Just like in 2016, a faction of the Republican party has emerged to try to defeat Donald Trump in the upcoming presidential election.
But unlike the last presidential race, where the effort never truly took off, this time those rebel Republicans have formed better organized groups – and some are even openly backing Trump’s Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.
In 2016, as Trump steamrolled his way through the Republican primary, some Republican lawmakers and operatives tried to mount an effort to stop him. Elected officials and veterans of previous Republican administrations organized letters, endorsed Hillary Clinton, and a few set up meager outside groups to defeat Trump.
That’s happening again – but there are differences. The outside groups are more numerous and better organized, and most importantly, Trump has a governing record on which Republicans can use to decide whether to support him or not.
“I think it’s qualitatively different,” said Republican operative Tim Miller, who co-founded one of the main anti-Trump organizations. “A lot of people who opposed [Trump] did the whole, ‘Oh, Hillary’s also bad, and Trump’s bad, and everybody can vote their conscience’ kind of thing.”
Miller said that 2016’s effort was far more of a “pox on both your houses” phenomenon versus 2020’s “organized effort to defeat him”.
The latest prominent Republican anti-Trump organization made its debut in early July. It’s a Super Pac called 43 Alumni for Biden, and aims to rally alumni of George W Bush’s administration to support the Democrat.
The new Super Pac was co-founded by Kristopher Purcell, a former Bush administration official; John Farner, who worked in the commerce department during the Bush administration; and Karen Kirksey, another longtime Republican operative. Kirksey is the Super Pac’s director.
“We’re truly a grassroots organization. Our goal is to do whatever we can to elect Joe Biden as president,” said Farner.
The Super Pac is still in its early stages and isn’t setting expectations on raising something like $20m. Rather, 43 Alumni for Biden is just focused on organizing.
“After seeing three and a half years of chaos and incompetence and division, a lot of people have just been pushed to say, ‘We have got to do something else,” Purcell said. “We may not be fully on board with the Democratic agenda, but this is a one-issue election. ‘Are you for Donald Trump, or are you for America.’”
43 Alumni for Biden is new compared with two other larger anti-Republican groups.
The best-knownis the Lincoln Project, a political action committee founded in 2019 by Republican strategists who have long been critical of Trump.
The Lincoln Project has made a name for itself for its creative anti-Trump ads. It has also brought on veteran Republican strategists like Stu Stevens, a top adviser for now-Utah senator Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. George Conway, the husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, is also a co-founder of the group.
Unlike other anti-Trump groups, the Lincoln Project has weighed in to Senate races and has begun endorsing Senate candidates. It has backed the Montana governor, Steve Bullock, in his Senate bid against the sitting Republican Steve Daines.
Then there’s Republican Voters Against Trump, a group led by Bill Kristol, a well-known neoconservative and former chief of staff to then vice-president Dan Quayle, and Republican consultants Sarah Longwell and Tim Miller.
That group is focused on organizing anti-Trump Republicans.
“Lincoln is doing two things really well. One is narrative-setting, and just beating Trump over the head with hard-hitting attacks,” Miller said. “And they’re also working on Senate races, which we’re not doing. I think that, frankly, they’re bringing the sledgehammer and working on Senate races, and we are elevating these peer voices in a way to persuade voters.”
A set of Republican national security officials has also emerged in opposition to Trump.
That group hasn’t given itself a name yet, and includes the former Bush homeland security adviser Ken Wainstein, and John Bellinger III, who served in the state department. The group is looking to rally national security officials away from Trump – either by supporting Biden or writing in someone else.
Even with all the organizing by these groups, there’s still the persistent fact that swaths of former Republican officials and operatives methodically endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016, and since then Trump has enjoyed sky-high approval ratings among the Republican party electorate.
But these groups say that was a result of Americans having not yet experienced a Trump presidency. They also say that the reason elected officials aren’t coming out to support Biden is because they’re worried about the blowback.
Colleen Graffey, part of the national security group of Republicans opposing Trump, said the reason some elected Republican officials aren’t coming out to oppose Trump publicly is because they’re scared.
“They’re worried they’re going to be primaried,” Graffey said. “They’re worried they’re going to be tweeted, if that can be a weaponized verb.”
Asked what his big fear is now, Farner said it’s that Republicans won’t come out to vote at all.
“My fear is that they will not come out and vote. And we’re here to say that it’s OK. We’re putting ourselves out here too,” Farner said. “It’s OK.”