small percentage of voters who no longer support him could be critical in closely matched swing states,” says Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
It’s too early to gauge how effective the raft of Never Trump groups will be. They’re dismissed by many Republicans as self-serving opportunists profiting off the polarization Trump has exacerbated. Trump also remains hugely popular among Republicans. “President Trump is the leader of a united Republican Party where he has earned 94% of Republican votes during the primaries–something any former President of any party could only dream of,” says campaign spokes-woman Erin Perrine.
Even if the Never Trump activists are able to help oust the President, it’s unclear what will become of a party that’s vastly different from the one they came up in. Trump has transformed today’s GOP into a cult of personality rooted in economic nationalism and racial division. And while the small anti-Trump faction wants to return to the conservative ideology that reigned for decades before Trump, many Republicans believe Trump has changed the party forever.
Sitting in front of a packed book-case, Rick Wilson looked surprised as he peered over hornrimmed spectacles at an overflowing screen: “There’s 10,000 people on here,” the onetime Republican operative marveled of the Zoom audience assembled for the Lincoln Project’s first town hall on July 9.
Wilson formed the Lincoln Project in December, along with lawyer George Conway, the husband of Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, and veteran political strategists Steve Schmidt and John Weaver, among others. The Republican stalwarts had grown disgusted with the President’s behavior and their party’s acquiescence to it. The launch met little fanfare, but in the months since, the group has demonstrated a knack for quickly producing memorable videos and advertisements that get under Trump’s skin. In early May, with the unemployment rate soaring toward 15%, the group released an ad dubbed “Mourning in America,” a play on the upbeat Ronald Reagan classic, which depicted the woes of sick and unemployed Americans under Trump’s leadership. “If we have another four years like this,” the ad’s narrator intones as dead patients are wheeled out of hospitals on stretchers, “will there even be an America?” The President took notice. “Their so-called Lincoln Project is a disgrace to Honest Abe!” Trump tweeted. “I don’t know what Kellyanne did to her deranged loser of a husband, Moonface, but it must have been really bad.”
Irritating the President is part of the point. “It’s not trolling if you get a fish in the line,” says Reed Galen, a veteran of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns and one of the project’s co-founders. “We kept dropping a hook in the water, and eventually the President bit.” The attention has been a boon to the group’s finances. The Lincoln Project raised nearly $17 million between April 1 and June 30.
If the Lincoln Project tries to needle the President, other groups in the Never Trump ecosystem have found complementary roles. Instead of using polished editing and ominous music to make a splash online, RVAT has gathered more than 400 testimonials from disheartened Republicans like Spielman. “I did only vote for Donald Trump because I couldn’t believe someone who acted as goofy as he did on TV actually meant it,” Monica, a self-described evangelical Christian from Texas, says in one video. “Since that time, I have been riddled with guilt.”
Longwell, RVAT’s founder, believes hearing from people like Monica will show waffling conservatives that they’re not alone in their dislike of the President, and encourage them to break away. “The thing that people trusted wasn’t elites, it wasn’t Republican elites, it certainly wasn’t the media,” Longwell says of her focus-group research. “But they did trust people like them.” The group says it plans to showcase those voices in an eight-figure ad campaign in five swing states before Election Day.
RVAT identified recalcitrant Republicans through email lists Longwell had built at Defending Democracy Together, its parent organization. Founded in 2019, Defending Democracy Together created online petitions whose signatories often offered clues of their disillusionment with Trump. Petitions supporting Vindman and thanking Utah Senator Mitt Romney for voting to convict Trump of abuse of power during the impeachment trial proved especially fruitful in finding former Trump supporters, according to Tim Miller, RVAT’s political director and a veteran Republican communications strategist.
To test new video messages, Longwell held a Zoom focus group on July 15 with seven Florida voters and allowed TIME to watch. Each participant voted for Trump in 2016 but was now dissatisfied with his leadership. Several mentioned his handling of COVID-19 in the meeting, noting Florida’s dramatic spike in cases. Long-well showed the group a few of RVAT’s testimonials. “It resonates with me,” one woman who works in the travel industry in Orlando said. “It does make me feel less alone.” But while three people on the call said they’d likely vote for Biden, two said they were unsure and two said they would still vote for Trump again. “I don’t think there’s any hope for him,” the Orlando woman said. “But I don’t see Biden doing a good job either.”
Matt Borges of Right Side PAC recognizes that Republican voters’ uncertainty about Biden needs to be addressed. As the former chair of the Ohio Republican Party watched Never Trump groups roll out advertisements, he worried there was too much focus on why Trump was bad and not enough on why Biden was a good alternative. “We need these people who know they are not [going to] vote for Trump but are not sold on Joe Biden to hear some messaging from fellow Republicans that says, ‘No, it’s O.K. to vote for this guy,'” says Borges, a lifelong Republican who disavowed Trump three years ago. In an unrelated development, Borges was arrested on July 21 for allegedly participating in a $60 million bribery scheme involving top political officials that the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio decried as the biggest money-laundering effort in the state’s history.
In June, Borges teamed up with former Trump communications director Anthony Scaramucci to form Right Side PAC, which plans to spend up to $7 million targeting these voters through mailings, digital ads and phone banks. Their first focus is Michigan, where Borges commissioned a pollster to conduct research on Republican voters in swing districts. After spending more than a week in the field, the pollster delivered the results to Borges and Scaramucci on a Zoom call, which TIME observed. Support for Trump among Republican voters in Michigan’s Eighth Congressional District had dropped from 80% in January to 67%, the pollster said. The district had swung for Trump in 2016, then voted for a Democratic Congresswoman, Elissa Slotkin, two years later. Voters who ranked the coronavirus as their top concern were seen as more likely to break for Biden. While the group had planned to target all white Republican women over the age of 50 in Michigan, the pollster said the data suggested those over 65 were immovable in their support for Trump. These insights, Borges says, will form the basis of Right Side PAC’s “final sale” to voters on Biden’s behalf.
As the presidential race heads into its final months, another group of Republicans aims to help Biden in a different way. A group of more than 70 former national-security officials from GOP administrations, led by John Bellinger, the senior National Security Council and State Department lawyer under George W. Bush, and Ken Wainstein, Bush’s Homeland Security Adviser, plans to endorse Biden and publish a mission statement describing the damage they say Trump has done to America’s national security and global reputation. They will also fund-raise for the former Vice President and do media appearances in battleground states when the group launches later this summer. Some of the same people wrote an open letter denouncing Trump in 2016. But, says Wainstein, “our effort this time is going to have some staying power throughout the campaign.”
How much impact these groups will ultimately have on voters remains unclear. As they try to unseat an incumbent with a massive war chest, their first hurdle is money. Right Side PAC raised just over $124,000 in the first two weeks, disclosure filings show. The bulk of that haul came from one person, New York venture capitalist Peter Kellner, a long-time Republican donor who began giving to Democrats in 2018 and who has forked over the maximum amount to Biden’s campaign, according to Federal Election Commission filings. The group’s prospects were also clouded by Borges’ July 21 arrest. Borges did not respond to requests for comment.
43 Alumni for Biden, the group of former George W. Bush officials, announced its formation on July 1, which means it doesn’t have to file disclosure reports until October; had it announced a day earlier, it would have had to publicize its finances in mid-July. A member of the group declined to provide specific figures but said it had received contributions from more than 500 individuals. The Bravery Project officially launches July 23, and a representative declined to provide any fundraising figures.
Longwell tells TIME that RVAT has raised $13 million this year. As a 501(c)4, or political nonprofit, the group does not need to disclose its donors or exact figures. But the number she provides puts the group on par with the Lincoln Project, whose biggest donors are primarily prominent Democrats. While disclosure filings show that nearly half of the Lincoln Project’s donations were “unitemized” or under $200, it raked in $1 million from billionaire hedge-fund manager Stephen Mandel and $100,000 apiece from business mogul David Geffen and Joshua Bekenstein, the co-chairman of Bain Capital.
This influx of cash has enabled the Lincoln Project to ramp up advertisements against vulnerable Republican Senators like Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana. “We made it very clear that this is not just about Trump but Trumpism and its enablers,” says Galen. “The Republican Senators we have held to account are the President’s greatest enablers.”
The strategy of going after Senators has provoked the ire of many Republicans, who say the group is prioritizing profit over party. “It’s purely grifting and making a name for themselves. It’s not based on principle at all,” says Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist who worked for Jeb Bush’s and Romney’s presidential campaigns. The Lincoln Project, he says, “is essentially meant for raising money off the resistance and lining their own pockets.”
The group’s finances have also raised some eyebrows among government watchdogs. Two consulting firms, one run by Galen and another by co-founder Ron Steslow, received nearly a quarter of the $8.6 million the group spent between January and July. While other committees use similar methods, it is “not at all standard,” says Sheila Krumholz, executive director at the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. “It raises red flags about whether the operation is taking advantage of a situation where donors are giving to what they think is supporting one effort, but there are other patterns at play.”
Krumholz notes that the Lincoln Project does not publicly disclose all of the vendors who have done work for them, which suggests they are funneling money to organizations that then hire subcontractors. This method is not unheard-of, but the lack of transparency makes it difficult to discern who is ultimately profiting. “The public doesn’t know the extent to which Lincoln Project operatives may be profiting, or if they’re profiting at all,” Krumholz says. When asked about the group’s finances, Galen says, “We abide by all reporting requirements laid down by the FEC. No one at the Lincoln Project is buying a Ferrari.”
For now, the Never Trump Republicans say they aren’t looking beyond November. “We’re all in a grand alliance to beat a very big threat,” says Miller of RVAT. “We’ll see how the chips fall after.” But regardless of the election’s outcome, Miller and his cohorts face challenges ahead. They will either be failed rebels, cast out by a party taken over by its two-term President, or facing down a Biden Administration, which would bring unwelcome liberal policies and perhaps Supreme Court vacancies.
If Biden wins, Trumpism won’t disappear with Trump. The President’s rapid rise revealed the extent to which many of the ideological pillars of modern conservatism–its zeal for unfettered free markets, its devotion to deficit reduction, its attachment to global alliances, its faith in a muscular foreign policy–were out of step with actual Republican voters. Many of the ambitious lawmakers rising in the party, like Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, have seen in Trump’s political success an example to emulate. The next generation of Republican leaders may try to replicate his policies without the self-defeating behavior.
It’s led many to wonder whether traditional conservatives will have a home in the GOP after Trump is gone. “There is a growing feeling that we need to burn the whole house down to purify the party of Trump enablers in the Congress,” says a former White House official in George W. Bush’s Administration. Some see the prospect of a rupture, with disaffected Republicans cleaving off and either forming a new party or making a tenuous peace with the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. “There’s a very real possibility … that the party will split,” says Richard Burt, former ambassador to Germany under President Reagan.
The modern Republican Party was always an uneasy alliance in some ways, with fiscal conservatives, religious conservatives and neoconservatives jostling for influence, and a white working-class base voting for policies that often favored the wealthy. Steven Teles, co-author of Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites, envisions a Republican Party in which Trumpism dominates but the dissenters make up a vocal resistance faction. “I don’t think anyone is going to have control of the Republican Party the way we’ve seen in the past,” he says.
The irony of the Never Trumper activists is that while they are encouraging Republicans to vote Democratic for the first time in their lives, that is bringing some Republicans back into the party by creating a community of the disaffected. Spielman, the retired Army cybersecurity engineer, had become so disenchanted with Trump that he turned his back on the party altogether, voting for Democrats in Michigan’s 2020 primaries. But the Never Trump groups are “giving me hope that there are still some people out there with some decency that want to go back and save the party,” Spielman says. “It’s allowed me to come back and say, Yeah, I’m a Republican. I’m not leaving the party, but I want to fight for what’s right for the party.”
With reporting by Leslie Dickstein, Mariah Espada, and Josh Rosenberg
This appears in the August 03, 2020 issue of TIME.