Conservative groups are banking on a Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised The Senate confirmation process is broken — Senate Democrats can fix it Australian politician on Cruz, vaccines: 'We don't need your lectures, thanks mate' MORE victory in Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary to halt Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHarris stumps for McAuliffe in Virginia On The Money — Sussing out what Sinema wants Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — The Facebook Oversight Board is not pleased MORE’s momentum and convince increasingly dubious millionaires to keep funding the "Never Trump" movement.
“We really see it as a game changer,” said Doug Sachtleben, communications director at the Club for Growth, one of the three main conservative groups dropping millions on attack ads against Trump.
While Republican operatives running anti-Trump groups insist publicly that there are no “make or break” states, there is a growing private consensus that a Cruz victory in Wisconsin would be crucial to convince wealthy conservatives who dislike Trump that their money is not being spent in vain.
Dozens of Republican millionaires who are usually reliable in delivering funds when asked have watched their oversized checks evaporate as Jeb Bush’s super-PAC spent more than $100 million in a failed effort to nominate the former Florida governor. Trump meanwhile, spent virtually nothing on paid media, and a number of donors began questioning the efficacy of paid advertising against a reality TV star with a unique talent for commanding and manipulating free media.
Cruz is now the favorite in Wisconsin and leads Trump by 10 points in this week’s Marquette Law School poll. The Republican establishment in Wisconsin has already coalesced behind the Texas senator, led by the state’s Gov. Scott Walker. Walker, who dropped out of the presidential race in September, timed his endorsement, announced Tuesday on a popular Wisconsin conservative radio show, to create maximum momentum for Cruz leading into next week’s primary.
And movement conservatives in Wisconsin, led by influential local media figures, are doing their utmost to undermine Trump in the Badger State.
Two groups in particular — the Club for Growth and Our Principles PAC — are homing in on Wisconsin and, combined, are running close to $2 million in TV and digital ads attacking Trump in the state. Their anti-Trump efforts are leading the conservative outside spending in Wisconsin, according to NBC News’s analysis of SMG Delta data.
A third group trying to halt Trump also sees Wisconsin as a potential shot in the arm for the “Never Trump” movement. American Future Fund is a politically active non-profit with past ties to the Charles and David Koch network and has already spent more than $6.5 million attacking Trump elsewhere but has slowed its efforts in recent weeks.
“I think it’s very important that somebody other than Trump wins Wisconsin,” said Stuart Roy, a spokesman for American Future Fund.
“It’s certainly important in terms of reinvigorating people’s enthusiasm for taking on Trump and understanding that it’s a winnable prospect.”
Success in Wisconsin could assuage donors’ concerns from unsuccessful anti-Trump efforts. In Florida, for example, Trump won the primary despite more than $10 million spent on commercials in the state attacking him.
Club for Growth has spent about $8.5 million against Trump and Our Principles PAC, which is funded primarily by the billionaire Ricketts family, which owns the Chicago Cubs baseball team, has spent more than $14 million attacking the GOP front-runner.
All told, more than $37 million has been spent on anti-Trump advertising by conservative groups, according to The Hill’s analysis of Federal Election Commission data.
The ads have portrayed Trump as a misogynist, a liberal hypocrite, a draft-dodging coward, a con-artist, and a borderline criminal with mob ties. But in the latest Wisconsin push, the “Never Trump” operatives have changed their tactics.
The Club for Growth started out with an issue-based case against Trump, poking at his record on economic policy, taxes, eminent domain and healthcare, but Sachtleben says these rational arguments are not what's needed now.
“We’ve messaged that he’s not a conservative, that he’s been all over the map on healthcare, taxes and bailouts and these sorts of things,” Sachtleben told The Hill. “I think what’s become even clearer as we’ve worked through it is that [Trump’s base] in some sense is not moveable."
“They are supportive of Trump for reasons that defy some of the facts even,” he added. “So I think it’s challenged us to be sure that as we put out this ‘stop Trump’ messaging, that we’re really appealing to those voters that we’ve seen in the primaries before — the late deciders, the people who are still looking at the issues thinking, ‘OK, I don’t want Trump, so who do I want?’”
Tellingly, the Club for Growth’s attacks on Trump in Wisconsin stay entirely away from the issues and even his personality. In a 30-second spot titled “Math,” the Club lays out a how-to-vote guide for the anti-Trump voter, explaining that a vote for Kasich is a vote for Trump and the only way to stop the billionaire is to elect Cruz.
“Kasich doesn’t have a mathematic path to victory and so, instead of trying to focus so much at this point on Trump’s flaws, which are evident in wide fashion … we’re focused on just on the math at this point,” Sachtleben said.
Tim Miller, a spokesman for Our Principles PAC, said his group, meanwhile, is laser-focused on states where Trump is vulnerable and where defeats can harm him not only in delegate accrual but also in ruining the mythology Trump has erected around himself. Wisconsin meets both of those objectives.
A Trump loss in Wisconsin would undermine his argument “that he has this appeal to Reagan Democrats or to blue collar whites in Rust Belt states in the Midwest,” Miller told The Hill.
Miller sees Wisconsin as a natural place to slow Trump’s momentum at a time when the primary calendar has itself been slowing. And he also points out the political significance of Wisconsin as the “epicenter of the Republican Party’s revival over the last eight years.”
“A disproportionate amount of influence in the party’s come out of Wisconsin,” Miller said, referring to Gov. Walker’s right-to-work reforms and national recall election, and the fact that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Speaker of the House Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanJuan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Cheney takes shot at Trump: 'I like Republican presidents who win re-election' Cheney allies flock to her defense against Trump challenge MORE both come from Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin-as-game-changer spin is essential to reinvigorating large sections of the GOP donor community, which has grown despondent after their favorite candidates have dropped out, or in Kasich’s case, is barely in contention.
It won’t be easy convincing some, however.
“My involvement in donating to stop Trump was really to help Rubio in Florida and Kasich in Ohio,” said Bill Oberndorf, a California-based investor who gave $500,000 to Our Principles PAC.
“My view is that Trump and Cruz are for different reasons both dangerous and flawed candidates,” Oberndorf added, in an email to The Hill. “If either of them win the Republican nomination, I believe the election will have been handed to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMeghan McCain: 'SNL' parodies made me feel like 'laughing stock of the country' Hill: Trump reelection would spur 'one constitutional crisis after another' Trump defends indicted GOP congressman MORE.
“If that is what Republicans want, that is what they are about to get.”
Stanley Hubbard, a Minnesota broadcasting billionaire who gave $10,000 to Our Principles PAC, said he’s not giving another cent to the “Never Trump” effort.
“I gave them once and that’s it. I’m not involved in the 'stop Trump' campaign,” Hubbard told The Hill in a telephone interview. “If he’s the nominee I would have to support him because you know, those are the rules of the game, and I think he’d be better than Clinton.”
Yet despite all the obstacles in getting the donor community enthused, Miller and his allies in the “Never Trump” movement say they are determined to fight the front-runner’s nomination to the end — even if their money dries up, Miller says.
“Even if you don’t have the resources for massive television buys, and hopefully we will have resources for additional television buys, but even with a smaller footprint, you can be successful with a delegate strategy,” Miller told The Hill.
That could include wooing delegates away from Trump in case there’s a contested convention.
“But, look, I think that’s something that we’re looking at right now, how exactly to execute.”
All that is theoretical, though. For now, he said, the goal is to knock out Trump with donors’ support.
“If you lose Iowa in the caucus, you lose Ohio to Kasich, if you lose Wisconsin to Cruz, you’re seeing Trump’s case that he has a unique appeal being undermined, and the electability argument is going to matter especially if there’s a delegate fight in Cleveland.”