U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a Farmers for Trump campaign event at the MidAmerica Center on July 7, 2023, in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The event was Trump’s largest in Iowa since a visit to Davenport in March.
Anti-Trump Republican groups, including one whose efforts in 2020 helped Democrat Joe Biden win over a critical slice of GOP support, have taken to Iowa television to paint the coup-attempting former president as a certain loser in 2024 ― making a case that Trump’s rivals are largely failing to make for themselves.
“We’re doing our part. The candidates aren’t doing their part to make the affirmative case of why they should be the nominee,” said Sarah Longwell, who runs the Republican Accountability PAC and its affiliated non-profit.
Longwell’s group began running ads on Iowa broadcast TV channels this week, the start of what will be a $1.5 million series. The first one features a woman who says she loved Trump’s presidency but fears that he simply cannot win in 2024.
“Donald Trump has way too much political baggage. There’s so many indictments against him,” two-time Trump voter “Fran” says in the 30-second spot. “The next Republican candidate has got to be somebody that can convince swing voters, independents, to vote for them because Donald Trump can’t.”
The Republican Accountability PAC joins the Win it Back PAC, closely tied to the Club for Growth, which began running ads in Iowa and South Carolina earlier this month. According to Federal Election Commission filings, the group has already spent over $2 million, including $1.6 million for TV ad placement and $400,000 for “field operations” ― direct voter engagement.
“We need somebody who can freakin’ win,” says the narrator of its single ad so far, who says that he likes Trump and all he accomplished but that he cannot vote for him again.
Both groups are attempting to lay the groundwork for Trump’s defeat not by arguing that his actions leading up to and on the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol make him an unacceptable choice in a democracy but by predicting that Republicans will lose the November election if Trump is their nominee.
Longwell says she wishes more Republicans were open to a moral argument against Trump but says they simply are not, and it is, therefore, necessary to “meet voters where they are.”
“The regular approach on ads, just beating up on Trump, didn’t work with swing voters,” she said, which is why the $27 million in ads by her previous group, Republican Voters Against Trump, in 2020 featured testimonials by former Trump supporters explaining why after four years of his chaos and dishonesty, they were going to vote for Biden.
“Voters would watch them and say: ‘Yes, that’s how I feel,’” she said.
David Kochel, a longtime Republican consultant in Iowa working with the Club for Growth group, said it’s striking that candidates are failing to make this argument against Trump themselves on the airwaves, let alone on the stump. “Candidates haven’t figured out how to deal with the Donald,” he said.
Rick Wilson, a founder of the most ubiquitous anti-Trump group, the Lincoln Project, said that he wishes Longwell and the Club for Growth success in stopping Trump in the primaries, but he does not think it will work. He is focused, again, on beating Trump in the general election.
“If we can’t persuade a Republican voter to convert and vote for Biden, we try to persuade them to simply not vote in the presidential,” he said. “If your underlying predicate is that Trump will win the nomination, as we believe, you fight one battle. If your underlying predicate is that there will be some Republican champion on the white horse who will ride out of nowhere and save you from Trump, you do other things.”
Longwell, who has done dozens of focus groups of Trump voters, said it’s not a certainty that Trump will win the nomination because only about 30% of GOP primary voters are dedicated to voting for Trump and nobody else, while another 30% would be fine with Trump if they thought he could win, and another 30% would prefer to move on from Trump. She said the “never Trump” group gets the remaining 10%.
As to someone else defeating Trump, she allowed, that would actually require the other candidates ― beyond former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has limited appeal in today’s Republican Party ― to actually use Trump’s vulnerabilities against him.
“As long as these guys take every indictment as an opportunity to defend Trump and attack the ‘Deep State,’ they will continue to be bit players,” she said. “It defies logic.”
Most Republican voters, she said, based on her analysis of the party, would prefer to have someone who can win and allow them to “maintain their identity” as Republicans.
And that, Wilson said, is where Longwell and others attempting the soft sell to move the party beyond Trump are missing the key problem. “There is no party, only Zuul,” he said. “Republican voters don’t want an alternative. They want Trump back.”