A prominent conservative group is thrusting itself into the Democratic primary with a TV ad assailing Beto O’Rourke — a move that comes as Republicans consider a broader campaign to meddle in the opposing party’s contest to take on President Donald Trump.
The anti-tax Club for Growth is expected to begin airing a two-minute commercial in Iowa this week aimed at dampening liberal support for O’Rourke, who’s expected to enter the race any day. The spot paints the former Texas congressman as a politician dripping with "white male privilege" who’s undeserving of the comparisons he’s drawing to Barack Obama.
“With a charmed life like his, you can never really lose,” the ad concludes. “That’s why Beto’s running for president — because he can.”
The offensive represents the GOP’s first concerted effort to wreak havoc in the Democratic race, and it arrives as senior Republicans have begun deliberating how the party should seek to influence the Democratic primary. With President Donald Trump’s job approval mired in the low- to mid-40s, Republicans are starting to focus on ensuring he faces as weak a candidate as possible.
The decision to go after O’Rourke, whose spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment, reflects a fear that he would mobilize the millennial and suburban voters who powered the Democratic 2018 House takeover and imperil Trump’s reelection. Republicans would be at risk of losing Texas if O’Rourke is the Democratic standard bearer, said Club for Growth President David McIntosh.
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McIntosh said his organization recently conducted a survey of battleground states and found O’Rourke running narrowly behind the president. An O’Rourke nomination, he warned, could complicate the electoral fortunes of Republicans up and down the ballot in 2020.
“We watched what he did in Texas in the race against Cruz and realized his potential within the Democratic primary system is enormously larger than what people are giving him credit for right now. We realized, here is a real potential threat because if he is the nominee then Texas suddenly is in play,” McIntosh said.
O’Rourke’s narrow loss to Sen. Ted Cruz last year made O’Rourke a liberal cause célèbre. He would almost certainly enter the Democratic nomination fight as a top-tier contender, benefiting from national name recognition and an enormous small-dollar fundraising network.
Other Republicans say the targets of future meddling campaigns could extend well beyond O’Rourke. At a time when many liberals are demanding ideological purity from Democratic candidates, the GOP opposition research group America Rising has begun pitching reporters on stories portraying Sen. Kamala Harris as a law-and-order-minded former prosecutor and former Vice President Joe Biden as overly cozy with Republicans.
Trump’s reelection campaign expects to dispatch surrogates to make the case that certain Democratic candidates are ideologically out of step with their party. And the pro-Trump America First Action super PAC, which recently polled to see how Democratic contenders would fare against the president in Florida, has discussed what role it could play.
Then there’s the president, who aides say is eager to shape the Democratic race through Twitter or at mega-rallies. During phone calls with friends, Trump has sounded off on what he sees as the strengths and weakness of the candidates.
“The president will offer the most entertaining commentary in the Democratic primary for sure,” said Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Trump ally who has discussed the emerging 2020 race with the president.
There are indications that Trump himself is thinking about how to play the Democratic race and time his attacks for maximum effect. During a Friday evening appearance before major donors at his Mar-a-Lago resort, the president lamented that he went after Elizabeth Warren too early, according to two people who were present. Going forward, he said, he would wait until later in the primary to target Democratic candidates.
Robert Blizzard, a prominent GOP pollster whose firm has been working with the Republican National Committee, said there are countless ways for the party to cause mischief in the Democratic primary — not just with TV ads but with digital and mail campaigns and opposition research.
“The key is to have a Democratic nominee who will be as hated as Hillary Clinton was in 2016,” Blizzard said. “The worst thing for the president is to have a Democratic nominee who comes out of the primary unscathed with general election independent voters.”
The history of primary meddling is long and storied. And one of the most famous instances is the 2012 Missouri Senate race. Late in the GOP primary, Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill aired a TV ad labeling Republican Todd Akin, the weakest of her potential foes, as “the most conservative congressman in Missouri” and “Missouri’s true conservative.”
The gambit — aimed at solidifying Akin’s standing with Republican primary voters — worked. Shortly after winning the nomination, Akin saw his campaign implode over inflammatory remarks he made about rape.
Not every Republican thinks meddling in the Democratic race is a good idea at this point. John McLaughlin, a pollster on Trump’s 2016 campaign, said it was far too early to gauge who would be an ideal 2020 Democratic rival and argued that the party risked miscalculating at this stage of the campaign.
Four years ago, he pointed out, Hillary Clinton was all too happy for Trump to win the Republican primary.
“She wanted Donald Trump and she got him,” McLaughlin said. “And she lost to President Trump.”
Yet some Republicans are itching to intervene, especially to damage O’Rourke. Behind the scenes, senior party officials have begun to raise alarms about Texas, warning that Trump’s popularity has taken a hit in the state and that an O’Rourke candidacy could put the state in play for the first time in decades.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican who is up for reelection next year, is among those preparing for a fight. In recent weeks, Cornyn aides have been working with the RNC to set up an ambitious field program in the state.
“If Beto is the nominee, I think the temptation will be too great for the Democrats not to spend significant resources in Texas,” said Rob Jesmer, a senior Cornyn adviser. “And we need to match their efforts. If we do, we’ll win, and if we don’t, it will be perilous for everyone up and down the ballot.”
Club for Growth officials said they’re spending in the five-figure range for the ad and that it will be part of a yearlong effort to undermine O’Rourke with Democratic primary voters.
McIntosh hinted at the strategy during a recent Club for Growth retreat at The Breakers resort in Palm Beach, Fla., telling major donors that the group was closely monitoring the Democratic race. The group then crafted the O’Rourke ad.
“I think of it as educating [Democratic] voters about the choice they want to make," McIntosh said, "on their criteria.”