The Lincoln Project, a group of Republicans opposed to President Donald Trump, as well as some who’ve left the party because of him, is all over cable news and social media for its provocative ads targeting the president and Republicans in Congress.
Kurt Bardella, a senior adviser to the project who left the GOP after working as a spokesman for Republican lawmakers, recently joined CQ Roll Call’s Political Theater podcast to talk about why “Never Trumpers” decided to get involved in the election, how they are picking their targets and designing their ads.
An edited transcript follows.
Q. You once worked for California GOP Reps. Darrell Issa and Brian Bilbray, but you wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times that what you are seeing nationally in the Republican Party is reminiscent of how the party lost touch with California voters. What are you seeing?
A. I came up as a Southern California guy. When you talk about California today, you think about it as the heart of the resistance and where the Democratic Party is strongest. Twenty-five years ago, it was a Republican state. It had a strong Republican executive, had Republicans in the key statewide offices, like secretary of state, attorney general. They even had the majority in the state Legislature, and in Congress, they gave us powerful figures like Bill Thomas, the former chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and Jerry Lewis, the Appropriations Committee chairman.
It’s startling to me when you look at the condition of the California Republican Party today. It’s a de facto third party. They don’t have a single person in statewide office. Half the time they can’t find anybody that’s truly credible to run for these positions. And then you look at the congressional level. In 2018, some bellwether Republican districts that have been Republican forever finally fell to the Democrats. And even right now, looking at my former boss, Darrell Issa, running in California’s 50th Congressional District, the district that I grew up in, Darrell is running neck and neck with a candidate, Ammar Campa-Najjar, who has no business being within arm’s reach of this race. It’s an R+12 district, and the fact that it’s neck and neck, within the margin of error, tells you the Republican Party in California is on life support.
How that happened was in part because they embraced extreme conservative rhetoric targeting Hispanics and Latinos. When I look at that and then I see this Republican Party today nationally — the build-the-wall Republican Party, the lock-the-borders Republican Party, the inflammatory rhetoric that they use — I think to myself, “We see how this play ends in California. Why would the Republicans at the national level repeat this?”
Q. Do you hear back from former colleagues who reject this Republican Party and are just waiting for Trump to lose?
A. They all think that this is crazy town. They all cannot wait for the day that Trump goes away so they can stop having to talk about and defend this lunatic. The most ironic thing is that people who actually work in Republican politics, by and large the majority of them, I doubt that they’re voting for Trump.
But it’s just how Washington is structured and why it’s so hard for people to make that change like I did, going from a Republican to a Democrat, because you are who you affiliate with. That is your professional identity. That is your personal identity. That is your social circle. Everything that’s a part of your life is tied to the team that you play for. And so often I think here in Washington and on Capitol Hill, it’s almost like sports. We had to beat the other guy. We’ve got to win the day. It’s a contest, a competition, and as horrible as that sounds to people who aren’t as familiar with Washington, that’s really what it feels like when you’re there. This is their livelihood.
Q. So let’s talk about the ad The Lincoln Project is running called “Parasite.” It has a sort of horror movie beginning before talking about Lindsey Graham. You’re going after Republicans who have enabled President Trump, who have done this turnaround and this ad, I think, is devastating because it’s funny. So talk about some of these other folks that you’re going after. Are you getting pushback on the criticism?
A. The consulting classes are going apes---. When we finally get beyond this period of time and Trump isn’t the focal point of everything we talk about, the story of this period of time is about the Republicans who stood by and let this happen. Trump is who we thought he was. He’s kind of P.T. Barnum and Vince McMahon rolled into a politician, and he conducts himself like what he was, a “Celebrity Apprentice” TV host, and the show happens to be the United States of America. What is shocking over the last four years now, from Paul Ryan to Lindsey Graham, are the Republicans who let all of this happen. They need to be held accountable.
Q. It is sort of staggering that Republicans in The Lincoln Project are saying they are willing to lose the presidency and the Senate, isn’t it?
A. This is the first presidential election, at least in my lifetime, where it’s not about the typical partisan politics. This isn’t about whether you have a liberal or progressive governing vision. This isn’t about what you feel about pro-life or capital punishment or the war on drugs or the war on terror. From our perspective, it’s about saving the republic.
Q. I also want to get to another one of the ads which I thought was pretty striking, about Trump’s wall, just lined with coffins representing people who’ve died of COVID-19. Is there a danger of overdoing it with some of this imagery?
A. I think part of the goal for The Lincoln Project is to do something that really does get your attention and get you to stop in your tracks. We live in a time where you’re competing with so many things that take people’s attention away. To get 30 seconds of someone’s attention is a very tough thing to do. You do run the risk of things being overexposed and people kind of tuning it out. Our goal is to come up with creative ideas that cut through that. When you’re talking about the effort to persuade, no one’s going to change your mind if what you’re watching doesn’t capture your imagination.