The anti-Trump group Republican Accountability Project is launching a $1.5 million ad campaign in Iowa designed to soften support for Donald Trump so another candidate can theoretically win over their votes.
But in true Trump-era fashion, the "Baggage-Free GOP" ads—which all center around testimonials from former Trump voters—necessarily include a heavy dose of praise for the twice-impeached, twice-indicted, two-time popular vote loser. They have to if the campaign is going to have any chance of appealing to its intended audience.
"I supported Donald Trump. I really appreciated his presidency," says two-time Trump voter Fran, from upstate New York. But, she adds, she won't be supporting Trump in the Republican primary because he has "way too much political baggage."
"The next Republican candidate has to be somebody that can convince swing voters, independents, to vote for them, because Donald Trump can't," she concludes, closing out the ad.
Most of the ads follow a similar pattern: Two-time Trump voters love what Trump did in office, but he's got too much baggage now and the party needs someone who can win.
The one ad that differs splices together cuts from dozens of testimonials on the group's site. Multiple people repeatedly hit all the same themes mentioned above. But hearing a similar message from a panoply of two-time Trump voters gives one the feel of being part of a much larger movement of people.
The ads make a strong case for voting in favor of someone not named Trump, but they also beg the question: If not Trump, then who?
That remains a sticking point because the erstwhile heir apparent, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, tanked his campaign. Who might emerge as a viable alternative to DeSantis remains to be seen.
In fact, Sarah Longwell, host of The Focus Group podcast and executive director of the Republican Accountability Project, believes that Trump's continued popularity is at least partially due to the failure of another candidate to break through.
“Part of the problem has been that there hasn’t been another candidate to emerge who voters intuitively see as more electable,” Longwell told The New York Times. “The No. 1 reason Trump is dominating right now is because of lack of political talent from the people who are challenging him.”
DeSantis blew his chance to consolidate the not-Trump vote, which consists of anti-Trumpers and pro-Trumpers now open to alternatives (the target audience of the ad campaign).
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been fearless in taking on Trump, but his unfavorables are sky-high. A July University of New Hampshire poll, for instance, found just 10% Granite Staters viewed Christie positively, while 64% held an unfavorable of him. So while Christie has proven to be the only viable candidate who dares to confront Trump, his anemic favorables likely render him incapable of consolidating the vote.
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley is moving up in the polls, particularly in South Carolina, where she served two terms as governor. But she still hasn't carved out an actual position on abortion, and she's not knocking on the door of second or even third in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina is well liked, has high favorables, and is gaining ground in the early states, Iowa especially. He's about to have a moment, which is why other Republicans in the field are training their sights on him. But it's hard to imagine he and his sunny disposition being capable of taking a kill shot at Trump.
Asked last week at a candidate forum about Trump's involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection that threatened his life, Scott gave Trump a pass: “I hold the folks who broke into the Capitol with ill will in their hearts, destroying property responsible for their actions," Scott said. "I don’t hold the former president who didn’t show up at the Capitol and threaten my life as responsible.”
Even if the Republican Accountability Project softens the ground for a Trump alternative, that alternative has yet to emerge in a very wanting group of 2024 Republican candidates.