The Lincoln Project Is a Money-Making Opportunity Created by Former McCain Supporters Without Campaign Jobs in 2020

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

John McCain ran for President in 2008 as the almost-stereotypical “It’s My Turn Next” GOP candidate.

John McCain and Joe Biden were friends based on their two decades of serving in the United States Senate together.  It was really just happenstance that Barack Obama picked out one of McCain’s friendlier colleagues in the Senate to be his running mate.  But that didn’t have much impact on the relationship between the two of them.

But McCain was somewhat of a GOP iconoclast, and his retinue of staffers and outside advisors consisted of many GOP operatives who had separated themselves from the mainstream establishment GOP political operatives. They had self-professed justifications for why McCain was different — better — than the rest of the GOP establishment, and why in choosing to follow McCain they were better too.

But when Donald Trump wrestled the GOP away from the establishment in the 2016 Presidential primaries, with a policy agenda POV about 180 degrees away from the views held by John McCain — and then made John McCain his main antagonist within the GOP during the first two years of his Administration — the former McCainiacs united under the banner of Never Trumpers and took to the media to announce their presence after McCain’s passing.

And let’s not overlook the FACT that John McCain played a key role in pushing along the Russia Hoax investigation in 2016.

The McCainiacs had great contacts in the media because that was the environment in which most of them had worked — not as on-screen talent for the most part but as political operatives who engineered media campaigns.

The Lincoln Project is one big media campaign, the objective of which was to oppose Pres. Trump’s reelection in 2020.  In addition to being the driving forces behind the project, and the face of the project promoted by their friends in network media, the Lincoln Project founders used their companies to create the media content — that was their vocation after all — deriving huge income and press attention using the contributions received from the Never Trumpers whom they were exploiting in the process.

Back in April, RedState’s Deputy Managing Editor Jennifer Van Laar took a look at some of the early numbers involved in the Lincoln Project’s fundraising and expenditures.  The signs of this being a honeypot endeavor were there from the beginning.  She also looked at the motives behind George Conway’s runaway criticisms of Pres. Trump.  Conway is the husband of former Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway and had supported the Trump campaign and Trump Administration prior to co-founding the Lincoln Project.

As of its last FEC report in mid-December, 2020, the Lincoln Project raised $87.4 million in the 2020 election cycle and spent $82 million.

Of the money it received, nearly $52 million came from individual donors in amounts greater than $200.

Initially, it was reported in the media as something of a point of pride for the Lincoln Project that a majority of its contributors gave amounts less than $200.

But as it became more of a media darling and the home of “cool Republicans” through the summer of 2020, the flow of money from bigger donors increased — especially from Hollywood.  In the end, the Lincoln Project wasn’t funded by the “small-time” GOP donors sending the $50 and $100 contributions to support their mission to defeat Pres. Trump.  A large majority of its funding came from the “monied-class” who funded both Never Trump and Democrat efforts to elect Joe Biden in 2020.

There are 10 vendors listed in their FEC reports as having received $500,000 or more from the Lincoln Project in 2020.

“Summit Strategic Communications” of Park City, Utah, was the top vendor, being paid $24.8 million during 2020.

SSC is owned by Reed Galen, one of the co-founders of the Lincoln Project.  Galen worked on both the 2000 and 2004 campaigns of Pres. Bush 43, and then was the Deputy Campaign Manager for John McCain in 2008. Another co-founder is Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s campaign manager in 2008.

The various FEC disclosure documents show the funds were paid to Galen’s SSC for video production costs and media buys opposing Pres. Trump’s 2020 re-election.

So a founder of the Lincoln Project, through his political media company, was the recipient of almost $25 million in spending by the Lincoln project on a media campaign to oppose Pres. Trump.

The second-largest recipient of spending by the Lincoln Project was TUSK Digital, which received $20.3 million.

TUSK Digital is owned by Ron Steslow, another co-founder of the Lincoln Project.

One of the early criticisms of the Lincoln Project’s spending reports was the amounts of money being paid to these firms for production costs for the ads as compared to the amount of money being spent on media buys to run those ads.  From Open Secrets in May 2020:

That seven-figure spending … comes as the group spends relatively little on direct political activity. The super PAC shelled out $364,000 to Galen and Steslow’s companies to run independent expenditures opposing Trump and his Republican allies in Congress. But just 52 percent of that money went to buying and placing ads, with the rest spent on producing the ads themselves.

That’s an unusually high rate for production costs compared to most super PACs. At least 2 percent of independent expenditures from pro-Trump super PAC America First Action this cycle were labeled as production costs, with the rest going to ad buying. And that group has come under fire from Republican operatives for spending donors’ money generously.

“Hey, let’s create a Titanic” like campaign ad in terms of production values, pay ourselves massive amounts of money to do so, and then run in a few times on CNN at 3:00 am when the rates are cheap.  Lincoln Project can pay for it.”

See how that works?

But what was the plan after Nov. 3 if President Trump was defeated?

In this Vox article from July 2020, a Lincoln Project spokesman gave the author the following comment:

In a text, Lincoln Project communications director Keith Edwards told me the project had no plans beyond defeating Trump. “We are focused [on] making sure Trump is a one-term president and ensuring Biden takes the oath of office in January. We’re not thinking of anything beyond that.”

Once that money spigot began to flow so nicely, was abandoning the grift after the project was complete not as easy as previously imagined?  Why else would former GOP operatives whose only goal was to defeat Trump become big spenders in the Georgia runoff elections — supporting the Democrat candidates — which came only after Pres. Trump had lost his re-election status?

The third-largest recipient of spending by the Lincoln Project — $6 million — was Ashton Media, which placed ad buys for political campaigns.  This FEC spending form filed by the Lincoln Project reported a payment to Ashton Media on December 1, 2020 — almost a month after the Nov. election.  The form shows an expenditure for a “Media Buy” in the amount of $10,000.  The expenditure was declared to be “In Support of Jon Ossoff” in the Georgia Senate “Run-Off” campaign.  It also shows that the Lincoln Project has spent nearly $700,000 in support of Ossoff’s candidacy during 2020.  In the hundreds of similar reports — spanning tens of thousands of pages in pdf filings — there are reported expenditures “In Opposing” Kelly Loeffler too.  I guess, in the end, they couldn’t actually bring themselves to “Support” a wife-abusing and Fidel Castro supporter/apologist like Raphael Warnock.  But I guess they are happy that Loeffler was not elected.

So when Ossoff starts voting in favor of Biden Administration policies, understand that these are votes that were supported by the Never Trump founders of the Lincoln Project.

For some of the Lincoln Project co-founders, their motives were almost entirely personal.  Some — like Steve Schmidt and alleged serial sex abuser John Weaver — had been close with McCain across decades in Washington  The dispute between Trump and McCain was a “blood feud” that they needed to carry on after McCain’s death to vindicate what Trump had done to and said about McCain.

For others — George Conway in particular — it was a matter of being denied by the Trump Administration after having supported him in the 2016 campaign.

Trump had no bigger media defender in the latter stages of the 2016 campaign and the initial months and years of the Trump Administration than Kellyanne Conway.  Her husband George was a prominent attorney at the Wachtell Lipton law firm and in GOP circles, having written the legal brief for Paula Jones before the Supreme Court which resulted in her being allowed to continue to pursue her civil case against Bill Clinton while he was still in office.  Conway was a graduate of Yale Law School and a member of the Federalist Society.  He had argued one case before the Supreme Court — a case he won in an 8-0 vote, with the opinion written by Justice Scalia.

In January 2017, Conway’s name surfaced as a possible Trump nominee to be Solicitor General — the top official in the Justice Department who argues cases before the Supreme Court on behalf of the United States.

But that job instead went to Noel Francisco, another prominent conservative attorney at the Jones Day law firm, which seemed to be the firm from which many top Justice and While House nominees were coming from — including the first White House Counsel, Don McGahn.

Conway was later offered the position of Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division at DOJ.  But after three months, without ever having been formally nominated, he withdrew his name from consideration for the position.  Here is how Politico reported on the issue at the time:

Conway said in a statement Friday that he’s “profoundly grateful” to Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions “for selecting me to serve in the Department of Justice.”

“I have reluctantly concluded, however, that, for me and my family, this is not the right time for me to leave the private sector and take on a new role in the federal government,” he continued. “Kellyanne and I continue to support the President and his Administration, and I look forward to doing so in whatever way I can from outside the government.”

Not long after he was a full-on critic of the Trump Administration and later a co-founder of the Lincoln Project.

The future of the Lincoln Project is really a big question mark. With the Never Trump purpose having largely expired now, there are no longer reasons for Democrat donors to give money to the Project, and there aren’t reasons to produce campaign ads at wildly inflated costs to be paid with suckers’ money.

But the free media exposure over the past 6 months seems to have given the Lincoln Project a new possible form of existence as a “media company,” with various members branching out into podcasting and television production on political-themed shows.

The problem they are likely to encounter, however, is finding a target audience for their continued work.  The central focus for their formation is gone, and there is no coherent reason for Democrats to pay attention to them in place of Democrat messaging forces — unless the founders intend to reinvent themselves now as progressives and socialists.

They have no home in the Post-Trump Republican Party.  The policy agenda that drove the MAGA constituency is not being put back in the bottle.  The post-Reagan agenda pursued by the Bush-Cheney-McCain GOP is dead, and it has no meaningful constituency in the post-Trump GOP.

If the founders of the Lincoln Project think they can put the GOP back on the 2008-2012 track, they might want to try pissing into the wind during the next hurricane and see how that works out.