WASHINGTON — Outside groups are promising to spend millions of dollars boosting President Donald Trump's agenda. But this political cavalry was noticeably absent during his first legislative agenda item, repealing and replacing the nation's health care law.
Days after the health care effort failed in part because organized and well-funded opposition to the Trump-backed bill went unanswered by a serious campaign to sell it, three separate nonprofit groups led by former Trump advisers are rolling out digital and media advertising campaigns — on other topics.
The groups say they aim to shore up the president's sagging favorability ratings, build support for his Supreme Court justice nominee and loom as a 2018 election threat to lawmakers who oppose him.
This week, Making America Great began spending more than $1 million on an ad that is to air in 10 states with Democratic senators. It resembles a public relations campaign, with a drum corps sound track and images of the president's rallies overlaid with text such as, “Results not common in Washington, D.C.”
The spot, first reported by Bloomberg News, notes job growth, the rollback of regulations, greenlighting of a pipeline and undoing of an international trade deal before concluding, “And it's only just begun.”
Republican megadonor and Trump supporter Rebekah Mercer registered corporate paperwork for the group in December. Funded partly by her, as well as Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, it has lain dormant until now, sitting out the health care debate altogether.
David Bossie, a former deputy campaign manager for Trump, said he began activating and raising money for Make America Great only a few weeks ago.
“By the time we decided to do this, health care was well down the road,” Bossie said.
Another group, America First Policies, has been off to a slow start, focusing mostly on raising money and assembling a leadership team alongside Trump's 2016 digital and data director, Brad Parscale.
While America First Policies, which its leaders said had raised some $25 million already, spent next to nothing on the health care debate, spokeswoman Katrina Pierson noted she did television interviews promoting the bill. The group also tweeted about health care and did a small digital buy supporting the bill.
“I guess I'm just not sure what the expectation was,” she said. “This was the first attempt at health care by the Republican leadership, and it did not originate in the White House. If it's not originating in the White House, it's not our fight, it's their fight.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan unveiled the bill in February to repeal and replace the Obama-era health care law, and although Trump said he supported it, he did not aggressively sell it until the final few days before the vote was scheduled. His seeming hedge on the bill made it tough for the pro-Trump groups to know what to do, their directors argued.
America First Policies is turning its attention to Neil Gorsuch, who faces a wall of Democratic opposition in his Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
The group has been roiled by organizational challenges. One of the group's co-founders, Rick Gates, left last week amid renewed reports about his firm's past work on behalf of Russian clients. Bossie also had been involved before defecting to the Mercer-funded nonprofit.
Parscale and Bossie say they anticipate plenty of room for both groups. Eric Beach, who leads a third nonprofit called Great America Alliance that counts Trump advisers Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani as honorary co-chairmen, said “We all do different things.”
Beach said he hopes to deploy Trump backers into town halls during the upcoming congressional break and says the nonprofit and a companion political group has spent about $4 million since Trump's inauguration.
Nonprofits do not have to file public documents with details of their fundraising and spending — including donor names — making it impossible to check their financial claims.
The panoply of outside groups competing for primacy is reminiscent of the problematic internal factions at the White House itself. Lack of organization and investment on health care meant no one was urging Trump voters to call their representatives to back the bill.
Meanwhile, the bill's conservative opponents benefited from a well-funded echo chamber of political and policy groups to drive home their message with voters. For example, Americans for Prosperity, part of a conservative network backed by billionaires Charles and David Koch, vowed to spend more than $1 million fighting any lawmakers who would vote for it.
Lack of Republican buy-in ultimately doomed the bill.
“The opposition was very well-organized,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant. “The debate was over before the proponents got going.”