GOP Operative Plans ‘Guerrilla Campaign’ Against Donald Trump
Move comes as growing number of Republicans fear damage to party’s image and ‘Hillary Clinton will become president’
By Beth Reinhard And
Updated Nov. 20, 2015 3:36 p.m. ET
The Republican establishment, increasingly alarmed by the enduring strength of Donald Trump’s presidential bid, is ratcheting up efforts to knock him out of the race, including the first attempt to unite donors from rival camps into a single anti-Trump force.
A well-connected GOP operative is planning a “guerrilla campaign” backed by secret donors to “defeat and destroy” the celebrity businessman’s candidacy, according to a memo obtained by The Wall Street Journal.
A super PAC supporting Ohio Gov. John Kasich is airing a series of ads attacking him. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush struck with his bluntest attacks yet on Friday, and the Club for Growth, an economic conservative group, plans to resume attack ads that it has run in Iowa against Mr. Trump.
Together, the efforts seem to represent a turning point in the Republican contest, in which other campaigns have previously been skittish about taking on Mr. Trump so directly. The sense of urgency has mounted in part because Mr. Trump continues at or near the top of GOP polls, even after many predicted that the Paris terrorist attacks would lead voters to turn to a more seasoned candidate.
The most concerted effort is Trump Card LLC, the guerilla campaign being launched by Liz Mair, the former online communications director of the Republican National Committee.
“In the absence of our efforts, Trump is exceedingly unlikely to implode or be forced out of the race,” according to the Trump Card memo. “The stark reality is that unless something dramatic and unconventional is done, Trump will be the Republican nominee and Hillary Clinton will become president.”
Opposition research, grass-roots organizing and donor outreach has been going on for weeks, Ms. Mair said, while declining to name any backers. “It’s loosely organized and highly confidential,” she said. “I certainly know donors who are very happy that their fingerprints will be kept off things.”
Asked about Ms. Mair’s campaign on Friday, Mr. Trump declined to respond in detail, but said through his spokeswoman Hope Hicks that Ms. Mair “worked for Scott Walker and lost her job—who can blame her?”
Ms. Mair worked briefly for Wisconsin Gov. Walker while he ran for president, but quit after her pre-campaign postings disparaging Iowans were unearthed.
As a limited liability company, Trump Card LLC wouldn’t have to disclose its donors to the Federal Election Commission. Viveca Novak, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, said she was aware of no restrictions on the kinds of political activities that could be funded through an LLC. “Anyone can set one up,” she said. “You don’t know who is behind it.”
Ms. Mair, who has ties to the libertarian movement and the GOP establishment, said that donors backing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Mr. Kasich and Mr. Bush are interested, and that some worry that going public could hurt their candidate.
Rick Wilson, a Republican media consultant, said in an interview that he is prepared to make ads for the new group. Mr. Wilson isn’t involved in fundraising but predicted that a number of Republican donors will start bankrolling an anti-Trump effort.
“People are finally taking the threat that Trump will destroy the Republican Party and lose the general election to Hillary Clinton seriously,” said Mr. Wilson, who recently started working for a new super PAC backing Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
The super PAC supporting Mr. Kasich, New Day for America, on Thursday began airing a series of ads that show Mr. Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson while invoking the Nov. 13 Paris terrorist attacks. “On-the-job training for president does not work,” an ad says.
Mr. Trump responded by threatening to sue the super PAC. “John Kasich should focus his special-interest money on building up his failed image, not negative ads on me,” Mr. Trump said in a stream of posts on Twitter.
Mr. Bush, on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Friday, criticized Mr. Trump’s proposals to tighten U.S. security with measures such as closing mosques. Mr. Trump also recently seemed to endorse setting up a Muslim registration database, but backed away from that on Friday.
“You talk about closing mosques, you talk about registering people, that’s just wrong,” Mr. Bush said. “It’s manipulating people’s angst and their fears. That’s not strength, that’s weakness.”
The new anti-Trump effort is planning a more direct and blunt approach than previous efforts. The group’s memo said it would be pitching opposition research to media in early-voting states, as well as radio and television ads and Web videos that attract media attention based on their “outrageousness and boundary-breaking or bizarre nature.”
One possible ad would link Mr. Trump’s views and style to his celebrity foe, Rosie O’Donnell, in hopes of provoking a reaction from Mr. Trump, according to the memo.
Other possible tactics include fake pro-Trump ads that show him supporting socialized medicine, seizing property through eminent domain and taking other positions that stray from GOP orthodoxy; using a Trump impersonator to show him insulting people; and attacking his business record in “stark, nasty terms.”
The goal, according to the memo, isn’t to covert Mr. Trump’s supporters into backing other candidates, but to dissuade them from voting altogether, especially in New Hampshire’s influential first-in-the-nation primary.
For financing, the memo said the group is seeking $250,000 from donors in multiple GOP presidential camps.
Ms. Mair helped lead the online media campaign for 2008 Republican nominee John McCain while at the RNC, and advised presidential candidate Carly Fiorina during her 2010 Senate race.
Until Mr. Kasich’s super PAC ads, there has been little paid advertising attacking Mr. Trump. That is in part because donors have been reluctant to invest in such efforts, because they assumed that his candidacy would fizzle on its own.
Some candidates, such as Mr. Cruz, have been reluctant to attack Mr. Trump because they hope to inherit his supporters if and when his candidacy fades. Others candidates willing to criticize him, including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, have either remained at the back of the pack or dropped out of the race.
Club for Growth, which also doesn’t disclose its donors, earlier this fall spent $1 million on anti-Trump ads that ran for three weeks in Iowa. The ads attacked Mr. Trump’s positions on taxes, trade and other issues that the group said exposed him as a liberal—a contention that Mr. Trump denied.
Doug Sachtelben, a Club for Growth spokesman, said they believed the ads contributed to a drop in Mr. Trump’s standing in Iowa polls in early October, when Mr. Carson rose to first place in several surveys.
Mr. Sachtelben said the group hoped to run more ads like that in Iowa and New Hampshire but couldn’t say when.
“We’re still in the fundraising stage,” he said.
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