A group of longtime Republican political operatives trying to unseat the president say they are willing to forgo a future in Republican politics to oust a leader they believe has driven the party of Lincoln into the ground. Lesley Stahl reports on the anti-Trump Super PAC the “Lincoln Project,” whose lifelong Republican founders include former John McCain strategists Steve Schmidt and John Weaver, on the next edition of 60 Minutes on Sunday, October 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET and 7 p.m. PT on CBS.
Schmidt and seven co-founders launched the Lincoln Project last December in hopes of reaching out to other Republicans they believed were also unhappy with President Trump. “What we thought we could do is talk to those voters in the language and the iconography that they understand, connect with them, and persuade them, many of them, to vote for the Democratic nominee for the first time in their lives,” says Schmidt.
Other co-founders of the Lincoln Project include Republican media consultant and author Rick Wilson; George W. Bush campaign veteran Reed Galen; and George Conway, Trump critic and husband of former White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway. “None of us will ever work in Republican politics again,” Schmidt tells Stahl. “We joke that– like some of the explorers who came to the new world, they were incentivized by the captain when he burned the ships…” Asked whether his actions have cost him friends, he replies, “For sure. Of course.”
The Lincoln Project made a name for itself with its numerous attack ads, released almost every day on social media. The ads go for the jugular. They have accused the president of being a draft dodger, disrespecting veterans, and failing in his response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics charge the negative attack ads are right out of the playbook used by President Trump. That’s the plan, says Wilson, who is in charge of the advertising. “There’s always a reflexive sort of, do-gooder instinct to say, ‘Oh, I hate negative ads.’ People do hate negative ads, but negative ads work,” he says.
Wilson and the Lincoln Project hope their messaging will persuade life-long Republicans like themselves to do the unthinkable. They have raised more than $60 million so far and believe if just four percent of Republicans can be convinced to vote for Biden, they can oust President Trump. “So those independent-leaning men, those college-educated Republicans, the suburban Republican women. We understand where those voters are, we understand who they are and how they think,” says Wilson. “It’s a game of small numbers. I mean, Donald Trump won this election by 77,000 votes in three states.”
Stahl spoke to the Lincoln Project in their first group television interview. They express sadness and anger over the turn their former party has taken. When Lesley asks Weaver how painful it is to repudiate his decades of work for the Republican Party, he replies, “There are moments of melancholy about it. No doubt.”
But Wilson tells Stahl the Lincoln Project is bigger than partisan politics. “In all politics, you can look back on things with honor or regret or what have you. I’ll think I’ll look back on this, I think all of us will look back on this, as something we did in the cause of the country.”