MIAMI — A secretive political group with ties to the billionaire Koch brothers calls Donald Trump a wealthy draft-dodger. A super PAC funded by billionaires brands Trump University a “scam.’’
“Trump picks on workers and widows,’’ says another big-spending organization, the conservative Club for Growth.
From the Florida Panhandle to the Florida Keys, wealthy interests aligned with the Republican Party are blitzing the state with millions of dollars in negative advertising, all aimed at convincing voters that Trump is a really bad guy. Trump’s response? Fight back with blistering ads of his own.
The campaign for Tuesday’s Republican primary in Florida is shaping up as a mudslinging battle of the billionaires, who are exploiting Swiss-cheese election spending rules that allow unlimited spending from undisclosed sources. At stake in this all-out spending war is the heart of the Republican Party, say the anti-Trump forces.
“On virtually every issue — life, guns, taxes, Obamacare — [Trump’s] got no real core and depth of conviction on this stuff. It’s not ideological at all. It’s personality driven,” said Katie Packer, a former Mitt Romney campaign aide who launched Our Principles PAC in mid-January to oppose Trump.
“This guy is very good at convincing people of what he wants them to hear.”
The Florida primary, most Republican insiders believe, is one of the last opportunities to derail the runaway Trump train. After sitting on the sidelines for weeks as Trump rolled up victories in early primary states, the anti-Trump forces have sprung to life.
But with little time left, and Trump’s remaining opponents still struggling to get traction, these moneyed interests have nowhere to turn but the airwaves. Cue the ominous music, gravelly voices, and grainy, unflattering images.
“Florida is being set up, ad-wise, as an anti-Trump last stand,” said Elizabeth Wilner, a senior vice president at Kantar Media/CMAG, which monitors political ad spending.
More than $20 million was spent nationally on anti-Trump advertising in the two weeks from Feb. 22 to March 6, the firm estimates.
“The new anti-Trump ads . . . hit right after Super Tuesday. That’s when the real teeth gnashing seemed to start among Republicans,” Wilner said. “The light bulb went on pretty recently as far as the new air war is concerned.”
Unlike early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, where town halls and up-close voter meet-and-greets are the preferred medium, Florida, because of its large size, requires a huge advertising commitment in multiple TV markets. In 2012, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich and their allies spent nearly $20 million in a bitter Florida ad war.
The state’s airwaves are largely an issues-free zone. The chief message, repeatedly delivered in 30-second and 60-second spots, amounts to a brazen effort to destroy Trump’s character.
“I don’t think I’ve had so many horrible, horrible things said about me in one week — $38 million worth of horrible lies,’’ Trump said Tuesday night in Jupiter, at one of his golf clubs, after winning the Michigan and Mississippi primaries.
So far, as Trump is quick to point out, it has not worked. Public opinion polls show Trump more than 15 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival in Florida, home-state Senator Marco Rubio.
The delegate math of the GOP primary will give Trump an almost unstoppable advantage if he wins Florida and Ohio, which also votes Tuesday. Both are the first big states on the calendar that award delegates on a winner-take-all basis.
One of the initial donors to Our Principles PAC, the group run by Katie Packer, was Marlene Ricketts, wife of billionaire J. Joe Ricketts, the cofounder of T.D. Ameritrade, and the matriarch of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs. She gave the group $3 million in January, helping the group send mailers around Iowa and begin running TV ads, according to a recent Federal Election Commission filing.
On Super Tuesday — hours before Trump would win seven of 11 states — a group of top Republican operatives and donors held a conference call to solicit more funds for the super PAC, largely in preparation for the Florida onslaught. The call, which included Paul Singer and Meg Whitman, was first reported by The New York Times and confirmed by someone who was on the call.
“There has been a major response since the call,” said Tim Miller, a spokesman for the PAC. More money has come in over the past week alone than the $4.5 million the group had raised previously, he said.
Packer argues that about 20 percent of Trump’s support comes from people who are following him for the “cult of personality.” But a much larger group, of up to 40 percent, she says, “are reasonable — who can be reasoned with.”
That’s the group they are fighting to persuade.
Another group opposing Trump is American Future Fund, which formed in 2007 and became a force on the national scene when it ran ads against Martha Coakley in 2010.
Most of its activities are run through a nonprofit, which enables it to shield the identity of its donors, but the group has ties to Charles and David Koch. Two of the brothers’ organizations, the Center to Protect Patient Rights and Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, gave $63 million to it in 2012.
American Future Fund began placing nearly $3 million in ads in Florida and $1 million in Illinois, which also votes on March 15.
“It took a while collectively for people to realize Trump had a legitimate shot at the Republican nomination, and to corral the forces necessary to oppose him,” said Stuart Roy, a spokesman for the group. “Now there’s a sense of urgency. We believe there’s a pathway to preventing Trump from getting the delegates. But it’s a very compressed timeframe that we’re working on.”
Roy declined to provide any breakdown on the group’s donors, or confirm or discuss the involvement of the Koch brothers.
In the Panhandle — an area rich with military bases, and with religious conservatives — the American Future Fund is running an ad criticizing Trump’s lack of military service. An affiliated group, American Future Fund Political Action, is running an ad attacking Trump’s use of profanity.
But the biggest investment is in an ad taking Trump to task for “Trump University,” a real estate program that is now the subject of lawsuits in New York and California.
“I was trumped by Trump,” one former student says. “I was duped by the Donald.”
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.