Rogue Republicans: GOP Insiders Take Aim at Trump and Supporters

4 min
A group of prominent Republicans are funding ads aimed at defeating Trump and Republican senators who support him. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

As Democrats agonize over who should be their 2020 presidential nominee, a group of prominent Republicans, including George Conway, the husband of President Trump's adviser, Kellyanne Conway, are funding ads aimed at defeating Trump and Republican senators who support him.

Last week, the Lincoln Project, a conservative advocacy group, released a tough ad targeting Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine for waffling on whether to have a full impeachment trial with witnesses.

"Senator Collins, you aren't doing the job we elected you to do," the narrator says grimly. "You work for Maine, not Mitch McConnell. Act like it." The ad praises the independence of former Maine Sens. Bill Cohen and Olympia Snowe and implores Collins to not "embarrass their legacy by protecting corruption."

"We represent the Republican wing of the Republican Party," said Mike Madrid, one of the eight Republicans who heads up the Lincoln Project.

Madrid has worked for the California Republican Party on numerous state campaigns. Now, he says, he just can’t stomach the direction his own party is taking.

"This new group, this new Trumpism, is more about nationalism, it’s about populism, it’s about white identity," said Madrid, who in past efforts has helped the GOP reach out to Latino voters.

For years, moderate Republicans like Madrid have found themselves increasingly isolated within the California Republican Party. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, the last Republican to win a gubernatorial election in California, has been characterized as a "RINO" — Republican in Name Only — by the California GOP's elected leadership.

Schwarzenegger, along with former Assembly Minority Leader Chad Mayes, have created a group called New Way California which aims to make Republicans more relevant in state politics.

Mayes, along with other prominent Republicans like State Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, have left left the Republican Party as it's grown more extreme under Trump.

Today, statistics from the Secretary of State show Republicans are literally a "third party" in California, as their share of the electorate has shrunk to less than 24%, behind No Party Preference voters (26%) and Democrats (44.6%).

Madrid, along with consultants — like Steve Schmidt, who helped Arnold Schwarzenegger become governor, and John Weaver who worked for President George H.W. Bush, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — have built their businesses and their reputations on getting Republicans elected and being knowledgeable about Republican voters.

"We realized it was time for us to kind of take a stand and put all of that on the line and do what was right for the country and recognize that the Republican Party has been consumed by something that is very troubling and it's threatening the republic," Madrid said.

Madrid said their goal is not just to defeat Trump, but to "remove Trumpism" from the Republican Party.

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Former East Bay Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, a moderate Republican who occasionally voted with Democrats in the Legislature before being defeated by one, thinks the Lincoln Project is misguided. While she strongly rejects most of Trump's harshest positions, she said targeting somewhat moderate Republicans like Collins is a mistake.

"I understand their argument that, gee, there's others who are enabling [Trump]," Baker said. "And I certainly do think it would have been much better to have Republicans willing to be vocal, to be a counterweight to [Trump's] worst instincts and tendencies.

"But there are candidates out there who are willing to be that counterweight, that counterbalance to the president. They need support."

Baker didn't get that support from voters in her own district, who voted her out in 2018 over a Democrat supported by organized labor. After the election, Baker said having the "R" designation after her name killed her chance of winning reelection.

Republican strategist Sean Walsh agrees, saying the goal of the Lincoln Project is "very dangerous" in that it seeks to replace one kind of purity test with another.

"And honestly, that's not in the heart and spirit of what Abraham Lincoln was about. The old Bush theory of a big tent ... there's room for everyone," Walsh said.

Walsh doubts the Lincoln Project will have much impact on the presidential election, but he admits they could complicate Republican efforts to hold onto or win back congressional seats in California.

Walsh said some races, like the one to replace convicted Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter in the 50th Congressional District in San Diego and Riverside counties "are vulnerable to moderate Republicans, particularly women. So if you stir that hornet's nest you may cost the California Republican Party some seats."

Others aren't so sure. California Republican National Convention Committeewoman Harmeet Dhillon called the Lincoln Project "the coronavirus of Republican politics" — a contagion to be eradicated.

"These gentlemen — and they're all dudes — are in this sort of silo effect of hatred. This is, you know, like really irrational hatred of the president," Dhillon said. (Note: One of the group's leaders, Jennifer Horn, is a woman who once chaired the New Hampshire Republican Party.)

The San Francisco attorney, never one to soften her criticism, called the group "fringe nihilists, egotistical nihilists," adding that their work "doesn't cause me to lose even like a minute of sleep at night."

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Like Dhillon, Walsh thinks Trump is doing a good job. He said most rank-and-file Republicans who hear about the Lincoln Project will say, " 'Are you kidding me? You want to take out Donald Trump, and give Bernie Sanders two Supreme Court justice nominations?' I just think that Republicans will look at that and say, 'You people are crazy.' "

Madrid and the other Republicans guiding the Lincoln Project know they'll pay a big price for opposing the leader of their party. But too much is at stake, he said, to remain quiet, and hopes their effort will embolden other Republicans to speak out.

"The fear tactics used by the president are making people feel isolated," Madrid said. "And I think that people are just encouraged and feel stronger when they recognize that, you know, some of the people at the highest level of Republican politics are standing up and putting up a fight."

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