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The Memo: Can the Never Trumpers succeed?

Tensions between President TrumpDonald John TrumpGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race Scott Atlas resigns as coronavirus adviser to Trump MORE and so-called Never Trump Republicans have burst into the open again.

The president took to Twitter to blast an ad from The Lincoln Project, a group dedicated to his defeat that is led by several well-known GOP strategists, lawyers and ad-makers — including George ConwayGeorge ConwayLack of influence means it's time to dismiss the Lincoln Project Sirota: Lincoln Project election efforts to swing GOP votes from Trump 'epic failure' Raccoon that 'attacked' news crews on White House lawn sparks viral jokes MORE, the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayWomen set to take key roles in Biden administration Lara Trump mulling 2022 Senate run in North Carolina: report Press: Where is Jim Baker when we need him? MORE.

Trump’s volcanic reaction made clear that the TV ad got under his skin. But whether that means such criticism can hurt his electoral chances is a very different question.

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The president’s loyalists note that the GOP establishment was against him from the beginning of his quest for the White House, and he prevailed. His anti-establishment image is an asset, they claim.

There has long been skepticism about Trump among the intelligentsia on the right. The conservative magazine National Review in February 2016 published an entire issue focused on blasting the then-candidate and included 22 conservatives making plain their opposition to the prospect of him becoming the GOP’s presidential nominee.

Such efforts did not work then, and there is not much evidence to suggest they have worked since. 

Trump’s approval ratings, though consistently underwater, remain very high among Republican voters. In a Monmouth University poll released Tuesday, 89 percent of GOP voters approved of Trump’s job performance. In an Economist-YouGov poll released late last week, the figure was 87 percent.

Even so, small shifts could make all the difference given that Trump won election in 2016 only by the narrowest of margins and faces a reelection fight in which he has abruptly lost his strongest card — a robust economy that was vaporized by the coronavirus.

That is what Never Trump figures such as Rick Wilson are banking on. A longtime Republican consultant known for his pugnacity, Wilson has written two bestselling books excoriating Trump and is one of the leading members of The Lincoln Project. 

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“We put out something that spoke in a language that Republicans have long understood,” Wilson told The Hill, referring to the TV commercial that stoked the president’s ire.

The ad in question is titled “Mourning In America” — a bleak take on a famous and uplifting 1984 President Reagan ad, “Morning in America.” It marries together footage of the coronavirus crisis and economic devastation to assert that the United States is “weaker and sicker and poorer” under Trump’s leadership. 

“Even the most fanatic, deranged Trumpist can’t say we are better off than we were four years ago. Donald Trump’s leadership, especially during a moment of crisis, has been so abysmal that he doesn’t like to be held to account,” Wilson said.

The ad earned three separate counterblasts from the president within 24 hours.

In a series of tweets just before 1 a.m. Tuesday, Trump lampooned the group behind The Lincoln Project, saying they “don’t know how to win.”

In reference to George Conway, Trump tweeted: “I don’t know what Kellyanne did to her deranged loser of a husband, Moonface, but it must have been really bad.”

Another tweet more than 12 hours later accused the people behind The Lincoln Project of profiteering, while the president also asserted: “They should love Trump. Problem is, I BEAT THEM ALL!”

Speaking to reporters as he departed for a trip to Arizona Tuesday, Trump referred to The Lincoln Project as “the losers’ project” and again blasted Conway, this time as a “stone-cold loser.”

Republicans who are critical of Trump were gleeful about the amount of attention the president was drawing to the story.

“The ad was so brilliant that it pissed off Trump so much he tweeted about it — and now everyone is talking about it,” said Rick Tyler, a GOP strategist who worked as communications director for Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration proceeds with rollback of bird protections despite objections | Trump banking proposal on fossil fuels sparks backlash from libertarians | EU 2019 greenhouse gas emissions down 24 percent Trump's NATO ambassador pledges 'seamless' transition to Biden administration Potential 2024 Republicans flock to Georgia amid Senate runoffs MORE’s (R-Texas) 2016 presidential campaign.

Still, the question of the efficacy of attacks on Trump from the right is questionable.

Having once been a classic outsider, he has made the GOP his own since being elected president.

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Erstwhile rivals such as Cruz and Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham: Trump should attend Biden inauguration 'if' Biden wins Biden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate Georgia governor rejects Trump's call to 'overrule' elections officials with emergency powers MORE (R-S.C.) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRand Paul says Fauci owes parents and students an apology over pandemic measures Grassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus Congress set for chaotic year-end sprint MORE (R-Ky.) sing his praises. The Republican National Committee, which watched his rise with evident unease in 2016, now marches to his tune. Critics, such as former Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBiden eyeing Cindy McCain for UK ambassador position: report Profiles in cowardice: Trump's Senate enablers McSally concedes Arizona Senate race MORE (R-Ariz.) and former Rep. Mark SanfordMark SanfordLive updates: Democrats seek to extend House advantage 10 bellwether House races to watch on election night On The Money: Business world braces for blue sweep | Federal Reserve chief to outline plans for inflation, economy | Meadows 'not optimistic' about stalemate on coronavirus deal MORE (R-S.C.), have either retired or been defeated in primaries.

Factors like that, as well as the high approval ratings Trump records among GOP voters, makes some in the party highly skeptical that there is a groundswell of discontent among Republicans.

“I don’t think the Conway effort is indicative of how Republicans feel about the president,” said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean, a former GOP congressional aide who worked on the Trump team that shepherded Justice Neil GorsuchNeil GorsuchFor Thanksgiving, the Supreme Court upholds religious liberty Supreme Court blocks New York coronavirus restrictions on houses of worship COVID-19: Justice Alito overstepped judicial boundaries MORE to Senate confirmation in 2017. “They don’t have a hostility to the president, and they believe COVID-19 took everyone by surprise.”

Bonjean added that, for good or for bad, Trump is the only real option in November for conservatives. 

“Does that group want to support Joe BidenJoe BidenGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Senate approves two energy regulators, completing panel Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race MORE for president? Where does that get anyone?” he asked.

Trump’s GOP critics, like Wilson, freely acknowledge that they are not expecting to shift millions of voters with a single ad or even with their broader criticism. But they may not need to, he insisted, given the slimness of Trump’s 2016 victory. 

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 The president won three key states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — by an aggregate total of about 77,000 votes.

Asked how many people might share the ad’s sentiments or be swayed by it, Wilson responded: “Is it a gigantic number? No, it’s not. But this is a tribal society now, and it’s a game of small numbers. 

 “The guy won by fewer than 100,000 votes in the swing states.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.