Pro-Trump Group Stumbles in Health Plan Push
A nonprofit group formed to boost President Trump’s agenda has emerged badly bruised from its first major political battle, raising questions about the organization’s effectiveness moving forward.
America First Policies had hoped to work in the background to hand the president a major legislative victory by steering the Senate toward passing a health care reform plan. Instead, the group was front and center as lawmakers confronted an impasse.
When Trump called Republican senators to the White House last week to discuss a path forward on their stalled Obamacare repeal proposal, Sen. Dean Heller, a key swing vote, raised concerns regarding an attack against him by the group, Heller’s office confirmed.
A television ad by America First Policies had pointed to Heller (pictured) as blocking the president’s health care push. As part of the campaign, the group tweeted that Heller was “with Nancy Pelosi,” the House Democratic leader.
Such policy pushes are not unusual as tools of persuasion or political retaliation — but this one came at a sensitive moment as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was attempting to cobble together votes, with a narrow margin for error. And he needed Heller.
By Tuesday evening, following the White House meeting, America First Policies announced that it would take the ad down. Erin Montgomery, a spokesperson for the group, explained that they were “pleased to learn that ... Heller has decided to come back to the table to negotiate with his colleagues on the Senate bill.”
Alex Conant, a Republican strategist, gave “all sides credit for resolving this quickly.” He added that “it was an unfortunate episode, but no harm done.”
The misstep was a harsh wake-up call, however, for the relatively new group and its backers — raising questions about its strategic clarity and future direction. If Heller will likely recover from this episode of friendly fire, America First’s self-inflicted wounds might scar.
“They drove squarely into the telephone pole,” said one senior Republican operative. “For a group that’s had trouble presenting themselves credibly, I think they’ve done themselves perhaps irreparable harm.”
Since it was established earlier this year, America First Policies has sought to fill a void as the administration's external muscle, aggressively promoting the president’s agenda and pressuring lawmakers to back it. But the group, like the administration it is designed to promote, has taken some time to find its footing.
Much of the initial leadership team for America First Policies, comprising Trump campaign loyalists like Rick Gates and David Bossie, has been replaced by a seasoned Washington team including Brian O. Walsh, now the group’s president, and Katie Walsh, a Republican National Committee veteran who served a brief stint as a top adviser in Trump’s White House.
It was not clear until recently, however, that this group would be the one to lead political messaging for the administration. A similar nonprofit, Make America Great, was founded by Trump donor Rebekah Mercer and went on the air with advertising earlier this year. But that group has more recently assumed a lower profile, while America First Policies has stepped into the spotlight.
America First now appears to have the support of the administration. At a donor reception in Washington last month, a roster of top White House officials bestowed their blessing on the group, including Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen; White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus; Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway; Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short; and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady also attended, along with Sen. Tim Scott, lending the group an added stamp of approval from the legislative branch.
If the event was something of a coming out party for the group, the Senate health care push marked its first big test — at a moment when the stakes could hardly be higher for Trump and the GOP.
As Senate Republicans unveiled their reform proposal, America First decided to air ads targeting eight Democratic senators from states where Trump performed well or won. But another ad, the spot targeting Heller, garnered the most attention and outraged some Republicans.
All of the group’s ads “were developed to encourage constituents to call their senators and urge them to vote yes on the health care bill,” according to one person with knowledge of the process. But the Heller attack represented a severe, potentially damaging miscalculation.
“It’s totally right to put pressure on legislators,” said the Republican operative, “but the application was so blunt, it was so politically tone-deaf.”
And although the group could not have coordinated directly with the White House or Capitol Hill regarding its advertising, the Heller spot suggested America First Policies had not sought counsel from party operatives who might have warned them off of it.
“There was no coordination among Republican leaders,” said another party strategist, “which is a larger problem.”