President Donald Trump’s super PAC is drawing up plans to spend $100 million on an all-out push to sell tax reform and elect pro-Trump Republicans in 2018.
The group, dubbed America First Action, is expected to host a fundraiser in the coming months that will be attended by Vice President Mike Pence and is in talks with the administration to get Trump to headline an event. It has tapped oil and gas mogul Harold Hamm, a Trump ally whose net worth exceeds $11 billion, to boost its fundraising campaign. And it is recruiting major Republican Party donors across the country.
Last week, America First officials met with top Trump advisers at the White House to brief them on a multimillion dollar campaign to promote tax reform and discuss how the legislative battle is likely to play out.
But the stepped-up activity, which strategists revealed in interviews for the first time, is an abrupt change for the super PAC. The group has been dormant for much of the year, much to the frustration of the White House.
America First has suffered from infighting, leadership shake-ups, and questions over its strategy and approach since its founding after the 2016 election. In interviews, several senior administration officials said it had failed to vigorously promote the president’s agenda, as it was created to do.
The $100 million target won’t necessarily be easy to reach. America First will be competing for cash with the Steve Bannon-backed Great America PAC, which is getting behind primary challenges against Republican senators and making its own pitch to conservative contributors.
A third pro-Trump group, Future45, announced on Wednesday that it was launching an advertising campaign to promote tax reform. During the 2016 campaign, Future45 received substantial funding from the billionaire Ricketts and Adelson families.
America First, however, is pushing forward. Last week, it held a briefing for donors at a lavish Texas ranch owned by oilman T. Boone Pickens. The group’s president, Brian O. Walsh, laid out its plans in a 30-minute presentation, noting that America First and an allied nonprofit had already raised a combined $25 million.
A number of prominent GOP givers flew in for the event in their private planes. Among those on hand were Dallas businessman Doug Deason, son of billionaire Darwin Deason, and Alabama real estate developer Jim Wilson.
Walsh told the gathering that tax reform is the group’s top priority heading into the election year. American First Policies, a nonprofit affiliated with the super PAC, is expected to launch an ad campaign in the coming weeks that would praise Republican lawmakers who line up behind the package and pressure those who don’t.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to pass strong, bold tax reform for the American people,” Walsh said in a statement. “Failure is not an option and America First is committed to mobilizing grassroots supporters behind President Trump’s commitment to the middle class.”
Top officials with the super PAC used last week’s meeting to try and assert its standing as the primary pro-Trump outside group, and to clear up any confusion about which organization to give to. The answer hasn’t been clear to some givers, as they’ve watched Bannon grab headlines with his push to take out GOP incumbents and undermine Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Bannon recently installed one of his top aides at Great America PAC.
During the meeting, Walsh highlighted the credentials of America First strategists and their close ties to Trump. They include Brad Parscale and Corey Lewandowski, both of whom played key roles on the Trump campaign.
To drive the point home, Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr., who was present for the affair, announced that he had recently cut a check to America First. “This is the only group that I’m giving to,” he said.
Wilson said he is operating under the assumption that America First “is the only [Trump-aligned] super PAC out there — that this is going to be the one.”
Officials with America First and Great America PAC insist the idea of competition between the two groups is overblown. They say they keep in touch and plan to coordinate some of their activities leading up to the midterms.
But their approaches are distinctly different. While America First is largely focused on backing Republicans who support the president’s agenda, Great America PAC is devoting itself to targeting GOP incumbents. It is even preparing to oppose several White House allies, including Sens. Deb Fischer of Nebraska and John Barrasso of Wyoming.
The groups were on opposite sides of the Alabama Senate race. While America First spent money on behalf of Trump-backed Sen. Luther Strange, Great America PAC was behind the eventual winner, flame-throwing former judge Roy Moore. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin attended a Great America PAC rally for Moore before the election.
Some America First officials worry that Bannon’s anti-incumbent campaign will antagonize GOP senators whose votes are critical to passing tax reform. They’re taking pains to make sure people see America First as the super PAC unofficially sanctioned by the White House.
America First has been racing to lock down some of the party’s biggest givers, including Hamm, who early this year was in the mix to become Trump’s energy secretary. The group also recently secured support of Houston investor Jim Lee; San Antonio real estate developer Gene Powell; and former Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks Sr. Hicks’ son, Dallas businessman Tommy Hicks Jr., is also helping the group.
The group has also recruited several prominent GOP fundraisers, including Jeff Miller and Joe Fogg.
White House officials are watching the group’s activity closely. After a failed effort to get an Obamacare repeal bill through the House this spring, the administration dispatched deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh Shields to fix the ailing super PAC. When Brian O. Walsh, a veteran party operative who is not related to Katie Walsh Shields, took over the day-to-day operations of America First a few days later, he found a bare-bones operation.
America First’s meeting at the White House highlighted its close connection to Trump, but also caused some West Wing officials to privately question the propriety of the get-together. Super PACs aren’t legally permitted to coordinate with candidates or political parties, and Trump is already a declared candidate for 2020. America First officials said they were careful not to discuss specific political activities the group is planning or undertaking.
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