Donald Trump’s Republican primary challengers never had much of a chance at winning.
That didn’t stop some political consultants from cashing in on candidate and donor delusion.
“Never Trump” devolved into a doomed rallying cry in 2016 as big money and marquee Republican names failed to deny Trump’s GOP ascendance. What remained this cycle was a shadow of the effort, with the kind of candidates and resources needed to mount a serious attempt staying far away.
Still, there was money to be made and someone had to be there to make it.
The money was never huge, never anywhere near what Mike Bloomberg is flooding the Democratic primary with. But its chance of making a difference was more of a wayward daydream than a thought with footing in 2020 reality.
A top staffer from Mitt Romney’s 2012 run found a home with former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld’s operation. A longtime Bush family fundraiser tried to work her magic on a former Tea Party Republican’s redemption tour. And a former GOP state party chairman struggled to help elevate a universally unknown challenger, whose campaign paid him more than $94,000 only to get less than 300 votes in disgruntled Republican’s best chance at embarrassing the president.
"I've been around politics for awhile and there's always somebody ready, willing and able to take your money and spend it," said Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor who ended his GOP presidential primary bid last November. "I don't think you'll ever be in a shortage of consultant types that will suggest or promise the moon, but that just sort of goes with the territory."
The operatives are now quick to defend their work as Trump heads towards November’s general election unblemished by the primary effort.
Financial difficulties and lackluster fundraising were common themes for the candidates who tried to make the unlikely stand against the president. Substantial self loans from the contenders became key.
Weld loaned his campaign more than $250,000 while Joe Walsh, the former Illinois congressman and Tea Party champion, lent his own effort $315,000 according to the latest Federal Election Commission filings. A third, largely unknown challenger, Matt Matern, lent his campaign over $670,000.
One organization operated by the head strategist for Romney’s 2012 presidential run was among those notably paid from Weld’s longshot effort.
Message Mountain, a Vermont-based limited liability company operated by Stuart Stevens, was paid more than $116,000 by Weld’s campaign from May to July of 2019. Later that year, Stevens, who has written opinion pieces for The Daily Beast, switched to advising a pro-Weld super PAC called America United. By the end of 2019, Message Mountain had been paid $30,000 by the committee for PAC strategy consulting.
Stevens defended both his work for the PAC and the earlier services for Weld, saying the money the LLC was paid didn’t just go to him but also towards other costs.
"I haven't made much money doing this," Stevens said. "I left my firm to do this in April. Nobody should feel sorry for political consultants, but on a personal level it's been a significant reduction in income I had from political consulting because it's the only client that I'm working for because I left my firm."
It’s unclear however what America United actually did, if anything, to help Weld’s candidacy at any point in 2019. The committee's major spending last year, according to FEC disclosures, largely went towards research or consulting for fundraising and strategy.
One organization, Colchester Consulting, came away with a little over $166,000 for PAC fundraising consulting last year even though America United only had four donors and $320,000 in contributions.
When asked for examples of work he did for America United, Stevens declined to disclose “who had been hired to do what,” and cited the Trump campaign's vindictiveness as the reason.
“If more money can be raised, would love to air some spots, have a couple in the can, but so far haven’t had resources for real ad campaign,” Stevens said in a text message. “Hope that changes.”
After getting around 9 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire GOP primary, Weld vowed to push ahead to Super Tuesday, which, given Trump’s popularity among Republicans and that the Nevada and South Carolina Republican parties cancelled their GOP contests, is more of a function of schedule than any trace of viability.
For another candidate still in the race—who many people would be surprised is in the race to begin with—the disconnect between investment and success was considerable. Attorney Matt Matern was largely an anonymous face amongst the 2020 New Hampshire field. But he was willing to spend on some recognizable operatives.
In the final months of 2019, Matern’s committee paid Centennial Strategies a combined $24,000 for campaign consulting. The firm is run by Jim Jonas who had worked as campaign manager in 2014 for Independent Greg Orman’s losing effort to unseat incumbent Kansas Republican Pat Roberts from his U.S. Senate seat.
Even more went to Ryan Call, a former chairman of the Colorado Republican party, who through the end of January had made more than $94,000 from Matern’s run.
"From my own kind of personal perspective, the work done certainly more than exceeded the amount of compensation I may have received from the perspective of the time and hours spent on this campaign over the last few months,” Call said.
In an interview, Matern said the cost was worth it to be taken seriously.
Counting the money he loaned to his effort, it means he would have personally invested a little over $2,500 towards each of the 268 votes that went his way in New Hampshire’s GOP primary.
"If we're able to recoup some of that through donations, great," Matern said about the hefty loans. "If not, then so be it. I'm fortunate enough to have been successful enough where I don't need the money back. If it came back, great. But I'm not counting on it."
Walsh’s campaign paid a little over $54,000 to Ann Herberger, a longtime Bush family fundraiser, for fundraising consulting.
The money that went towards Herberger represented around 30 percent of Walsh’s contributions through the end of January. Walsh ended his run in between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, his personal loans to the campaign far exceeding the donations he received.
Herberger said she was a part of the campaign “every single day, 12 to 14 hours a day.”
"Yes, you can look at what I made and I'm not going to apologize for it,” she said.
Since 2016, the Never Trump movement has been largely replaced by a contingent of media personalities who have tried to make their voices heard during the president’s polarizing tenure. As the 2020 cycle approached, they stoked the buzz that a marquee challenger could emerge.
Their champion never came.
Potential contenders like Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich passed on the opportunity, eventually leaving only Weld.
Disconnect between Never Trump media noise and how the primary turned now appears to have left some bitterness behind.
The two major candidates "put their heart and souls into running," Herberger, the fundraising guru, said. People needed to support them and put everything they had behind them to help the Never Trump effort, she said.
That just didn't happen.
"If we're all Never Trump then we all need to work together," Herberger said. "You can't have a bunch of talking heads on TV... who espouse the notion of Never Trump but don't do anything about it."