The Money Pit of GOP-Aligned Super PACs
It was political malpractice: Out of cowardice or calculation, the PACs backing Trump’s challengers refused to target Trump.
That is the share of their funds that the heavily capitalized super PACs supporting Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, and Tim Scott allocated to targeting the man who schlonged (or in one case, is schlonging) them in the Republican nominating contest.
Much can be said about about the incompetence, self-dealing, and cowardice of the Republicans who were charged with challenging Donald Trump during the 2024 campaign. Marc Caputo covered it colorfully and thoroughly earlier this week.
But after you have cut through all the tweets and trivia and backbiting and biorhythmic disruption that spilled out of the DeSantis “campaign”—if you can even call it that—there is one strategic choice that stands out.
The three major super PACs funded by the GOP donor class and representing the non-Trump visions for the Republican future spent—combined—just over $225 million dollars.
With these resources, Trump’s opponents availed themselves of the best Republican consultants money could buy. Those political strategists in turn had titans of industry—millionaires and billionaires—at their disposal. These wealthy individuals were willing to offer their private-sector expertise and burn ungodly sums of their personal fortune to advance the interests of Tim, or Nikki, or Ron. DeSantis even had the world’s richest man giving him free rein and free PR in his personal global town-square on the campaign’s announcement day.
With such a war chest, one would assume that this coterie would at least try to dislodge the frontrunner who, for reasons personal, practical, and/or ethical, they were all united to oppose. Maybe the messaging or the strategy wouldn’t work. But at least they would leave it all out on the field. Make their best case. Try to engineer a market disruption.
But instead, the total that they spent targeting Trump was (according to figures provided by the FEC and analyzed by Rob Pyers) . . . ?
Or just about two percent.
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That kinda scratch couldn’t even get you a single 30-second Super Bowl ad this year. It’s functionally equivalent to spending $0 attacking Trump. They might as well have just put that $4.8 milly toward a cash-for-clunkers program in the Cedar Rapids market and earned a little goodwill in the community.
The totals look like this:
Note that to get to $4.8 million, we are giving Never Back Down the benefit of the doubt because of funds they transferred to two other Super PACs—Win It Back PAC and Fight Right—which subsequently made limp-fisted ad buys targeting Trump. NBD itself only spent $451,000 targeting their top opponent.
Meanwhile, Trump’s Make America Great Again PAC spent about seven times that amount targeting Haley and DeSantis! How is this possible? Trump was shelling out $50ish million from his campaign to lawyers and he still managed to massively outspend his opponents in attacks on the air?
It’s like they weren’t even trying to win!
It’s like Vanderbilt deciding to play the prevent defense against Georgia while the Dawgs spend the whole game blitzing the overmatched quarterback. Why even suit up?
According to Caputo, DeSantis’s super PAC instituted a ranked-choice voting program among their army of consultants to determine which ads to run. On the one hand, this seems like a sensible thing to do when you have a dozen cooks in the kitchen. But on the other hand, it probably explains why a group that raised $130 million spent $81 million on non-advertising disbursements and less than $1 million attacking Trump.
Did any of the ad chefs ever suggest that maybe the ranked-choice voting process was evidence of their impotence? Did anyone suggest that Never Back Down just try to message against the person who was out kicking their asses in the polls and on the airwaves?
For a sense for just how much cash they burned through without so much as trying to put it toward voter persuasion, consider this:
Never Back Down PAC spent millions more on paid canvassers in states DeSantis would never actually compete in than they did on anti-Trump ads.
Sending stoner mercenaries door-to-door to carry a message because you were too scared to put it on TV? Who could have possibly thought that was going to work?
Then there’s Tim Scott’s PAC, which raised over $21 million. Of this, $0 went toward opposing the person who spent most of the primary beating him by 50 points. Who greenlit this approach?!
Team Haley is finally—finally!—attempting to dislodge her opponent. The Haley-aligned SFA Fund super PAC spent seven figures in January attacking the frontrunner and her campaign released a new ad yesterday about his age.
But even this is a drop in the bucket of the $73 million that SFA has spent to date.
I’M NOT SAYING THAT THESE PACs should have been doing resistance bait for Never Trumpers who watch Morning Joe. (Hello, Mr. President!) But maybe they could’ve tried a concerted campaign to let Republican voters know that Trump didn’t build The Wall. Or that he’s a big fat loser who couldn’t even beat Sleepy Joe. Or that he is robbing his fans to pay for his lifestyle and lawyers. Hell, they could have attacked him for not firing Fauci if they thought the death-cult vibe was what the base wanted.
Say what you want about that weird internet spot about how Trump loves trans people while oiled-up, shirtless, muscle chads in jockstraps prefer DeSantis—at least it was an ethos! Putting that on TV would’ve been better than doing nothing!
Sure, maybe none of it would have worked. Maybe it wasn’t possible to dislodge Trump. Maybe that rotted-nectarine Kool-Aid is just too damn tasty. That could very well have been the case.
But if so, then why participate in a cash transfer to political consultants who don’t have any better ideas?
In what other industry could people raise deep nine figures for a project where they not only have no real path to success, but the plan they’re selling is so laughable that no thinking person could possibly imagine it would succeed? (Okay, besides venture capital.)
What these PACs did was political and economic malpractice. These people’s wages should be garnished. Their pastors should shake them down for more generous tithing. I mean, if their only plan was to pray that Trump went to jail or had a heart attack, they might as well be offering up some of this juice to the Big Guy.
I saw firsthand in 2016 that a candidate’s super PAC could raise and spend a lot of money and get little in return. There was plenty of criticism at the time of the Jeb Bush–supporting super PAC’s spending choices, some of it deserved. Some of it I privately agreed with!
But at least in 2016, those choices were defensible. We had never seen a candidate like Trump before, and there was reason to believe that in the end, Republican voters would come to their senses—as they had in every other nominating contest in living memory. We didn’t know what we didn’t know.
There was no excuse to make the same mistakes this time.