Super PAC plug holes in Trump’s ground campaign

Julie Bykowicz
Associated Press

Lake Mary, Fla. — The tour bus features a giant photo of a waving, smiling Donald Trump, but the person who steps out is actor Jon Voight, trailed by conservative radio stars and strategists for a super political action committee.

Great America PAC is rolling through some of campaign 2016’s most contested states, opening offices and registering voters. In a presidential race where Trump has paid little attention to the ground game, this outside group has decided the best way to support the GOP nominee is to take such matters into its own hands.

“We look at it as, how do we fix the missing pieces of the campaign?” said Ed Rollins, lead strategist for Great America.

The group is using a different playbook — both in how it raises and spends money — than the usual super PAC. It has struggled to land major donors, but has toiled since January, making it one of the most senior and active outside groups in the Trump orbit.

Unlike candidates, super PACs can accept unlimited amounts of money from donors, so they typically focus on getting the biggest checks possible. Then they often spend most of their money on TV ads, among the most expensive parts of any race and the easiest way to reach millions of voters.

Great America sees another way.

“Gone are the days where a super PAC should be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on slick TV ads,” said Eric Beach, the group’s founding chairman, between stops in Florida. “We are coming out with a new model, and that is the grass roots. Getting out and registering voters. Getting them excited.”

Priorities USA, a super PAC backing Democrat Hillary Clinton, had accepted 42 contributions of $1 million or more each and plans to spend $119 million on TV and radio ads by the Nov. 8 election, but the bulk of Great America’s $7.6 million came from small donors, according to federal filings.

The group is hoping to change that. On Tuesday night, about 50 super PAC donors dined at Trump Tower in Manhattan, where they mingled with one of the candidate’s sons, Eric Trump.

Federal rules prohibit super PACs from coordinating with campaigns on how their money is spent, and campaign officials may not explicitly ask donors to give more than $2,700. But it has become standard for the campaigns to send stands-ins for the candidates — or even the candidates themselves — to super PAC events.

Great America claims to have contacted several million new voters through online solicitations, telemarketing and television ads featuring an 800 number — something more in line with hawking a gadget than promoting a presidential candidate. Callers are asked a few questions and urged to give money.

Super PACs don’t usually seek out low-dollar contributions because doing so “can cannibalize donors” who would otherwise give directly to the campaigns, said Charlie Spies, a Republican super PAC operative and lawyer.

Rollins defended Great America’s approach. “We built a lot of our operation on small donors because we were reaching out to them anyway,” he said.

The group’s cross-country tour began Monday in Florida, with Ohio on the schedule Thursday before ending Saturday in Colorado. The super PAC plans a second tour with four or more buses in October, Beach said.

Presidential candidates have long used roadshows to connect with voters, but Trump “likes to fly in his own plane and sleep in his own bed every night,” Rollins said. Rollins was President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign manager and accompanied him on a “train tour” of America.

Aboard the bus are popular conservative radio hosts, Salem Media executives and super PAC operatives. Voight, one of the few highly visible conservatives in Hollywood, provides a dollop of the celebrity that Trump himself would.

“I’ve known him for a number of years, not very well, but I like him,” Voight said in an interview. “He’s a doer, and he organizes his thinking to accomplish goals.”

As the bus rolled through Orlando suburbs, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke and Voight, who’d just met, chatted genially. Radio hosts Hugh Hewitt and Dennis Prager (who tells crowds Trump was his 17th choice but a better option than Clinton) pecked away at keyboards.

Fox News blared on TVs, and as a Clinton ad featuring Republicans slamming their nominee came on the air, the bus fell silent.

Later in Tampa, before an event with more than 1,000 people, Dan Frishberg, a drive-time host for Salem, said of Great America: “I love that they’re doing this. We need it. Anything to help with enthusiasm.”