A new advocacy group ostensibly comprised of Democrats opposed to the election of Joe Biden appears to have the backing of few, if any, actual Democrats.
Those involved, however, do include a Republican operative whose group illicitly funneled millions into political contests, a longtime Trump fan whose son works for the president’s campaign, and a self-described celebrity psychic who’s taught best practices for exorcisms.
Democrat Voters Against Joe Biden is a project of an existing nonprofit advocacy group called Americans for Responsible Government, meaning it can engage in limited politicking and is not required to disclose its donors. Curiously, though it is not explicitly political, the group’s online donation page includes disclaimer language required only of registered political committees advising donors that they can only donate $2,800 per election. No such donation limits exist for nonprofits.
DVAJB set up a website in July and began running Facebook ads this month attacking Biden. The former vice president’s “mental state is slipping and we can't let him become the most powerful man on Earth,” one of the ads declares.
As part of its anti-Biden efforts, DVAJB is soliciting video testimonials from Democrats who say they won’t support Biden in November. So far, the group has posted just one video, from a man named Tracy in Phoenix, Arizona. Public records and social media postings reveal that his full name is Tracy Chavez, that his son is a field organizer for the Trump campaign, and that—per his son—he has been a Trump supporter since the 1980s.
Crossover partisan appeal, or the appearance of it, is an asset that presidential campaigns and their supporters frequently seek. And DVAJB’s formation comes as a pro-Biden counterpart, Republican Voters Against Trump, gathers and publishes its own video testimonials of GOP voters who say they won’t back the president’s re-election bid. DVAJB appears to have been created as an explicit answer to that group. Language on its website is copied nearly verbatim from the RVAT website, with some minor stylistic changes and Biden’s name switched out for Trump’s.
But unlike RVAT, which is led by former aides to prominent Republicans such as Jeb Bush and John McCain, DVAJB doesn’t appear to have much in the way of Democratic bona fides. One clue that few Democrats are involved is in the name. “Democrat” Voters Against Joe Biden eschews the adjective, “Democratic,” that actual members of the party generally use. Another is the parent organization that runs it. Americans for Responsible Government is headed by Steve Nickolas, an Arizona bottled water businessman who’s been involved in a handful of conservative political advocacy groups in recent years.
In an interview on Tuesday, Nickolas acknowledged that his new initiative doesn’t yet have much in the way of Biden-skeptical Democrats to promote. “We’ve only been live for a week and a half,” he said. “We haven't really been overwhelmed with interest but we haven't really pushed it as much as we plan on doing.”
But Nickolas said the group hopes to begin gathering testimonials that it can then use to produce ads knocking the Democratic presidential nominee. He said he also hopes to recruit like-minded individuals from across the aisle to serve in leadership roles for the group. “We don’t have Democrats right now serving in a board capacity,” he said. “But we certainly will invite that type of input as soon as we possibly can.”
As for funding, Nickolas said he’ll be relying largely on grassroots donations. One of his most prominent political projects, an advocacy group called Americans for Responsible Leadership, “had some support from the Koch Brothers, but this one is totally on our shoulders here in Scottsdale.”
Nickolas founded Americans for Responsible Leadership in 2011 along with a former chairman of the Arizona Republican Party. And it soon found itself at the center of a major campaign finance scandal. In 2013, ARL and an affiliated group paid a $1 million fine to California authorities to settle allegations that they illegally laundered $11 million in contributions to a political group in the state.
Nickolas said his experience being targeted during that ordeal by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Biden’s running mate and at the time California’s attorney general, has given him “a personal stake in this election.” Harris, he said, “ran us through the wringer... Her tactics were appalling and I was very upset with how it was handled.”
In addition to his political endeavors, Nickolas runs a handful of businesses in Arizona, primarily in the bottled water space, but also a couple of companies that appear to do media consulting, according to documents he filed during bankruptcy proceedings in 2018. One of his companies, natural hand sanitizer manufacturer Think Smarter Products, also employs Alex Meluskey, who ran for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Arizona in 2016. Meluskey is also involved in running DVAJB; when The Daily Beast reached out to request an interview with Nickolas, Meluskey responded, from a DVAJB email address, to set it up.
The Think Smarter Products website also lists its social media and marketing director as a young man named Chris Chavez, whose LinkedIn page says he previously worked for another Nickolas company called Raintree Media Group. Chavez is currently a field organizer for Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee for the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee. Chavez’s father is the Tracy Chavez who is featured in DVAJB’s sole testimonial video, in which he holds up a voter registration card showing his Democratic affiliation.
Tracy Chavez may be a Democrat, though the date of his Democratic Party registration isn’t clear from the video, but he’s also a longtime Trump supporter, according to his son. “My dad supported him for president back in the 80s before he ever considered politics,” the younger Chavez tweeted last year. The father and son duo were even pictured with Trump at a meet-and-greet in 2017 after the younger Chavez donated $3 to the RNC and won a chance to meet the president.
Beyond Nickolas, Meluskey, and Tracy Chavez, the only other person associated with the DVAJB effort in public records is John Michael Capaldi. He’s listed as a director of Americans for Responsible Government in corporate filings in Arizona, and he told The Daily Beast that he too is a Trump supporter, having voted for him in 2016 and with plans to do so again this year.
Capaldi’s past ventures are considerably more unorthodox than his foray into politics. He describes himself in his Instagram profile as an “internationally known celebrity psychic, life coach and stylist.” A résumé posted to his LinkedIn page lists Capaldi as an employee of Nickolas’s Raintree Media Group and says he’s active in a number of philanthropic and cultural initiatives in Arizona. It also details his experience with the supernatural and the occult, noting his participation in a number of “ghost hunts” and his experience teaching classes including “Exorcisms Done Right.” In an interview on Tuesday, Capaldi said he “stopped working in that world, and the reason I did is too many people are doing it and unless you have a TV show it’s not fun.”
Capaldi said he met Nickolas about 15 years ago and leapt at the opportunity to get involved with DVAJB this year. “I left the Democratic party quite some time ago. I couldn't vote for [Biden] if I even tried,” he said. In his circle of acquaintances in West Hollywood, Capaldi insisted, burgeoning Trump support is quiet but unmistakable. “I've met multiple Democrats who are ready to vote for Trump,” he said. But he acknowledged the challenge of getting them to say so publicly, including in DVAJB’s hoped-for testimonials. “There are Democrats who want to be known and there are Democrats who don't want to be known, and that’s the problem.”
Capaldi’s decidedly pro-Trump political leanings, and those of the others currently involved with the DVAJB effort, means it still has some work to do to claim to be a counterweight to Republican Voters Against Trump. That hasn’t stopped the group from trying, with language that appears to explicitly mirror the RVAT website itself—including the way it bolded its website text.
DVAJB’s online donation portal says, with emphasis in the original, that its “goal is to get the unfiltered and authentic voices of anti-Biden/establishment voters who will spread the message across key swing states in hopes of keeping Biden away from the White House. This strategy is not new, but it has been tried and tested -- we know it works.”
RVAT’s, meanwhile, says, also with original emphasis, that its “strategy is to take the messages of anti-Trump Republicans, authentic and unvarnished, directly to persuadable voters in key states. This strategy has been exhaustively tested for over two years -- we know that it works.”
Elsewhere, DVAJB’s website says: “These are the stories of Democrats, former Democrats, liberals, and former Obama/Biden voters who will not be voting for Joe Biden on November 3rd.” That’s remarkably similar to the RVAT website, which says: “These are Republicans, former Republicans, conservatives, and former Trump voters who can’t support Trump for president this fall.”
Tim Miller, RVAT’s political director, brushed off the apparent copycat. “They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but given that they have only recruited the 1 video of a purported Democrat for Trump, imitation feels a bit like an overstatement,” he wrote.
Asked whether the explicit imitation was intentional, Nickolas said, “Yes, it was,” and left it at that.