Just a week out from crucial contests on March 15, a number of outside groups and PACs, finally sensing an opportunity after two key wins by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, are dropping major cash in the hopes of keeping Donald Trump at bay.
The total money put down by the four principal groups involved is more than $10 million, according to an estimate from The New York Times, most of which is going toward big television advertisement buys like the one launched by the conservative group American Future Fund in late February.
The ad, which has been referenced by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on the debate stage, features three people sharing stories of being ripped off by Trump University.
“The reason they appear to be successful is that it’s not just talking [about] negative things that happened to a businessman,” American Future Fund spokesman Stuart Roy said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “It’s a deeper narrative than that. It’s not just that he was involved in a shady enterprise. He took advantage of regular people.”
As of Monday, Roy said, American Future Fund had spent $460,000 on that ad alone in Illinois—which votes March 15, along with Florida and Ohio—and would be buying another $550,000 worth this week. He indicated that the group’s internal numbers showed Trump is vulnerable in Illinois, in addition to Florida, where Rubio has shown some upward momentum as of late.
Exactly which GOP candidate can defeat Trump with the help of these ads is of little consequence to American Future Fund in the immediate future, however.
“If we can defeat him in any particular state, let the chips fall where they may,” Roy said.
That also seems to be the motto of Club for Growth Action, which has spent some $2 million in Illinois and an additional $1 million in Florida to derail the frontrunner.
“What our experience has shown is when voters get the information—so, when they see the ads that we’re doing and that some of the other groups are doing—Trump’s support has a floor in the high 20s, low 30s, but it falls off,” David McIntosh, the president of Club for Growth, told The Daily Beast. “And then the voters now are looking around to say, ‘Who’s the most viable alternative?’ You’re creating almost an anti-Trump vote. They’re looking to see where to place it where it will have the biggest effect. Right now Cruz is benefiting from that. In Florida, I think it’ll help Rubio.”
According to McIntosh, the road to the Republican nomination would only get tougher for Cruz if Trump were to win Ohio and Florida, creating a two-man race if Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich dropped out.
“I wouldn’t predict that it’s a foregone conclusion at that point. It just becomes a lot harder to stop Trump,” McIntosh said.
The decisive moment to up the ante on paid attacks came after Trump decisively won South Carolina, leading to a disastrous Super Tuesday for the Republican establishment and especially the touted golden boy Rubio.
“The light bulbs finally went off after South Carolina,” McIntosh said. “People are realizing this is serious and something has to be done.”
The obvious question is whether it is too late.
Kasich, according to recent polls, seems best positioned to win his home state of Ohio on March 15, landing within three percentage points of Trump, according to a Public Policy Polling survey released Monday. Rubio, who has generally disappointed in the primaries thus far, also seems to be closing in on Trump in Florida, narrowing the frontrunner’s lead to 8 percent, according to a Monmouth University Poll released Monday.
Trump still has a sizable lead in Illinois, according to the average from Real Clear Politics. But no polls have been released that were conducted in the state in March—during which the spray-tanned mogul has hesitated to disavow the KKK on national television, discussed the size of his penis in a debate, and become the target of Mitt Romney’s ire in a widely publicized speech.
The coming week may not solidify Cruz’s position as the man to beat Trump but could help even the odds with all the candidates, making a brokered convention seem all the more likely. Disarray is seemingly the only option at this point.
For the moneymen behind the scenes, that’s the best hope for a return on their investment.
—With additional reporting by Betsy Woodruff