By Alexandra Ulmer and Tim Reid
(Reuters) -A split is emerging among Republican anti-Donald Trump groups desperate to prevent the former president, who is dominating the party’s presidential nomination battle, from reaching the White House again.
Some are still spending to stop him becoming the Republican candidate, while others have concluded it is inevitable he will be the nominee and have moved on to try and prevent him from winning the November 2024 general election, according to interviews with key groups spending against Trump and interviews with a half-dozen donors.
Trump is ahead of his nearest rival by almost 40 points, according to the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll, with only four months remaining until Republicans hold their first nominating contest in January in the Midwestern state of Iowa.
Despite that overwhelming lead, some deep-pocketed anti-Trumpers, including the conservative political network led by billionaire Charles Koch, are continuing to pay for ads aimed at convincing Republicans in early nominating states to ditch Trump.
But some smaller groups have called it quits. After spending roughly $1 million on anti-Trump ads in Iowa, the Republican Accountability PAC, for example, concluded in August their money wasn’t making a difference.
“We have stopped spending money in the primary. We decided we needed to hold our powder for the general election,” said PAC president and Republican strategist Sarah Longwell.
That decision is another sign Trump’s candidacy is being seen as inescapable by some of his opponents in the party. Trump remains loved by a large swath of the Republican voting base, despite his falsehoods about his 2020 election loss and the federal and state criminal cases he faces.
Continuing to spend on the primary is essentially a waste of money, said Reed Galen, co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.
“You could throw suitcases of cash at Iowans and they’d still go to the church and vote for Trump,” Galen said, referring to one of the frequent locations where Iowans gather to choose the Republican or Democratic nominee.
The Lincoln Project, founded by former Republican strategists, also decided to halt spending on the primary this spring, although it had not spent much by that point.
“The general election has begun,” Galen said. The group is now targeting independents and Republicans unconvinced by the party’s direction, especially upper-income suburbanites, in general election battleground states including Wisconsin. It hopes to spend $50 million next year to support Democrat Joe Biden. The group will back Biden’s economic record and argue that Trump poses an “existential” threat to American democracy.
Longwell’s PAC is also planning to try to weaken Trump with Republicans unsure or displeased by Trump, as well as right-leaning independents. Independents in battleground states can be crucial in tight elections.
Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for Trump, said “no amount of Never Trump money” could match the enthusiasm Trump is generating among grassroots voters.
So far, anti-Trump ads by business-friendly Republican groups in early primary states have argued Trump would be weak against Biden, in part because of his four indictments.
About half of Republicans would not vote for Trump if he were convicted of a felony, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll published in August. However, polls also show Republican voters continue to overwhelmingly support Trump despite his mounting legal problems.
“I think for 2024, Trump is not the most electable candidate,” a man sitting in a living room says in one ad placed by the super PAC Win It Back, which is linked to the anti-tax advocacy group Club for Growth. “He probably doesn’t wake up without 50 emails from his attorneys about current or possible indictments.”
Tim Miller, a former aide to 2016 Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush and a Trump critic, said the “very soft ads” don’t come close to the “Herculean” effort needed to defeat Trump in the primary. “There are a lot of donors wasting money on strategies that have proven to fail,” Miller said.
Win It Back has reported spending more than $2.8 million opposing Trump this year in filings to the Federal Election Commission. The Club for Growth did not respond to requests for details on its campaign.
A source close to Club for Growth said, however, the group would not oppose Trump should he become the party’s nominee in the presidential election.
AFP Action, the super PAC affiliated with the Koch network that advocates for lower taxes and less regulation, is focused on reaching “soft” Trump voters open to alternatives, spokesperson Bill Riggs said in a statement. “We aren’t trying to persuade people who are never voting for Trump or already voting for Biden,” Riggs said.
AFP Action says it raised more than $70 million in the first half of the year with the goal of preventing Trump from clinching the nomination, and it told Reuters it has spent around $11 million in seven primary states so far. One ad, titled “Unelectable”, urges voters to move away from Trump to better defeat Biden.
AFP Action, which has criticized what it calls Biden’s excessive spending, says it plans to endorse one of Trump’s Republican rivals, but it has not yet made a decision.
The Lincoln Project’s Galen urged anti-Trump Republicans to focus on what for many may be an unthinkable step in a highly polarized country: re-electing Biden.
“If all of these people, all the Republicans, wanted their party back, they’d do everything they could to make sure Trump and the wackos got crushed next year,” he said.
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in San Francisco and Tim Reid in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Jason Lange in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin and Daniel Wallis)