By Edward-Isaac Dovere, CNN
Some top Democratic operatives are terrified that their down-ballot candidates are responding too timidly to the threat of former President Donald Trump using this year’s midterm elections to launch a return to the White House, and they’ve formed a new group to raise the alarm.
The super PAC, whose creation was shared first with CNN, doesn’t have a subtle name: Stop Him Now.
Its aim is calling attention to Republican candidates’ ties to Trump and his efforts to subvert the 2020 election, as well as how GOP wins up and down the ballot this year could help further undermine systems designed to keep elections fair and democratic. Trump has signaled he wants Republican victories to lay the groundwork for another presidential bid, and these Democrats think their party needs to start talking about that a lot more — and quickly.
The new group will be targeting members of Congress running for reelection, as well as state-level candidates who are using lies about the 2020 election to try to springboard into higher office, often with Trump’s backing.
The Stop Him Now operatives know they’re in deliberate defiance of the many Democratic politicians and pundits who’ve decided that they will lose the more they talk about the former President. Already, the same House Democrats who impeached Trump twice have been fighting among themselves over whether to mention him in their midterm campaign efforts.
It’s no coincidence the super PAC is launching on Thursday — the anniversary of the Capitol insurrection — with its first ad built around footage of the rioters. It will run online, with the hope of calling more attention to the effort, though the group declined to share details about how much money it will be spending on the initial ad or the budget it’s aiming for.
“We were alarmed by the growing conventional wisdom in our party that we should stop talking about Trump — alarmed by that and what was happening to our country,” said Mandy Grunwald, a longtime Democratic consultant who spent years as an adviser to both Bill and Hillary Clinton, among many other high-level Democrats.
Grunwald formed the group with Saul Shorr, another veteran Democratic consultant with a huge roster of top clients, including Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee in last year’s Virginia governor’s race. Both tend to be behind-the-scenes players, and they say their public involvement in Stop Him Now reflects just how committed they are to the idea.
Also already working with the PAC are Democratic ad makers Jimmy Siegel and Miriam Hess and Teddy Goff, who was one of the top digital strategists for both Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns. Several of the people involved in Stop Him Now have put in their own money and all are donating time and expertise, while preparing to tap into their extensive political networks for more help and fundraising.
Republicans have been predicting that the November midterms will be like those in 1994 or 2010, which both produced massive GOP waves against first-term Democratic presidents. The Stop Him Now organizers believe that by lighting up fears among Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans that the GOP is coddling a destabilizing, anti-democratic force, they might be able to buck the historical trend of the president’s party losing seats in the midterms. They point to the dynamic of the 2002 midterms — another historical aberration — when Republicans expanded their majority by attacking Democrats, in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, as being weak on protecting America.
While President Joe Biden plans to focus on his own accomplishments — the White House has made it a point to avoid even saying Trump’s name publicly — and individual Democratic candidates craft their own approaches, the Stop Him Now operatives say they’ll look to keep the focus on the former President by targeting online ads and other efforts in competitive states and districts.
They are also responding to Democrats’ worries that they enter this campaign year without enough of their own good story to tell, with Biden’s social safety net bill and voting rights legislation languishing in Congress and a pandemic that seems like it will never end. Despite major legislative accomplishments in Biden’s first year — including Covid relief and a bipartisan infrastructure law — many voters regularly say they either don’t know about what the administration did or don’t feel its impact on their lives.
While Republican voters proved in last year’s elections that they’ll turn out heavily even without Trump on the ballot, Democrats don’t see anything else that can motivate their own voters like Trump did in 2018, when they flipped the House, and in 2020, when they won a razor-thin Senate majority thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. Meanwhile, polls show Trump’s strength among Republican voters has only increased, while there’s been overall disappointment in Biden.
“There needs to be a national cloud over the election about a choice between Democrats and Republicans, and the Republican Party’s link to Trump, Trumpism and the threat to democracy,” Shorr said.
The lessons of 2021
And yet when McAuliffe lost last year in Virginia — after Biden had carried it by 10 points just a year earlier — most political pundits and Democratic talking heads decided that his heavily Trump-centric message was to blame and they needed to change the subject in 2022.
This misses the point, Grunwald said.
“The reaction in our party implies that it’s a zero-sum game: We only talk about Trump or we never talk about Trump. We’re in the ‘and’ zone. People want to talk about the economy and what’s happening in people’s lives, and all kinds of stuff,” she said. “But you just can’t ignore this. It’s that sense that you have to choose, it’s one or the other: Because Terry McAuliffe didn’t win, and he talked about Trump, that’s the end of it. That’s nonsense.”
Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison has made a similar argument publicly and privately, saying he thinks Democratic leaders are ignoring reality if they don’t acknowledge Trump as a major factor and likely 2024 presidential candidate.
Facing a recall election in September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom did embrace that message and won. He easily defeated the effort to remove him from office by arguing that Trump-style policies, particularly around the pandemic, would lead to a dark fate for his state. He was especially helped by having a foil in right-wing talk radio host Larry Elder, the leading Republican candidate vying to replace him, who was more easily tied to Trump than the GOP nominee in Virginia.
But California is also a much bluer state than Virginia. And in the months since Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s victory, some Democrats and the media have zeroed in on a post-election memo about the Virginia race that argued that the anti-Trump strategy is not a path to victory in the places with competitive elections in 2022. Conducted by the firm ALG Research, it was drawn from focus groups with Biden 2020 voters who voted for Youngkin in 2021.
“The Youngkin = Trump hits didn’t work very well. We’re not saying this was a mistake, or that Terry had a better message he left on the table,” the memo’s authors argue. “We don’t know. But we do know that if our most-effective message in 2022 is that Republicans = Trump, we’re going to get creamed.”
The Stop Him Now organizers contend that the lower Democratic turnout in last year’s New Jersey gubernatorial race versus Virginia’s was in fact due to how little incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy talked about Trump. (Murphy ended up narrowly winning in the Garden State, but he drew several hundred thousand fewer votes than either McAuliffe or Youngkin in a state of comparable size.)
As evidence, a strategy memo laying out the Stop Him Now reasoning cites a word cloud based on voters’ most common negative impressions about Youngkin taken from McAuliffe surveys a week before the election.
By far, the dominant negative thought was “Trump.” In the word cloud, it’s huge. Likewise, internal data compiled by the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC in October showed that when Democratic voters in battleground states were asked what their top concerns were about Republicans winning majorities in Congress, one of them was: “set stage for Trump comeback.”
Stop Him Now’s first ad leans into that.
Set to a piano tinkling through the first few bars of “America the Beautiful,” the ad is mostly footage of the violence from the Capitol riot. “Next time they won’t just be wearing horns and wielding weapons. Donald Trump is marshaling another force to take over the US Capitol: his army of Republican supporters running in the midterms, intent on helping him return to power.” The ad then flashes frames of Trump being embraced at rallies by prominent Republican politicians, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker, as well as several leaders not on the ballot in the fall, like Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Josh Hawley of Missouri.
It ends by flashing text onscreen: “Republicans in ’22 means Trump in ’24.”
The ad is reminiscent of several that ran in last year’s Virginia races, including one from Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, against the GOP candidate, which used similar footage of January 6 and a voice-over saying, “The threat is real.”
Herring lost, but by half a percentage point. Jim Mulhall, one of the consultants who made the ad, said he still believes that Trump-centric approach was the right one. The year favored Republicans and Herring was running under McAuliffe, whose campaign lost its footing in the final weeks. But by centering on the Trump message, Mulhall said, the attorney general barely lost and managed to pull in more votes than the top of the ticket. Democrats more widely should not overread the loss, he argued, and think about how to raise the specter of Trump.
“It’s happening either way. In 2024, the nominee is going to be Trump or a close Trump ally with him yammering away,” Mulhall said.
Democrats also expect they’ll have an easier time tying this year’s Republican candidates to Trump than they did with Youngkin, who managed to keep his distance by being a newcomer to politics and self-funding $20 million into his campaign. Most Republicans on the ballot this year won’t have any of that going for them, and unlike Youngkin, if they’re to emerge as their party’s nominees, they’ll have to clear primaries that have already devolved into Trump loyalty contests. Many also have records and comments that tie them closely to Trump, including the 147 House Republicans who voted to overturn the election even in the hours immediately after the riot, and the dozens of state legislators who have turned themselves into local champions of his election lies.
Trump is already more engaged than he was in the 2021 elections. Although he endorsed Youngkin, he didn’t go to Virginia to campaign for him. But for 2022, he’s already endorsed far down the ballot to the secretary of state level. He issued an endorsement of the GOP governor of Alaska, conditioned on the incumbent not supporting Sen. Lisa Murkowski, whom Trump has it in for because she voted to convict him in his second impeachment trial. He’s ignored House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s requests to sit out certain races, and has openly solicited candidates to take on GOP incumbents.
So the biggest force pushing Democrats into talking about Trump may be Trump himself.
“You’re going to see Trump campaigning all over the country. A huge swath of this country believes he’s going to run again,” Shorr said. “He’s going to put himself at the center of this argument. For us to ignore that would be a mistake.”
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