A prominent anti-Trump Republican group is facing calls to disband, after it was rocked by sexual harassment allegations against one of its founders and questions over its finances.
The Lincoln Project raised close to $90 million (€75 million) to help defeat Donald Trump and won plaudits for churning out snappy, snarky ads during the presidential election campaign, which questioned his mental fitness and the loyalty of his inner circle.
But now erstwhile allies are asking whether the Lincoln Project can survive following reports that John Weaver, a long-time GOP strategist and a founder of the group, harassed young men – including one who was allegedly underage – over text messages and social media.
The allegations, which have been bubbling for weeks, have culminated in a bout of public infighting within the Lincoln Project amid accusations that some of its leaders knew about the nature of the accusations before they were made public.
The group has also been accused of using non-disclosure agreements to prevent staff from discussing the accusations in public.
Weaver has apologised to “the men I made uncomfortable through my messages”, admitting they were “inappropriate” but that he had viewed them as “consensual mutual conversations at the time”.
In a statement on Monday, the Lincoln Project said it would release “staff and former staff from the confidentiality provisions in their employment agreements to discuss their workplace environment”.
Separately, the group has faced questions over why more than half of the $90 million it raised was paid to companies associated with some of the founders, and how that money was subsequently spent.
The Lincoln Project on Monday announced it had hired the law firm Paul Hastings “to investigate allegations of inappropriate behaviour by John Weaver as part of a comprehensive review of our operations and culture”.
A day later, George Conway – the Republican lawyer married to former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway and a co-founder of the Lincoln Project – called on the group to disband.
In a tweet, Conway – who had already left the group – wrote: “Just shut it down already . . . it’s over.”
Jennifer Horn, a co-founder of the Lincoln Project and one of the few senior women associated with the group, issued a scathing resignation letter last week.
Of the group's eight founding members, only three remain. Steve Schmidt, one of the most prominent founders, announced that he would resign from the board last week.
Kurt Bardella, a former senior adviser to the project, who also stepped back last week and has called on the group to disband, said its fate would rest on the result of the investigation and the reforms it makes in response.
“The real question about viability comes down to whether they can restore confidence with their donors,” Bardella said. “Ultimately time will tell whether that can work.”
During the 2020 election cycle, the project received large donations from billionaire Democratic donors, including hedge fund manager Stephen Mandel and California philanthropist Gordon Getty, who each gave it $1 million, as well as David Geffen, the DreamWorks co-founder who gave $500,000.
However, much of its cash came from donors, many of them liberals, who gave small-dollar contributions.
Well-known Democratic super political action committees such as the Senate Majority PAC, the Democratic party’s main fundraising PAC for funding Senate candidates, partnered with the project.
Yet of the close to $90 million the project raised between its founding in 2019 and the 2020 election, just roughly $27 million was spent on ads. Meanwhile, consulting groups with financial ties to some of its founders received contracts worth more than $1 million each, according to filings lodged with the US Federal Election Commission.
In the statement released on Monday, the Lincoln Project said 80 per cent of its “funds went to voter contact and content production” and that its “historic results speak for themselves”.
The Lincoln Project did not respond to a request for further comment from the FT. Weaver did not respond to a request for comment.
Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor who backed Trump, said: "They sold their Republican credentials for progressive cash. And now that Trump is out of office, progressives have thrown them under the bus. It's not surprising."
Former supporters of the Lincoln Project say they worry its current troubles will overshadow its successful campaigning tactics, which might prove useful for Democrats in future elections.
“For all the things the Lincoln Project may have done wrong, there are things they did right . . . It would serve Democrats to identify [them] . . . and add them to their toolbox,” Bardella said.
Bardella said the Lincoln Project’s “tone, tenor, [and] velocity of rapid response” were all “ingredients” that the Democratic party should adopt in its own campaigns.
Tim Miller, the former political director of Republican Voters Against Trump, another anti-Trump group, said the Lincoln Project's ads had resonated with many Democrats "who felt it was more compelling to hear criticism from the right".
“I think a lot of Democratic voters were like: ‘I want somebody who’s going to rip [Trump’s] face off’,” Miller added.
The Lincoln Project’s troubles come amid what Miller describes as a “kind of splintering of the Never Trump” movement.
He said that some in the movement were conservatives who had never liked Trump while others were former Republican moderates who were “functionally Democratic voters now”.
Regardless of the Lincoln Project's specific problems, a schism between these two groups was always inevitable once Trump left the White House, Miller added: "There was always going to be a split-up."
Whit Ayres, a GOP consultant, said: “The Lincoln Project is basically going after all Republicans, which is why they are supported primarily by Democratic donors. It’s hard to see a role for that approach in a future Republican party.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021