Robert Gehrke: The Republican resistance to Trump has roots and ties to Utah

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Unlikely as it may seem, the most high-profile Republican resistance to President Donald Trump’s reelection has roots in the Beehive State. And I’m talking about more than Sen. Mitt Romney.

For most of the year, The Lincoln Project has hammered Trump with a barrage of no-holds-barred ads, circulated primarily on social media.

Their spots featured a former Navy SEAL calling Trump a coward over his indifference to Russian bounties on U.S. troops; they used Trump’s own words dismissing the coronavirus as the death toll climbed, another declaring it “Trump’s virus now”; one juxtaposed lines of caskets of those COVID dead calling it Trump’s real border wall; and another showed federal police beating protesters with the narrator saying, “This is how freedom dies.”

It’s napalm delivered in short, precise and devastating blasts.

And it’s coming from a group of Republicans with some surprising Utah ties.

Two of its co-founders — Steve Schmidt and Reed Galen, who both worked for former President George W. Bush and the late Sen. John McCain — live in Park City. Another, John Weaver, is a longtime confidant of McCain who helped run Jon Huntsman’s presidential bid.

And two senior advisers on the project worked for Romney — Stuart Stevens as chief strategist for his 2012 presidential run, and Sarah Lenti, who advised Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts.

Galen told me last week that the fact he and Schmidt live in the same town helped when they started discussing how they could make an impact on the 2020 presidential campaign.

They felt the opposition to Trump through more traditional channels — opinion pieces in newspapers and opposition inside the Beltway — had gone as far as it could. There needed to be something louder, more public and in-your-face.

Not long after announcing the group’s formation in an op-ed in December, the haymakers started coming. The strategy is twofold, Galen said.

“We have our audience-of-one strategy, where we go out of our way to get under [Trump’s] skin,” Galen said. “But there are also ads that … we deliver into target markets that are hard-hitting, but the thing is, we tell the truth in our ads. Everything you see is out there. It’s fact. It’s something the guy fricking admitted to.”

Trolling Trump has proven effective. Back in May, when the project was still in its adolescence, one ad — “Mourning In America” — hit a nerve.

Shortly after 1 a.m., the president fired off a series of tweets, calling The Lincoln Project a bunch of RINO (Republican In Name Only) losers, a “disgrace to Honest Abe,” and called project co-founder George Conway (husband of former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway) “deranged.”

“They’re all LOSERS,” the president ranted, and in doing so, he dramatically amplified the ad and The Lincoln Project’s profile.

It proved how easy it is to take up residence in Trump’s head, knock him off message and put him on the defensive.

Since then, the trolling has continued and it has been relentless — up to nearly a hundred spots. “You can’t give him any breathing room. You have to be up close to him,” Galen said. “He needs that time and space to move around to do that crazy.”

Not everyone is a fan of The Lincoln Project’s approach. Andrew Ferguson wrote in The Atlantic that mocking Trump’s health or ridiculing the size of his junk (as The Lincoln Project has done) won’t sway undecided voters.

Dan Pfeiffer, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, said the ads seem more targeted to the left — “basically porn for people who hate Trump” — but they rely too much on going viral on social media and aren’t doing much to change minds.

Others, particularly stalwart Trump supporters, paint them as turncoats and charlatans cashing in.

“The players in the ‘Lincoln Project’ … can be traced back to a wing of the campaign and elections industrial complex that have bilked Republican candidates for president out of unspeakable amounts of money with apparently no obligation to actually win a race,” said Greg Hughes, the former Utah House speaker and original Trump supporter. “It’s a good gig if you can get it. … Swamp games are hard to shake.”

Galen said he recognizes The Lincoln Project is an easy scapegoat for the Republican Party’s failures and an electoral picture that has gone from challenging to potentially catastrophic, with a handful of Senate contests in play now that weren’t up for grabs a few months ago.

When The Lincoln Project launched, the competitive seats were in Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina. Now the Republican Party is playing defense in those states, plus Maine, South Carolina, Alabama, Alaska, Iowa and Kansas — and the project aims to take those incumbent Republicans down with Trump.

“These folks have violated their oaths. They have violated their conscience. They have violated their … responsibility as a co-equal branch of government and they’ve done it all to avoid a nasty nickname and a tweet,” Galen said. “So in that context why do these people deserve to be dogcatcher, much less United States senator.”

And what happens then? If Trump is dragged out of the White House and Republicans give up control of the Senate, what do these Grand Old Pariahs do next?

At that point, Galen said, he sees the project becoming a coalition partner in repairing the damage of the prior four years and trying to be a check on the far-right views Trump empowered, whether it’s Republicans in Congress or Fox News or Alex Jones or QAnon conspiracies.

In short, after November, their resistance will continue.