Anti-Trump forces splinter on alternative candidate as DeSantis, Haley fight on

In New Hampshire last week, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu — a vocal Trump critic — signaled openness to endorsing a different Trump opponent also facing long odds: Nikki Haley. And nationally, some wealthy Republican donors who are eager to back a challenger who can defeat Trump also have aligned themselves with Haley in recent weeks, according to people familiar with those fundraising efforts.

Amid the splintering of anti-Trump forces, some of the most prominent conservative groups that earlier this year declared an intent to stop Trump now acknowledge that few of the attacks they have tried against him have been effective.

These undercurrents in the GOP race are the latest examples of how Republicans hoping to thwart Trump’s march to the Republican nomination are trying to stop him. But with only about two months until the first nominating contest, voters, donors and outside groups have yet to coalesce around a consensus candidate or line of attack against the former president, who holds a commanding lead in polls of the GOP race. This lack of cohesion underscores the enormous challenge that the anti-Trump wing of the party faces with little time left to alter the trajectory of a race many Republicans feel is all but decided.

For much of this year, countless strategists argued that for Trump to be defeated, the GOP field had to be narrowed — allowing one contender to rise and consolidate the anti-Trump vote. That winnowing of the field is now happening as candidates including former vice president Mike Pence have dropped out and lower-tier candidates have failed to meet the criteria for the debate stage. Yet, DeSantis and Haley are still in a fierce battle to become the strongest Trump alternative that shows no signs of a resolution.

In this rapidly closing window before the first contests, Trump continues to lead the field in national polls by an average of between 40 and 50 points while showing new strength against President Biden in battleground-state polls — bolstering the air of inevitability around his path to the nomination.

This was not the scenario that the anti-Trump wing of the party envisioned at the outset of the 2024 presidential cycle. There were quiet discussions of high-dollar efforts led by outside groups to weaken the former president and many theories about how Trump’s candidacy would crumble under the weight of four indictments.

Meanwhile, outside groups have spent less than $18 million opposing the former president, according to a review of independent-expenditure records filed with the Federal Election Commission — a mere fraction of the more than $166 million in Republican spending that AdImpact has tracked thus far this cycle.

Earlier this year a number of GOP-aligned outside groups telegraphed with fanfare their plans to defeat Trump. In February, the network of donors and activist groups led by the conservative billionaire Charles Koch announced that it would mount a major effort to block Trump from becoming the party’s nominee — revealing later in the summer that it had raised some $70 million to spend on this cycle’s political races.

To date, Americans for Prosperity Action, the political arm of the organization, said it has spent more $17 million on ads in the presidential race, a combination of mostly digital ads and connected TV, as well as mail. Many of those ads have made the case to GOP voters that to defeat Biden, they must move on from Trump. And the group also launched digital ads this summer arguing that Trump is too focused on his personal grievances and “the election he lost.”

But people familiar with the group’s strategy say the ads are just one piece of a larger, less-visible, data-focused effort identifying and engaging potential Republican voters who are open to voting against Trump; the group views this as a more effective form of persuasion than ads blasting the former president. The goal is to bring into the primary process a quotient of 10 percent to 15 percent of new GOP voters — those who have voted Republican in elections in the past but not in primaries. And AFP officials say their research shows that half of the Republican primary electorate thinks the process either has not begun or has just started.

“We’ve found over years of testing there’s no better way to persuade someone than supplementing ads with one-on-one conversations. Through these conversations, we’re also able to go a layer deeper and learn the issues people care about and the candidates they’re leaning towards,” said Bill Riggs, an AFP Action spokesperson. “This data is constantly refined with every door knock and phone call, allowing AFP Action to zero in on the precise universe of voters that make the difference in a tight race.”

Win it Back PAC, a group closely associated with the Club for Growth — an organization that has repeatedly sparred with Trump — invested more than $6.5 million in ads to persuade voters who have supported Trump in the past but now are undecided to look elsewhere. The ads were narrated by people who said they had voted for Trump but had been disappointed by him.

But in a memo to the PAC’s investors in late September, David McIntosh — who leads the Win it Back PAC — outlined unusual challenges the group faced as it tested which messages would weaken Trump. McIntosh noted that traditional ads attacking Trump “either backfired or produced no impact on his ballot support and favorability” and that all attempts to undermine his conservative credentials fell flat.

McIntosh also identified what has been perhaps the biggest hurdle for the GOP groups that oppose Trump — that “none of the alternative candidates have consolidated the non-Trump vote yet.” He said the group would continue “developing and testing ads to deploy when there are signs of consolidation.”

But that consolidation still appears to be a long way off.

It is not yet clear how much power an endorsement from Reynolds or Sununu will carry in a party that is so fractured. In addition to the two early-state governors, other prominent Republicans and Trump critics including Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) and former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) also have urged to donors get behind one candidate as time runs short.

Privately, some Republicans were surprised by Reynolds’s decision and its timing, given that DeSantis has been sinking in some public surveys. Before Reynolds’s decision, several Iowa Republicans expressed skepticism that an endorsement of a non-Trump candidate would significantly cut into the former president’s lead.

But Reynolds developed a genuine fondness for DeSantis and his wife, and a factor in her decision to endorse DeSantis was that she already was being attacked for supporting him, according to a person briefed on the situation and speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss behind-the-scenes dynamics. The person said Reynolds’ allies also were irked by the Trump campaign’s rollout of an endorsement from Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird, whose campaign Reynolds had helped extensively.

Several Trump supporters in Iowa praised Reynolds but said her endorsement of DeSantis would not sway them from backing Trump.

“Iowans are not sheep, okay?” said Richard Beery, 68, of Waterloo, ahead of a Trump “Commit to Caucus” event in October. “We don’t all follow one person because they say so. We filter what’s best for the country and our state on an individual basis. I don’t think her telling us who to support would have any effect on the outcome of the caucus or the election.”

Mark Chelgren, a former Iowa state lawmaker serving as Appanoose County chair for DeSantis in Iowa, was upbeat as he left Monday night’s Reynolds-DeSantis rally — expressing distrust of the polling that showed Trump ahead nearly 30 points even in the Hawkeye State.

“I personally think [DeSantis] will win Iowa, and I think that Nikki Haley will win New Hampshire, and it will be a heck of a battle from there,” he said.

Asked whether he worried that this would position Haley to prevail in the subsequent early voting state of South Carolina — Haley’s home state — Chelgren replied, “She might.”

“Like I said, it’s gonna be a heck of a battle,” he said.

Marianne LeVine, Hannah Knowles, Dylan Wells and Isaac Arnsdorf contributed to this report.

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