Trump's growing re-election threat: Republican skeptics

While President Donald Trump remains focused on outside antagonists, the threat from within could be decisive in an election that could be decided on the margins.
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to deliver an "Address to Young Americans" in Phoenix, Arizona
President Donald Trump waits backstage before speaking at Dream City Church in Phoenix on Tuesday.Carlos Barria / Reuters

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By Shannon Pettypiece

WASHINGTON — In 2016, Matt Borges publicly condemned and feuded with Donald Trump when he was head of the Ohio Republican Party — but in the end, he voted for him anyway. That won't be happening in 2020.

Borges — who says he is confident there are a growing number of Republicans like him, unwilling to "hold their nose" and vote for Trump a second time — is part of a growing movement of conservatives openly working to elect the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.

"Nothing was going to get me to vote for Hillary Clinton. I grew up in this business learning to fight against everything the Clintons were for. I knew her, and in my mind, I knew what a Clinton presidency was going to be like," said Borges, who helped form an anti-Trump super PAC. "A lot of folks are like me. They understand that Joe Biden isn't the same kind of candidate."

While the president remains focused on outside foes, the threat from within could well prove a decisive factor this fall, with well-financed campaigns led by seasoned political operatives aimed at shaving away support from the GOP base in an election that could wind up being decided on the margins.

As lifelong conservatives, these members of the Republican resistance say they are in a unique position to reach like-minded voters who are uncomfortable with Trump's rhetoric and actions but hesitant to back a Democrat.

"What we wanted to create is a movement among rank-and-file Republicans to give them a sense of community and a sense of encouragement from walking away from this president," said Tim Miller, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee. He is now an adviser to Republican Voters Against Trump, a super PAC that he said will "create a permission structure for them to say for the first, maybe only, time that they won't vote for a Republican."

Trump retains widespread support among Republicans in polls — 90 percent of those who identified as Republicans said they would vote for Trump, and 71 percent viewed him very favorably, according to a New York Times/Siena University poll released last week.

But Republicans advocating for Biden said cracks are forming that they believe they can tap into. Trump trailed Biden by 20 points among independent voters, the NYT/Siena poll found, and just 61 percent of self-identified Republicans said they viewed the country as being on the right track. The president's support among the groups that were key to his win in 2016 — seniors, non-college-educated whites and men — has also been shrinking in multiple polls over the past two months.

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The Lincoln Project, whose co-founders include Republican lawyer George Conway, the husband of top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, and veterans of multiple Republican presidential campaigns, has spent $2 million on ads attacking Trump and promoting Biden in battleground states, as well as in the nation's capital — and it has earned much more than it has invested through Trump's irritated public responses.

Republican Voters Against Trump expects to have a $10 million budget to target voters online, with a focus on college-educated Republicans in swing states and working-class female Republicans, said Miller, who is working with conservative commentator Bill Kristol on the project. The group has promoted hundreds of online videos of people who say they regret having voted for Trump in 2016 and won't do the same in 2020, like a shirtless North Carolina man smoking a cigarette who professes that he would vote for a tomato can before voting again for Trump.

The group Borges helped start, Right Side PAC, is testing various messages and building out data models to identify persuadable Republican voters. Rather than run TV ads aimed at a large audience, it plans to target specific voters by mail, phone and online.

More groups are expected to emerge after the convention, said a GOP strategist who backed Trump in 2016 and is now opposing him. The operative said he has gotten calls from at least a half-dozen Republican consultants considering various anti-Trump efforts.

While no other president in recent history has faced such organized public opposition from within his own party, it's not a new phenomenon for Trump, who has been contending with the so-called Never Trump movement among Republicans since he launched his campaign. Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh dismissed the groups' efforts, saying "any efforts by disgruntled former Republicans is doomed to fail."

"President Trump has the support of a record number of Republicans and leads a united party," Murtaugh said.

But in addition to the super PACs, a growing number of prominent Republicans are speaking out on their own, several of whom held top positions in his administration, such as former national security adviser John Bolton, a former Fox News contributor who has been lobbing near-daily attacks at Trump this month while promoting his book.

Anthony Scaramucci, a former Trump supporter who was briefly his White House communications director, has been working with Right Side PAC, reaching out to donors and trying to recruit other prominent Republicans to speak out, Borges said. Trump's former chief of staff John Kelly and former defense secretary, James Mattis, have called Trump's character into question over the past month.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said this month that she was "struggling" with whether to support Trump. Other Republicans have been trying to sound the alarm with Trump about his weakening prospects, like Senate Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota, who has said Trump should adjust his tone and has warned that support for the president among independents is softening.

Trump has been quick to punch back. He promised to campaign against Murkowski, and he called GOP critics "human scum" last year after several spoke out over his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and his attempts to pressure Ukrainian officials to investigate Biden's son Hunter.

The anti-Trump Republican groups expect to raise just a fraction of the money as the pro-Trump super PAC or Biden-aligned PACs, but in an election that could come down to a few thousand votes in a single state, even getting Trump voters from 2016 to sit on the sidelines could be a victory.

"If you were for Trump last time and you write in Ronald Reagan this time, that is plus one for Joe Biden," Miller said.

CORRECTION (June 29, 2020, 8:12 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of a conservative commentator who is part of an effort to defeat President Donald Trump. He is Bill Kristol, not Crystal.