Republican Party megadonors are racing to bail out President Donald Trump’s cash-strapped reelection campaign, with a newly formed super PAC pouring a further$25 million into battleground states.
Preserve America is set to begin running a trio of TV commercials savaging Democrat Joe Biden as Republicans express growing alarm over the president’s absence from the airwaves. Trump — who went dark for part of August and has since cancelled advertising in key states — is being outspent more than 2-to-1 by Biden this week, according to the media tracking firm Advertising Analytics.
The outside group, which is expected to draw funding from prolific GOP givers including Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, is rushing to fill the void. Starting late this week, the super PAC will begin airing ads in seven states, including some where Trump is being badly outspent.
With Trump’s once-formidable cash advantage over Biden erased, the president’s advisers remain deeply concerned about the air war. While Preserve America has dished out $55 million this month alone — already making it one of the highest-spending outside groups this election year — the sum pales in comparison to the $100 million, pro-Biden assault that billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is prepping in just Florida alone. And in August, the Biden campaign and affiliated committees outraised Trump by $154 million.
“If the Democrat message drowns out all the Republican message on TV that could make a huge difference,” said Club for Growth President David McIntosh, whose group has been running TV ads bolstering Trump. “You have to stay in the game at least.”
Preserve America’s new commercials focus on national security and brand Biden as “too weak” to be president. One ad features the parents of Kayla Mueller, an overseas humanitarian aid worker who was taken prisoner and killed by ISIS in 2013. Mueller’s parents, who spoke at the Republican National Convention, say that “Kayla was America” to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “and he was raping her.”
They then accuse the former vice president of being passive in the crisis and slam him for opposing the raids that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. “If he had been decisive, look at all the lives that would have been saved. We don’t want this to happen to anyone else nor would Kayla,” Mueller’s mother says.
The super PAC is steered by Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist who orchestrated the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attack ad campaign against John Kerry. Like the Swift Boat commercials, the Preserve America spots feature scorching attacks delivered in the form of direct-to-camera testimonials. Rather than propping up Trump, they are focused squarely on tearing down Biden.
The ads will run on TV and online in Arizona, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. They will also appear in Iowa, where Trump is off the airwaves this week, and in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where the president is being outspent more than 2-to-1.
Trump is also getting support from the America First Action super PAC, which recently announced plans to invest $40 million on advertising, an amount that officials say will increase as the election draws closer.
Nathan Klein, a top America First Action official who is overseeing the spending, said the organization was looking to invest in states where the Trump campaign was absent, thereby allowing the reelection effort to focus elsewhere. He pointed to Pennsylvania, where Trump was off the air in August but where the super PAC invested millions of dollars.
While campaigns and outside groups are not allowed to coordinate, strategists are able to monitor advertising placements and make decisions based on what other organizations are doing.
“Yes, every campaign in the history of time would like to have more money than they actually have,” Klein said. “But that’s the whole point of our approach to this — we are giving them the flexibility to be as nimble with the money they have in the bank as they choose to be.”
The scenario bears some similarities to 2016, when big GOP donors mobilized behind Trump during the final weeks of the election. They included Adelson and his wife, Miriam, who gave $20 million to a pro-Trump outfit, while Marcus forked over $2 million that fall.
The Adelsons have given more than $1 million this year to a joint account split between the Trump reelection effort and the Republican National Committee. Marcus has donated more than $360,000 to the same committee.
America First Action’s benefactors include transportation company executive Timothy Mellon, who has given $10 million, and Los Angeles real estate developer Geoffrey Palmer, who has contributed $6 million.
“If there is a time you never want to be outspent, it is with less than 50 days to go until Election Day, but the nature of the campaign finance laws allow for outside groups to fill the void and that’s exactly what they are doing,” said Ken Spain, a former top National Republican Congressional Committee official. “Ultimately it doesn’t matter who is spending the money as long as it’s spent and done so in an effective manner.”
Still, Trump aides have at times been frustrated with the two groups. Concerns were privately raised after Preserve America went dark for several days this week, soon after launching its big-money campaign. And the president’s advisers have long criticized America First Action, the principal pro-Trump super PAC, for not raising enough money or being aggressive enough.
As the summer months wore on, Trump aides were eager for an alternative outfit to emerge. But it didn’t happen until late August, when Preserve America finally launched.
While the president’s team has greeted the outside spending with a measure of relief, they also acknowledge the super PACs have a major shortcoming in that they must pay more to advertise than campaigns. As a result, their dollars don’t go as far.
But they are important for Trump, whose campaign manager, Bill Stepien, has reined in spending since assuming the top job on the campaign. With less than 50 days until the election and millions of dollars already spent and budgeted, senior Republicans view advertising as one of the few remaining areas that can be pared back, even if that means ceding the advantage to Biden on the airwaves.
During an online conference with reporters last week, Stepien acknowledged that spending had become a focus.
“We are now carefully managing the budget. I consider it to be among the — if not the most — important tasks for any campaign manager,” he said. “Creating or recreating the budget was the first thing that I did upon becoming the campaign manager, and it’s something that we as a team manage every single day.”
Still, Republicans worry the drubbing Trump is taking on the airwaves could have implications up and down the ballot. With the presidential contest shaping down-ballot races, there are concerns a gaping disparity between the parties on TV could damage the GOP’s prospects.
“Without a summer of aggressive, anti-Biden TV advertising in nonpresidential swing states,” said veteran Republican pollster Robert Blizzard, “Biden continues to be largely undefined in many places across the country where Republicans are facing competitive House or Senate races, and local state legislative battles.”