It’s been a year since Lincoln Project co-founder John Weaver was identified in a piece by journalist Ryan Girdusky as an online sexual harasser going back years.
That was the start of a downward spiral for the super PAC founded by disgruntled Republicans who wanted to defeat Donald Trump. Once a media darling and lauded as a supposedly principled conservative outfit, its influence and fundraising have waned in 2021 after a 2020 that was so successful, its co-founders had designs on creating one of the world’s largest media companies.
“I always thought it was a grift,” Girdusky told Fox News Digital. “It’s people desperately hungry for money, attention, and influence. The sad thing is they still have some relevancy.”
A year later, it’s still operational and has a noisy social media presence boosting Democrats and shredding Republicans, but many of its original members are gone and critical of their former organization. Its cable news mentions have sharply declined, its involvement in the most prominent election of the year was a disaster, and when one of its senior advisors went on “The View” in November, she wasn’t even identified on the program as part of the group.
When co-founder Rick Wilson admitted late last year he wanted Trump to be the 2024 Republican nominee again, despite the group’s opinion he was an unquestioned threat to the country’s security, he was put on the defensive as the “scam PAC” accusations began to flow again.
“I don’t think these are people who want to go softly into the sunset,” Girdusky said. “These are people who love attention and who love the game of politics. It’s very addictive to be in this business … None of them can go back into Republican politics, and very few of them would be welcomed in Democratic politics, so they have to milk this for as long as they can.”
Girdusky’s piece published last Jan. 11 was just the tip of the iceberg about Weaver, as subsequent reporting showed his co-founders were aware of the accusations of harassing young gay men months before they let on; one of the people Weaver contacted was 14 when they first communicated online. Weaver would dangle job opportunities and social media clout while making suggestive and explicit remarks that left his victims uncomfortable and isolated.
Weaver was condemned by his co-founders and resigned last year, but things only got worse, as a flood of stories ensued about the organization’s self-dealing and financial mismanagement – the Lincoln Project paid $27 million alone to co-founder Reed Galen’s consulting firm in 2020 – and a toxic work environment. Co-founder Steve Schmidt was widely panned when he said he would open the group’s books for audit when the Trump organization did, and it was later revealed he ordered Kurt Bardella, now a Democratic advisor who resigned the group and called for it disband, to publish the private messages of co-founder Jennifer Horn with a reporter to try to embarrass her.
Former Lincoln Project executive director Sarah Lenti, now a sharp critic of the organization, said things were crumbling internally well before the Weaver story came to light. By the time four of its co-founders – including Weaver – gathered at Schmidt’s home shortly before Election Day 2020 with dreams of creating a media empire, according to the New York Times, others in the organization felt cut out of the loop.
“Things were going downhill prior to election night,” Lenti told Fox News Digital. “There were things happening internally that showed real division within the organization … The whole thing had become very self-serving.”
She likened it to a family “on the brink of divorce.”
The bad headlines took their toll after the group received media adoration in 2020 for taking on Trump, frequently getting their ads promoted on CNN, MSNBC, and elsewhere, and even getting a gushy “60 Minutes” profile. On CNN, it was mentioned just 49 times in 2021, versus 157 times in 2020 according to a Grabien Media search, including reruns.
On MSNBC, the difference was even more stark. In 2020, where it received consistently adoring coverage from hosts like Nicolle Wallace and Brian Williams, it was mentioned a whopping 956 times. In 2021, that fell to 285, more than a third of which came in January alone, though it continued to receive promotion of its anti-Republican ads from Williams and Wallace.
A fundraising drop was to be expected in a non-election year, but the Lincoln Project went from raising nearly $90 million in 2020 to just $12.1 million in the first half of 2021 according to federal filings – it hasn’t reported its second-half earnings yet.
The attention paid to the group in October and November was considerably negative, as it took responsibility for a spectacularly failed political stunt in the closely watched Virginia governor’s race.
The Lincoln Project went all out to defeat Republican Glenn Youngkin, depicting him as a closet racist running a divisive, “southern strategy” campaign. No one was prepared for how far it would go to try to make that label stick, however.
The group dispatched five tiki-torch wielding people to stand in front of Republican Glenn Youngkin’s bus in Charlottesville just days before Election Day, in an effort to conjure up imagery of the infamous White nationalist rally there in 2017. It took responsibility for the stunt after the images of the supposed Youngkin supporters went viral, and many people suspected a hoax. Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s campaign condemned the smear effort after the Lincoln Project fessed up, but by then some of McAuliffe’s own staffers and even some liberal media members had spread the pictures as supposed proof that Youngkin’s campaign attracted racists.
The stunt was widely panned as desperate and hamfisted; even Schmidt called it “recklessly stupid” in a subsequent interview and distanced himself from any involvement. Lincoln Project advisor Stuart Stevens tried to defend it in a CNN interview, saying it was part of an effort to hit Youngkin for not sufficiently condemning Trump for his rhetoric around Charlottesville.
Youngkin went on to defeat McAuliffe the following week, and the Lincoln Project weathered considerable mockery for the embarrassing distraction in the waning days of the race.
“They lost their minds,” Lenti said.
A Politico report late last year summed up the group’s woes: “But now, everyone keeps rolling their eyes at the Lincoln Project and fears they may be clearing a path for the former president’s reemergence … Operatives across the spectrum now say the group is, at best, ineffective and prodigal, at worst, counterproductive.”
When Lincoln Project senior advisor Tara Setmayer appeared on “The View” in November, shortly after the election debacle, she was conspicuously not identified as a part of the group, either by co-hosts or on-screen graphics.
Instead, Setmayer, who hadn’t worked in Congress since 2013, was labeled a former House GOP staffer. The only mention of the Lincoln Project during her two-day stint came from Setmayer herself.
The Lincoln Project didn’t return a request for comment.