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Former N.H. GOP Chair Says Her Party Faces A Post-Trump Reckoning05:30
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New Hampshire GOP Chair Jennifer Horn speaks in 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
New Hampshire GOP Chair Jennifer Horn speaks in 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Ronald Reagan's “Eleventh Commandment” declared, “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” Jennifer Horn apparently missed that memo.

"We believe that Donald Trump poses an existential threat to the Republic," said Horn, the former Chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party. "And that he is a threat to American democracy, to constitutional leadership."

While most Republicans support President Trump's re-election, some don't, and are actively working to elect his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden. That includes members of the Lincoln Project, which is producing some of the toughest attack ads of this election.

As a founding member, Horn has teamed up with a group of seasoned Republican operatives who built careers attacking and taking down Democrats. Now they've gone rogue, training their fire on the leader of their own party — President Trump.

I don't feel like I've gone rogue at all," Horn said. "I feel like I'm the same person person fighting for the same principals, the same values that I've been fighting for my whole life."

Horn ran for Congress in 2008 and 2010 in New Hampshire, losing both times, and then led the state's Republican Party from 2013 until 2017. More recently, she managed Bill Weld's presidential run. Horn describes herself as a conservative who believes in traditional Republican principals of small government, fiscal restraint and strong national defense. But she says Trump has turned his back on all of that and more.

"We're not a party that stands up to dictators and tyrants around the world anymore," she said. "For so long, our nation has been a beacon of hope for freedom-seeking people everywhere. Donald Trump is destroying even that. But it's our party that has moved, not me."

The Lincoln Project's best known ad, "Mourning in America," recasts the famously upbeat and hopeful campaign spot, "Morning In America," which helped President Ronald Reagan win re-election in 1984. The new version includes images of run-down neighborhoods, lines of people in masks, and others dying in hospital beds.

"There's mourning in America," the announcer says. "And under the leadership of Donald Trump, our country is weaker, and sicker and poorer."

The ad caught the attention of the Lincoln Project's intended target.

President Trump told reporters he saw the ad soon after it first aired, and took aim at the organization behind it.

"But it's a group of major losers - they're Republican losers," he said, later adding. "They should call it 'the loser's project.' "

Asked about the President's reaction, Horn laughed.

"I can only express my gratitude to the president for drawing attention to us the way that he did," she said.

In a tweetstorm, Trump called out the Lincoln Project members by name. Within 48 hours the group raised two million dollars, and Horn said their mission "took off like a rocket."

"Part of this operation from the beginning has been about getting in Donald Trump's head — getting him off his game," she said.

The ads are tough and relentless, attacking the President's record, including his response to the pandemic: "Donald Trump lied about it, rejected science and still has no plan to save Americans," says the announcer in one ad.

Another spot assails the President for what he has said about members of the military: "He insults their deaths and injuries with his contempt."

Another ad uses the the President's own words, taking him to task for his reluctance to condemn white supremacists: "You also had people that were very fine people, on both sides," the president said of the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va.

Another raises questions about his mental fitness.

The Lincoln Project urges Republicans to support Joe Biden, but some Democrats are leery of these Republican strategists; after all, they spent decades crafting a case against Democrats. The critics say by going so negative, the Lincoln Project is stooping to Trump's level.

"I would reject that argument outright," Horn said. "Because the difference between Donald Trump and the Lincoln Project is we tell the truth. I am very comfortable with our messaging strategy and with our ads."

"Going forward, Republican candidates are going to have to be willing to address whether or not they are a member of the party of Trump or the party of Lincoln. You cannot be both."

Jennifer Horn

There is no way to measure if the ads work. According Gallup, more than 90 percent of Republicans still approve of the job President Trump is doing, which was apparent at a recent Republican campaign event in Hampton, New Hampshire.

"The reason I got behind President Trump [is that] he was an independent, free thinker," said Mary Gargiullo, a Republican from Hampton Falls. "A lot of people don't like what he says. A lot of people don't like how he says it, but he gets things done."

Sharleene Hurst, a Republican candidate for the New Hampshire House agreed: "The President has been doing a great job on the economy — even after the COVID crisis — and he's given me no reason to doubt that he'll continue doing that," she said.

Trump lost New Hampshire by just 3,000 votes in 2016, and Jennifer Horn predicts he will lose it by a bigger margin on Nov. 3. Polls suggest she might be right.

Even so, Trump's supporters point out he's lowered taxes, rolled back regulations and put conservatives on the courts. But Horn says those are "fleeting issues" compared to the damage he has inflicted on American institutions and values. And she says sooner or later, the Republican Party - her party - will have to reckon with its complicity.

"Going forward, Republican candidates are going to have to be willing to address whether or not they are a member of the party of Trump or the party of Lincoln," Horn said. "You cannot be both."

This segment aired on October 22, 2020.

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Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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