The Grifter Project

(pgaborphotos/iStock/Getty Images Plus)
The Lincoln Project is little more than the most brazen election-season grift in recent memory.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he four founders of the Lincoln Project — Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson, George Conway, and John Weaver — introduced their new venture to the world in a New York Times op-ed in which they described their aims as to prevent President Trump’s reelection by “persuading enough disaffected conservatives, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in swing states” to vote against him and to take down as many Republican members of Congress as possible.

But the project is a scam — little more than the most brazen election-season grift in recent memory. And it is working. As the ragtag band of three otherwise unemployed strategists plus one lawyer hoped, the allure of Republican-on-Republican violence has proven irresistible to the MSNBC set. Per their most recent FEC filing, the group has raised $19.4 million since its inception this past November.

The gap between the group’s rhetoric and its actions is enormous. The Times op-ed declared that “national Republicans have done far worse than simply march along to Mr. Trump’s beat. Their defense of him is imbued with an ugliness, a meanness and a willingness to attack and slander those who have shed blood for our country, who have dedicated their lives and careers to its defense and its security, and whose job is to preserve the nation’s status as a beacon of hope.” And yet the group’s focus thus far has been on vulnerable Senate Republicans, notably the moderate Susan Collins and the mainstream Cory Gardner, who haven’t exhibited any such behavior. Neither has Joni Ernst, another target.

The Lincoln Project’s ads don’t attack these GOP senators for supporting profligate federal spending, contributing to explosive debt, or enabling feckless foreign policy, nor do they bash President Trump for his incoherent trade policy or his failure to tame an ascendant administrative state. Rather, they attack Republicans from the left, in terms that please the Lincoln Project’s predominantly progressive funders. Rarely, across dozens of ads, is a political principle recognizable to anyone as center-right to be found. Is the Lincoln Project aware of who Abraham Lincoln was?

That most spots sound instead like Democratic boilerplate — the type of partisan schlock a Democratic candidate might run against a GOP opponent in a D+5 district — may go some way to explaining where the Lincoln Project is coming from. One ad slams North Carolina senator Thom Tillis for proposed cuts to federal education funding and Obamacare while claiming he supports putting “kids in cages.” Another sandbags Colorado’s Cory Gardner for siding with Trump on health care and the environment. Yet another lectures Susan Collins that she works “for Maine, not Mitch McConnell.” In an ad assailing the Senate majority leader, the group dubs him “Rich Mitch” and smears him as someone who has used his office to accumulate wealth (ignoring that most of McConnell’s wealth comes from his wife, Elaine Chao, not from anything he did during his time as a senator).

It’s one thing to object to candidates of (ostensibly) your own party on principled or even petty political grounds. It’s quite another to employ the ideas and vocabulary of those with whom you have fundamental philosophical disagreements. The Lincoln Project’s founders may have written, “Our many policy differences with national Democrats remain,” but they have yet to demonstrate one.

This makes sense when one examines the Lincoln Project’s FEC filings. To date, the group has spent nearly $100,000 for “fundraising consulting services” with the Katz Watson Group. That firm’s founder, Fran Katz Watson, is a lifelong Democratic operative who previously worked as the national finance director for the Democratic National Committee. The firm’s long list of left-wing clients includes the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Beto for Senate. In addition, the Lincoln Project has spent large sums contracting with Elrod Strategies, the firm run by Adrienne Elrod, former director of strategic communications for Hillary for America, and has paid Zachary Czajkowski handsomely for “political strategy.” Czajkowski’s resume includes work for Barack Obama, former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, Hillary Clinton, and disgraced former California representative Katie Hill.

If a group of unemployed strategists were looking to shape a persuasive center-right critique of Trump and his allies, these are not the talents they’d turn to. If, on the other hand, the aim was to open up anti-Trump wallets on the left, they couldn’t pick a better team. The Lincoln Project’s communications director is Keith Edwards. He previously worked on communications for Mike Bloomberg’s run in the Democratic presidential primary and as a staffer for New York City Council speaker Corey Johnson, also a Democrat. Johnson is on record as trying to kick a Christian relief organization, Samaritan’s Purse, out of New York City, after its staff set up a field hospital in Central Park at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Never mind that these volunteers were risking their lives to help others; Johnson alleged that its presence was “painful” to “all New Yorkers who care deeply about the LGBTQ community.”

For a group that makes a big deal out of transparency and morality, the Lincoln Project’s financial records make interesting reading. Spending by super PACs is divided into disbursements, which cover operating expenses, and independent expenditures, which are used in support of (or opposition to) a candidate. To date, the group has steered roughly 50 percent of its total spending, including almost all of its independent expenditures, through just two firms: Summit Strategic Communications and TUSK Digital. Summit Strategic Communications is run by the Lincoln Project’s treasurer, Reed Galen. TUSK Digital is run by former Lincoln Project adviser Ron Steslow.

Through July 13, the Lincoln Project paid at least $5.6 million to Summit and TUSK as independent expenditures against Donald Trump and GOP senators and for Joe Biden and Montana governor Steve Bullock, a Democrat running for the Senate. Save for $72,000 paid to Getty Images, that is the entirety of the Lincoln Project’s independent expenditures. Since the money goes directly to Summit and TUSK, no one outside of those two firms knows the vendors they use to buy ads, create visuals, do direct mailings, etc. By contrast, other super PACs, including America First Action, which backs Trump, and Unite the Country, which backs Biden, pay their vendors directly, allowing donors and the public to see exactly where the money gets spent. Since disclosure of spending on subcontracted third parties is not required, it is impossible to say how much of this money was actually spent by Summit and TUSK and how much the Lincoln Project founders pocketed or paid out to other principals.

For example, per Open Secrets, the group recorded an independent expenditure against Arizona senator Martha McSally, with video production costs paid to Summit totaling over $14,000 — an exorbitant amount for a 90-second video made entirely from stock photos and news clips. Compare this to a seasoned political consultant (interviewed on background for this story) who ran a statewide race and hired a film crew to meet in a remote area to shoot for two days. The team created enough content for a short biographical video, two 30-second ads, two 15-second ads, and two six-second bumper clips for a total cost of $15,000. This calls into question how much Summit pocketed versus how much it actually paid its subcontractors.

The Lincoln Project has made limited national cable ad buys, airing their ads mainly in Washington, D.C., or on Morning Joe — neither market is exactly a Republican hotbed. Despite Joe Scarborough’s conservative track record as a member of Congress, the show he cohosts appeals to a heavily Democratic audience.

The Lincoln Project also spends heavily on social media. According to the Facebook Ads Library, the group spent $1.67 million on ads across Facebook and Instagram. However, many of those ads target donors with asks containing links to their donation page.

The group’s intentional lack of transparency, combined with the nearly $20 million it’s hauled in to date, raises valid questions about the potential for financial grift. Meanwhile, the Lincoln Project continues to raise funds from left-leaning partisans by advancing Democratic narratives in an effort to defeat centrist Republicans — an intellectually disingenuous gambit at best. Earlier this year, the group introduced the tagline, “Our mission is to defeat Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box in 2020.” Another line, often attributed to P. T. Barnum, might be more honest: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Jay Caruso provided research for this piece.

Steve Stampley is a former congressional aide and campaign manager who has written for the Washington Examiner and Arc Digital.  

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