‘Never Trump’ Groups Hope to Boost Democrats in the Midterms. But Can They Sway Their Fellow Republicans?

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It didn’t take long after Rep. Liz Cheney lost her seat in Congress last month for her to announce what she would do next. The day after the Wyoming Republican primary, she launched The Great Task, a political action committee with the express purpose of stopping Donald Trump from ever stepping foot inside the Oval Office again.

Her organization was the latest entrant in a constellation of groups run by prominent Republicans now working to defeat their party’s standard-bearer and the candidates following in his footsteps. They include Country First, a PAC run by her fellow “Never Trump” Republican on the Jan. 6 committee, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, and two of the former President’s fiercest institutional antagonists: the Lincoln Project and the Republican Accountability Project.

Together, these groups are working to thwart Trump from successfully returning to electoral politics, and to weaken their party’s embrace of him. Next year and beyond, that might mean opposing a third Trump presidential bid. For this fall, however, it means spending heavily to defeat the Trump-iest Republicans on the ballot, particularly in states that could prove decisive in blocking potential efforts to overturn the next presidential election.

“We will focus on the races we feel are most critical to democracy,” says Greg Minchark, a spokesman for the Lincoln Project.

But even with tens of millions of dollars in their collective coffers, the Never Trump PACs are choosing their targets exceedingly carefully, a tacit acknowledgment that most Republicans aren’t buying what they’re selling.

Over the last several months, MAGA candidates have won up and down the ballot, from Kari Lake and Blake Masters in Arizona, to Doug Mastriano and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, and Tim Michels in Wisconsin and J.D. Vance in Ohio.

None of the Never Trump PACs got involved in those races, perhaps knowing their efforts would be futile in primary contests in which the candidates are defined by their fealty to Trump.

Yet Kinzinger’s Country First, which launched in Jan. 2021, did weigh in on some other GOP primaries, and came away with some bragging rights. It worked to boost Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state who stood up to Trump’s urging him to “find 11,780” votes, who won reelection against a Trump-endorsed challenger. The group also took aim at Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina—a young MAGA firebrand who polarized the GOP—with ads, mailers, and text messages. Cawthorn himself recently suggested on social media that the group’s efforts proved effective.

Read more: Why Madison Cawthorn Lost His Race

Now that the general election is underway, the Never Trump PACs plan to gear up their efforts, targeting the up-for-grabs voters who will ultimately decide the balance of power in Washington and in state capitals over the next two years. At the same time, they aim to expand on a national effort to root out Trumpism from the American polity.

Sarah Longwell, a founder of the Republican Accountability Project, says the organization will take a similar approach to far-right GOP candidates up for election this year as it did against Trump in 2020.

“We find all these former Republicans or current Republicans who are going to refuse to vote for Kari Lake and Doug Mastriano, and we turn those into ad campaigns,” she tells TIME, referring to the GOP nominees for governor in Arizona and Pennsylvania, respectively. “We make sure they talk to the media. That’s our strategy for defeating anti-American, anti-democracy Republicans in 2022.”

Last month, the group began a $3 million ad buy in a handful of swing states to remind voters of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, with the hope of peeling off Trump voters. On Sept. 8, the organization announced it was spending $500,000 on a digital campaign in Ohio, aimed at boosting Democrat Tim Ryan over Vance in the Senate race.

Cheney has become the face of anti-Trump Republicans since the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack began its hearings this summer, and she played a starring role, delivering blistering opening and closing statements that became the most ubiquitous soundbites in the days and weeks that followed.

Read more: How Bennie Thompson and Liz Cheney Turned the Jan. 6 Hearings Into Must-See TV

The emergence of The Great Task, which draws its name from the last sentence of the Gettysburg address, comes at a time when she’s not only considering a run for the White House, but when such a group could have maximum impact.

Despite Trump’s long track record of surviving scandal after scandal, he’s perhaps never been more vulnerable, both legally and politically. The Justice Department recently submitted a filing in federal court that said Trump “likely concealed or removed” classified documents from a storage room at Mar-a-Lago, a move that former federal prosecutors have said indicates an increased possibility he will face charges of obstruction of justice. The former President had a small victory Monday, when a federal judge approved his request for a special master, which will delay the criminal probe.

Meanwhile, there are signs that his political standing may be weakening. An NBC survey last month found that respondents were more concerned about “threats to democracy” than inflation or the economy. And with the Jan. 6 panel set to resume its hearings soon—the dates of the next proceedings are not yet known—and release a highly anticipated report, media coverage about his attempts to overthrow the 2020 election is only going to intensify.

“There are a lot of groups out there that are not happy with the former President, and they want to build a base of support for disaffected Republicans and others to help fashion some kind of political movement,” Charlie Dent, a former House Republican from Pennsylvania, tells TIME. “I think that’s largely what they’re about right now.”

Never Trump groups came into prominence during the 2020 campaign cycle. The Lincoln Project and the Republican Accountability Project, formerly known as Republican Voters Against Trump, focused almost exclusively on opposing Trump, in the hope of aiding Joe Biden.

In the 2020 cycle, the Lincoln Project alone raised and spent over $80 million. The group reported raising $24 million from April to June of this year, whereas Country First raised $7.6 million and the Republican Accountability Project raised $5.1 million over the same period, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Cheney’s group is the newest to enter the fold, so it doesn’t have as much of a fundraising history, but she transferred funds from her congressional campaign account to the Great Task after her primary loss. The exact amount is unknown, but according to her FEC filings, her account had roughly $7 million on hand at the end of July.

Her group, she has said, will try to prevent the former President from ascending the White House again. Jeremy Adler, Cheney’s spokesperson, tells TIME the PAC will “educate the American people about the ongoing threat to our Republic, and to mobilize a unified effort to oppose any Donald Trump campaign for president.”

If Kinzinger’s and Cheney’s groups were to play a role in impeding his return to office and undermining his movement, they might see it as a form of poetic justice. They were each booted out of office by their own party. The former resigned after redistricting made his reelection unlikely, and the latter endured a resounding defeat last month, losing her primary to a Trump-backed opponent by 37 percentage points.

Taylor Budowich, a Trump spokesman, dismisses any suggestion that Cheney can influence Republicans going forward. “Liz Cheney couldn’t even win a Republican primary in Wyoming,” Budowich emails TIME. “The idea that she still has relevance within the GOP is a complete media fabrication, perpetuated by bias and lazy reporters who are not interested in reporting honestly.”

Read more: Liz Cheney Loses Wyoming Republican Primary

While Kinzinger and Cheney may be political martyrs, they seem determined to not become complete political exiles.

“Today you can be a political force without being in office,” Reed Galen, a veteran political strategist and co-founder of the Lincoln Project, tells TIME. “Tucker Carlson has never held office. Steve Bannon has never held office. Most of the people who run these front groups have never held office, but they sway enormous political power.”

Historically, it’s hard for politicians to stay in the news once they leave elected office. But if they transition into running an effective political operation, they can find an avenue to still exert muscle.

“It’s a matter of what they think their next step is going to be,” Longwell says. “They need some place to pay for research, to understand the landscape, and to have a team. A lot of it is just practical.”

In the meantime, the Never Trump PACs are targeting MAGA Republicans on the ballot in the midterms, which means helping Democrats. Kinzinger has said his group will support Democrats against Republicans who pose a threat to the health and stability of American democracy. A Country First spokesperson tells TIME the organization will target races for secretary of state this year, positions that will hold enormous power over the administration of the 2024 presidential election.

In several states, candidates who deny that Biden rightfully won the presidential election are the GOP nominees for secretary of state, such as Mark Finchem in Arizona, Jim Marchant in Nevada, and Audrey Trujillo in New Mexico. Kinzinger hopes to head off such a situation in the next cycle, saying “a plan is being developed for 2023 and 2024 to ensure we’ve recruited and trained excellent pro-democracy, pro-truth candidates.”

Of course, part of the challenge for these groups will be to reach the voters who are truly undecided, particularly Republicans, and not just energize Democrats or moderates already averse to Trump’s brand of politics. According to Galen, when the Lincoln Project did an analysis of its donors’ partisan affiliation late last year, it found they were roughly 50% Democrats, 25% independents, and 25% Republicans.

It’s fair to suspect that both Country First and The Great Task will attract a similar mix of donors. As Cheney said in her concession speech last month, “Now, the real work begins.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Kinzinger. “I’m looking forward to taking a deep breath after Congress,” he tells TIME. “But I’m going to stay involved in races, and in building this movement.”

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