2020 Spending: $82 million
Established in late 2019, the Lincoln Project is a super PAC that initially aimed to “defeat Donald Trump at the ballot box” in 2020 and protect democracy from “the populist nationalistic ideals and agenda of Donald Trump, his allies in Congress, and the far-right media.”
Today, the Lincoln Project seeks to hold “accountable those who would violate their oaths to the Constitution and would put others before Americans.”
According to the founders of the Lincoln Project, the 16th president is the super PAC’s namesake because President Abraham Lincoln “led the United States through its bloodiest, most divisive and most decisive period” and helped the nation “move forward together”.
The Lincoln Project was formed by a group of prominent political strategists and former staff members of Republican presidents and presidential candidates, including Steve Schmidt, John Weaver, Rick Wilson and Reed Galen.
Schmidt and Galen managed the late Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and worked on former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2006 reelection campaign. Wilson has been a campaign strategist since he worked on former President George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, and Weaver advised the presidential campaigns of McCain and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
After taking a medical leave in the summer of 2020, Weaver did not return to the Lincoln Project in 2021, when he admitted to sending “inappropriate” sexual messages to several young men who accused him of harassment.
Other founding members have left the organization as well.
George Conway, a lawyer who is married to Trump’s former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, departed in August 2020, saying he wanted “to devote more time to family matters.” Then, in December 2020, two other members of the board, Ron Steslow and Mike Madrid, left the group over disagreements with other members. They were followed out by Jennifer Horn, a former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, who left the group in February 2021, citing the revelations about Weaver.
Schmidt, Wilson and Galen remain with the super PAC. Its advisers include Stuart Stevens, who was 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s chief political strategist, and Joe Trippi, a former adviser to prominent Democrats, including the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and former Vice President Walter Mondale.
As a super PAC, the group can accept unlimited contributions, but it must disclose its donors and cannot coordinate with campaigns on its independent expenditures.
As of Dec. 31, the Lincoln Project had raised more than $18 million, but had spent very little of it on independent expenditures beyond the two Georgia U.S. Senate runoff elections that were decided on Jan. 5, 2021. Federal Election Commission records show that the group has spent more than $34,000 combined on ads against Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton and Rand Paul, who all have challenged the results of the 2020 presidential election. It spent another $15,000 against Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.
The Lincoln Project, which is perhaps best known for producing viral digital ads, also took credit for organizing a widely criticized stunt in which several people posed as white nationalists carrying tiki torches at an October 2021 campaign rally for Republican Glenn Youngkin, who was running for governor of Virginia at the time.
“Today’s demonstration was our way of reminding Virginians what happened in Charlottesville four years ago, the Republican Party’s embrace of those values, and Glenn Youngkin’s failure to condemn it,” the group said in an Oct. 29 statement. That was a reference to an August 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned violent and resulted in one death.
Youngkin went on to defeat his gubernatorial opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
So far, the Lincoln Project’s largest individual donor during the 2022 cycle is Alfred Clark, an investment manager at financial services firm Aberdeen Inc., who has donated $400,000. Other large donors include Daniel Benton, CEO of investment firm Benton Capital Management; Peter Kellner, founder of venture capital firm Richmond Global Ventures; and Arthur Kern, chairman of American Media. Each gave $100,000.
In the 2020 campaign cycle, the Lincoln Project raised $87.4 million and spent $49.6 million on independent expenditures — most of which were against Trump. The super PAC spent almost $33.9 million opposing Trump’s reelection and $2.3 million supporting Democrat Joe Biden.
Some of the ads launched by the group targeted the former president’s response to protests for racial justice, the coronavirus pandemic, his foreign policy decisions regarding China and his position on the Confederate flag. Its viral ad “Mourning in America,” which described America’s economic struggles amid the coronavirus pandemic, elicited a thread of angry tweets from Trump. When a reporter asked about his Twitter response at a May 5, 2020, press conference, Trump said: “They should not call it the Lincoln Project. It’s not fair to Abraham Lincoln, a great President. They should call it the ‘Losers Project.'”
The super PAC reported that it raised about $2 million in donations in the 24 hours following Trump’s tweets about the ad.
In addition, the Lincoln Project spent nearly $14 million on Senate races in 2020, including almost $2.8 million in support of Alaskan independent candidate Al Gross and $2.7 million in favor of Montana Democrat Steve Bullock, who both lost to Republican incumbents. The super PAC also spent $2.4 million to oppose South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who won reelection against Democrat Jaime Harrison.
The Lincoln Project’s largest individual donors in the 2020 cycle were musical composer Gordon Getty and hedge fund manager Stephen F. Mandel Jr., who each donated $1 million. William H. Harris, CEO of Anbrust, donated $800,000, and DreamWorks co-founder David Geffen donated $500,000. Alfred Clark — who is currently the super PAC’s largest donor in the 2022 cycle — contributed $600,000.
FactCheck.org Undergraduate Fellow Lucía Osses contributed to this article.