Super PAC mounts state-by-state effort to elect convention delegates who oppose Trump.
First they spent tens of millions trying to boost their favorite presidential candidates, then they poured cash into ads attacking Donald Trump, and now some of the biggest donors on the right are turning their attention to the delegate fight.
Anti-Trump billionaires are funding ground operations in an increasing number of states to try to ensure the selection of national convention delegates who oppose Trump. The strategy is being executed by the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC, which has a stated goal of blocking the bombastic billionaire from clinching the GOP presidential nomination before the party’s convention in July.
But the PAC’s officials acknowledge that they likely won’t stop there and that they intend to keep up the pressure all the way through the end of July’s Republican National Convention, possibly including trying to steer the nomination to an alternative candidate.
While engaging in presidential delegate fights is an unprecedented use of super PAC cash, one of Our Principles’ billionaire donors said it’s a smart way to “cover all bases.” And the donor, Minnesota media mogul Stan Hubbard, brushed aside Trump’s increasingly vocal frustration about getting cheated in the battle for delegates.
“There’s nothing unfair about it. He or she who can marshal the most forces and do the best job, will get the nomination,” said Hubbard, who in February donated $10,000 to Our Principles and said he’d consider giving more to the stop-Trump effort.
In the coming weeks and even at the convention, Hubbard said, big donors and super PACs like Our Principles “can certainly try to influence people. I could call a delegate and say what I think, if they’d talk to me. I can buy a billboard. I can run ads. Why not?” Trump’s campaign will also be working to whip delegates, Hubbard noted, “and you’ll have other people trying to do the same thing. So fair is fair.”
Our Principles’ delegate strategy has attracted far less attention — and money — than multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns that have bombarded the televisions, smart phones and mailboxes of regular voters in key primary states like Florida, Wisconsin and New York.
But in some ways, the effort to influence the much smaller universe of party activists who attend state and national party conventions is more notable. It expands the role of major donors and their super PACs into new terrain that until recently was the sole purview of campaigns and party insiders, and it could set the stage for Our Principles to run a privatized whipping operation — and potentially even play kingmaker — at a national convention, where it is increasingly likely that the presidential nomination will be decided in a floor fight where byzantine rules and interpersonal relationships hold sway.
It’s a dynamic in which Trump’s skeleton campaign staff has lagged.
While Trump has tried to beef up his delegate operation in recent weeks with new hires, he also has blasted the process as a corrupt effort by party insiders to steal the nomination from him. It’s a “crooked deal,” he argued Monday on Fox News after his leading GOP presidential rival, Ted Cruz, won lopsided victories over the weekend at party conventions in South Carolina and Colorado where party activists elected delegates to the national convention, the overwhelming majority of whom are loyal to Cruz.
Trump said on Fox that “the people out there are going crazy — in the Denver area and Colorado itself — and they’re going absolutely crazy because they weren’t given a vote, this was given by politicians.”
To be sure, Cruz’s campaign outreach to delegates has played a major role in his delegate-hunting advantage in caucuses and conventions.
While Our Principles PAC has made clear that it is neutral between Cruz and long-shot GOP presidential hopeful John Kasich, its delegate-outreach efforts have mostly ended up helping Cruz in states that held conventions this month to select their delegates, such as North Dakota and Colorado. And it is planning similar strategies in states that will select their delegates in the coming weeks, such as Wyoming, which holds its convention Saturday, according to its spokesman Tim Miller.
He rejected Trump’s allegations of corruption and said his PAC is merely capitalizing on Trump’s lack of preparation in Colorado, which canceled its primary last year in favor of the convention. “The campaigns have known about this for a year and some argued for a primary, but Trump was not among them because he was too busy tweeting at the haters and losers,” said Miller.
In the run-up to the conventions in North Dakota, Colorado and Wyoming, Our Principles reached out to registered attendees via telephone to try to gauge their loyalties. Then, at the state conventions, the PAC has targeted attendees with mobile advertising and has had three or more local operatives on the ground in each state working the crowd, making sure that anti-Trump attendees are aware of which delegates share their sensibilities, according to Miller. (In Colorado this past weekend, for instance, those efforts were led by Tyler Sandberg, who had managed the successful 2014 reelection campaign of Rep. Mike Coffman).
Those operatives have also supervised the distribution of hundreds of copies of an anti-Trump “voter guide” that portrays the New York billionaire as a charlatan who favored abortion rights, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democrats, knowingly used “illegal immigrant” labor to build Trump Tower and questioned Ronald Reagan’s backbone, among other sins against conservativism.
That strategy is being mostly implemented by DDC Advocacy, a Washington political consulting shop where one of the partners is Our Principles adviser Sara Taylor Fagen, a former White House political director for George W. Bush.
Our Principles has paid DDC more than $4.1 million for direct mail, phone banking and other voter contact, according to the PAC’s filings with the Federal Election Commission. Only a tiny fraction of that — $84,000 — appears to have gone towards delegate-outreach in North Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado, though it’s possible that more convention-related spending will be revealed in subsequent FEC filings.
The delegate-outreach spending revealed so far pales in comparison to the $11 million that Our Principles has spent on television advertising, making such delegate-targeting worth a try, despite questions about how effective it might be.
Miller stressed that the PAC will continue its heavy advertising to try to influence voters in primaries such as the potentially pivotal contest next week in New York. But he said that Our Principles would also keep up its delegate outreach, and planned to retain at least some of the staffers it paid to work the state conventions.
“We are going to take the fight to Cleveland,” he said Monday. “Our role is going to be secondary to the campaigns, but to the extent that we can continue to communicate with the delegates about Donald Trump and why he’s not a viable general election candidate, we will,” he said, noting that the PAC is well-positioned to work with the delegates during a one-month break between the end of voting and the beginning of the convention.
The PAC test drove the delegate outreach strategy in North Dakota, which earlier this month held a state convention where Cruz dominated, with his preferred candidates taking 18 of 25 slots delegate slots up for grabs.
After that contest, Brian Baker, a senior adviser to the PAC, issued a statement asserting that the race “is coming down to a ground game battle for delegates. We will fight for every last delegate vote all the way to Cleveland.” Baker also advises the PAC’s biggest donors, the Ricketts family, who had contributed $5 million of the $8 million raised by the PAC through the end of February, and who had come under fire from Trump when their involvement was revealed.
Sources in GOP finance circles said Our Principles has raised at least another $8 million since the end of February, as Trump showed weaknesses in both primaries like Wisconsin and in the delegate game.
New York hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, who donated $1 million in February, organized a meeting of major donors last month in Palm Beach that, while not billed as an anti-Trump get-together, did include many attendees who are ardently opposed to Trump. The donors got a briefing on the delegate process from Ben Ginsberg, a GOP lawyer who is perhaps the leading expert on the convention rules.
One attendee said that Ginsberg’s presentation was not a how-to for defeating Trump, but rather a neutral explanation of the complicated rules of an open convention.
Ginsberg — whose law partner represents Trump’s campaign, but who has said that he is walled off from that work — said of his presentation to the donors “what I told them was exactly what I wrote in a Politico op-ed published March 12.”
But a source familiar with it said many of the donors treated the session as a primer “about how they’re going to block Trump.”