Whether it’s still possible to halt presidential front-runner Donald Trump from dragging the clearly shellshocked Republican Party towards a final showdown at its convention in Cleveland is irrelevant to the handful of activists determined to tear down the media mogul.
The like-minded yet independently operating agitators just know that something has to be done — and that time is running out.
“If Trump is our nominee, it’s because nothing was done to stop him,” Doug Heye, the self-proclaimed instigator of the #NeverTrump movement, warned of the consequences of inaction.
Heye, a former House Republican leadership aide, tried sounding the alarm last summer, advising others not to take Trump lightly.
“As much attention as Mr. Trump has received, serious scrutiny has been scant. And his undoing could well be in the details,” Heye cautioned in the Wall Street Journal. He returned to his soapbox (borrowed this time from Independent Journal ) in December to explain why he could not, in good conscience, ever cast a ballot for the former reality TV star.
GOP strategist and Make America Awesome super PAC co-creator Liz Mair said she soured on Trump the moment he praised Scotland’s government-sponsored health care service in the first Republican presidential debate.
I am a 71 year old grandmother who joined Twitter just to be able to tweet #NeverTrump — Suzanne Carpenter (@suzmalaca) February 28, 2016
The animus intensified throughout the fall, prompting Mair to take her first crack at poking holes in Trump’s candidacy via a short-lived LLC. By December, her mission had evolved into Make America Awesome, an anti-Trump task force spearheaded by Mair, GOP media consultant Rick Wilson, an opposition researcher and a fundraiser — all of whom have taken on the project pro bono.
Help us get more ads up on air in future contests. No consultants get paid. https://t.co/OGusuQvdDT — Make America Awesome (@MakeUSAAwesome) March 9, 2016“I don’t want to get paid,” Mair said. “The point is just stopping the guy who is basically Hillary Clinton.”
The Never Trump PAC joined the fray earlier this month, imploring sympathizers to commit to doing whatever it takes to sidetrack Trump’s rise to power. (Nearly 15,000 signatories and counting.)
The nascent group, Finn said, is getting started with “a couple hundred thousand dollars.” But she maintains that it already boasts followers in all 50 states, most of whom she says are young women. And she said the organizers, whom she declined to identify by name (“There are several grassroots leaders from different states,” she said of the core structure), relish the opportunity to play spoiler.
“This is the moment for ‘Never Trump’ voices to coalesce and organize,” Finn asserted.
That mentality took a while to come together. And even now, Heye says, it’s rather stunning that the media, pundits and party leaders let things progress this far.
“I think we kind of went through three stages: ‘Don’t attack Trump, he’s not serious.’ That was the summer. Then in the fall it was, ‘Don’t attack Trump, it probably won’t work.’ And in January to mid-February we were at, ‘Don’t attack Trump, it’s too late,’” he said of the doubts Trump opponents wrestled with in recent months.
The lack of coherent leadership was bad enough. Heye said marching out 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to try and shake things up may have actually made things worse.
“I thought Romney’s use of the word ‘sucker’ was unfortunate. Because that’s the voter,” Heye said of Romney's March 3 address in which the former presidential hopeful warned Republicans about trusting Trump.
He was also critical of Romney for not addressing that he had readily accepted Trump’s endorsement in the previous cycle. “People were embarrassed by that event,” Heye recalled.
It was still worth a shot, he calculated.
“It also jump-started a conversation, which was necessary,” Heye said of Romney’s widely publicized rebuke. “It would have been great to have before Labor Day.”
And he insists that were plenty of opportunities to call out Trump ahead of time.
Critics, he charged, simply failed to capitalize.
“We should’ve been talking about Donald Trump’s ties and shirts being made in foreign countries the day he first talked about jobs being in Mexico and China. But we waited eight months,” Heye said. “And that, to me, is the ultimate failure.”
Mair is all about hitting Trump where it really hurts — his ego.
“It’s manifestly obvious that he’s deeply troubled by attacks on his business record,” she said.
Her group seized on those personal pressure points in campaigns carried out earlier this year in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and Virginia.
“Even if it was a small difference, we still made a difference,” she said of the mixed results achieved by taking to the airwaves, peppering prospective supporters with anti-Trump talking points and blasting the real estate magnate on his home turf: social media.
Make America Awesome is currently running traditional ads in Missouri and Illinois (attacking Trump’s business dealings) and placing digital buys in Florida and North Carolina (centered on military and veterans’ issues).
She noted that driving home the anti-Trump message has required some retooling. Mair said her research into Trump supporters has revealed that they are not news junkies; the pro-Trump demographic is more likely to seek out material that’s “entertaining,” “passive” and “semi-informational.”
She’s found that the typical Trump supporter also spends long hours in vehicles (commuting or otherwise) and seems to prefer classic rock to political talk shows.
“A lot of his fans are not people who are sitting in offices every day. So how you advertise to them has to be different,” Mair said. Rather than targeting Fox News or talk radio, Make America Awesome has taken to marrying its spots to reality television shows.
Mair’s Read on Trump Fans’ Media Diet • Animal Planet’s “River Monsters” • History’s “Swamp People” • A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” • Crime dramas
“That’s how they got to know him: through reality TV,” she said of Trump’s initial introduction to his fiercely devoted base.
The tactical strikes have been right in her nimble little group’s wheelhouse, Mair estimated. And while she’d love to have a bigger bankroll — she explained that Make America Awesome has managed to pull a few $1,000-plus donors, but said that most contributions are in the $20-$30 range — Mair is most excited about having others join the fold.
“People are seeing what we’ve done and are using it as a blueprint,” she said.
Recruiting conservatives dead set on denying Trump the keys to the Oval Office is what the Never Trump forces are all about.
How they get there remains rather fluid.
Finn said her team plans to focus on online marketing — “Where it takes a couple million dollars to have an impact rather than the tens of millions” required to run traditional spots — citing Facebook as a favored platform. The group expects to target voters in the upcoming Florida and Ohio primaries, billing Tuesday’s contests as critical junctures in the anti-Trump crusade.
The long-range goal is to build an army of supporters ready to be deployed, if necessary, during the Republican National Convention this summer.
“#NeverTrump looks forward to communicating with voters state-by-state about practical steps needed to ensure that Trump gets nowhere near a majority of delegates to the convention,” the group mapped out in an official press release.
Never Trump PAC leaders stopped short of calling for outright chaos on the convention floor, stating, “We support letting the party nomination process play out as it has in America for nearly 200 years.”
Mair expressed a desire to shore up a winning delegate count for any of the other GOP contenders — at this point, she’s fine with putting up Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., or Ohio Gov. John Kasich this November — before July.
“If there’s any way of avoiding a contested convention, that’s the most cost-efficient and stable way of doing this,” she said, adding, “Nobody knows what happens if we do that.”
Heye is very skeptical about waiting till Cleveland to unravel this Gordian knot — particularly if public support is legitimately there for Trump to move forward.
“As much as I don’t like his rhetoric or whatever his policies are, because I don’t know that they are, he has done this fair and square. Nobody’s accusing him of buying votes. Dead people aren’t voting for him,” Heye said.
Procedural tactics aside, Heye said some GOP operatives have already pivoted from “destroy Trump” to a “save Congress” footing.
“What I see as more likely is a coordinated effort on protecting the Senate and the House,” he said of a potential rescue mission to spare down-ballot candidates from suffering anti-Trump backlash this fall and keep control of both chambers in Republican hands.
According to Heye, saving everyone from the uncertainty of Trump rule remains the ultimate goal.
Still, he’s fully cognizant that the wildcard candidate could theoretically barrel through conventional wisdom and force party elders to drastically reconsider everything they thought they knew about campaigning.
“He has been such a disrupter. I can’t rule out a possibility that Trump could win in November,” Heye said. “But I still think he’d be a disastrous president.”
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