Lincoln Project co-founder refuses to apologize for trying to smear VA GOP gubernatorial candidate

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The Lincoln Project co-founder Stuart Stevens has refused to apologize after the ‘Never Trump’ group admitted to planting five people carrying tiki torches in front of the Republican candidate for Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin’s bus.

Stevens’ statement came as liberals and Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe’s staff joined conservatives in bashing the stunt. McAuliffe’s campaign manager called it ‘disgusting.’  

CNN’s Chris Cuomo asked Stevens, appearing with longtime Democratic strategist James Carville, if he wanted to apologize for the smear.  

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Stevens, a former Republican strategist, told Cuomo that this was what The Lincoln Project received millions in donations to do.

‘No,’ said Stevens. ‘Listen, every day I hear people pleading with the Lincoln Project to help show Democrats how to win, how to play hardball. You know, this is an example.’ 

Stuart Stevens, a former Republican strategist and co-founder of the 'Never Trump' group, stood behind the stunt when questioned by CNN's Chris Cuomo Friday

Stuart Stevens, a former Republican strategist and co-founder of the ‘Never Trump’ group, stood behind the stunt when questioned by CNN’s Chris Cuomo Friday

Five people holding tiki torches stand in the rain by the campaign bus for GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin in Charlottesville on Friday. The Lincoln Project has admitted to being behind the stunt, to discredit Youngkin

Five people holding tiki torches stand in the rain by the campaign bus for GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin in Charlottesville on Friday. The Lincoln Project has admitted to being behind the stunt, to discredit Youngkin

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Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate, is seen on Friday campaigning in Charlottesville

Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate, is seen on Friday campaigning in Charlottesville

Youngkin is taking on Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat contender, who was governor of Virginia from 2014-18 and is hoping to be re-elected

Youngkin is taking on Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat contender, who was governor of Virginia from 2014-18 and is hoping to be re-elected

Stevens instead called on Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin to denounce former President Trump. 

‘The question here is not about some guys who showed up at a rally,’ said Stevens. ‘It’s why hasn’t Glenn Youngkin denounced Donald Trump for saying that there are good people on both sides? I mean, that is absolutely outrageous. And it’s because Glenn Youngkin wants it both ways. And I think that’s the message that needs to be driven here.’

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‘You know, the Lincoln Project was the first in this race to put Charlottesville in an ad. And some people thought maybe it went too far. But we did it. And it worked. And then McAuliffe’s campaign followed us and put Charlottesville in a very good ad they did. So I think the question here is, we can’t ignore what happened in Charlottesville, the question is why hasn’t Glenn Youngkin denounced Donald Trump?’ 

Stevens’ comments are in line with The Lincoln Project’s official statement on the matter. 

‘Glenn Youngkin has said: ‘President Trump represents so much of why I am running,’ the statement reads. ‘Youngkin proves it every day by trying to divide Virginians using racial code words like Critical Race Theory and supporting a ban on teaching the works of America’s only Black Nobel laureate.’

They added that they’ll continue doing things like this until Youngkin disavows Trump. 

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‘The Youngkin campaign is enraged by our reminder of Charlottesville for one simple reason: Glenn Youngkin wants Virginians to forget that he is Donald Trump’s candidate,’ they continued. ‘We will continue to hold Glenn Youngkin accountable. If he will denounce Trump’s assertion that the Charlottesville rioters possessed ‘very fine’ qualities, we’ll withdraw the tiki torches. Until then, we’ll be back.’

However, McAuliffe’s campaign was quick to suggest they should apologize.  

Chris Bolling, the executive director of Terry McAuliffe’s Common Good VA PAC, tweeted out a disavowal of the stunt Friday. 

‘What happened today in Charlottesville is disgusting and distasteful and the McAuliffe campaign condemns it in the strongest terms,’ he said. ‘Those involved should immediately apologize.’  

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Chris Bolling, campaign manager for Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, denounced a Lincoln Project stunt to attempt to smear McAuliffe's Republican opponent

Chris Bolling, campaign manager for Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, denounced a Lincoln Project stunt to attempt to smear McAuliffe’s Republican opponent

Bolling demanded 'those involved' apologize in a tweet

Bolling demanded ‘those involved’ apologize in a tweet

This comes as McAuliffe’s numbers have continued to drop in the close race. After a poll from Fox News showing Youngkin leading by eight points, poll aggregator FiveThirtyEight shows the Republican with a slight lead over McAuliffe. 

The site’s polling average had McAuliffe leading by close to eight points himself as recently as early August. As of Friday, their methodology had Youngkin ahead by just over half a point. 

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The former private equity executive and political newcomer is in a close race against former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe as Tuesday’s Election Day nears.

Youngkin and McAuliffe are currently engaged in a remarkably fierce battle, in a state which Joe Biden won by 10 percentage points in the 2020 election.

McAuliffe was leading by five points two months ago, and is now trailing Youngkin in several polls – including by as much as eight percentage points in a FOX news poll.

The Democrats, with a rising sense of foreboding, have sent out their big guns: Barack Obama, Jill and Joe Biden, and, on Friday night, Kamala Harris and Pharrell Williams, to campaign for McAuliffe. 

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Kamala Harris is seen on Friday night campaigning for Terry McAuliffe in Norfolk, Virginia

Kamala Harris is seen on Friday night campaigning for Terry McAuliffe in Norfolk, Virginia

The Lincoln Project only confessed to the attempt to derail Youngkin when eagle-eyed reporters identified those participating as operatives within the Virginia Democratic party. 

Cameron Joseph, senior political correspondent with Vice, tweeted: ‘They only took credit/blame after I told them I IDed someone in the photo.’ 

Lauren Windsor – who describes herself as ‘Agnostic. Bisexual. Fashionista. Hapless romantic. Progressive pugilist swamp-slayer’ – took credit for organizing the stunt on Friday evening. 

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‘In my capacity as a communications consultant, I worked w @ProjectLincoln to coordinate today’s Youngkin action in Charlottesville,’ she said. 

‘I join them in the fight to defend our democracy from rightwing extremists and call for Glenn Youngkin to denounce Trump’s ‘very fine people.’ 

Lauren Windsor, a self-proclaimed 'progressive pugilist swamp-slayer' said on Friday evening that she had worked the The Lincoln Project to stage the stunt

Lauren Windsor, a self-proclaimed ‘progressive pugilist swamp-slayer’ said on Friday evening that she had worked the The Lincoln Project to stage the stunt

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Her actions managed to infuriate both Republicans, angry at the smear, and Democrats, who saw her use of Charlottesville as a political prop as crass, and likely to backfire. 

Online sleuths named two of the five agitators as Camden Layton, the finance director for Virginia Young Democrats, and Colleen Wachenfeld, another Virginia Democratic employee whose background on Twitter was a picture of McAuliffe at a campaign event.

Layton has since denied he is one of the men pictured. Wachenfeld has not confirmed whether she participated.  

Charlottesville TV station WVIR covered the campaign stop and reported Youngkin was inside a restaurant when the group dressed in matching hats, khakis and white button-down shirts appeared beside his campaign bus.  

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Colleen Wachenfeld is believed to be the sole woman to take part

Commentators online believe that the sole woman among the five was Colleen Wachenfeld, and identified one of the four men (far right) as Camden Layton, the finance director for the Virginia Young Democrats

The four men and one woman stood outside Youngkin's campaign bus, trying to smear the Republican by associating him with the neo-Nazi 'Unite The Right' rally

The four men and one woman stood outside Youngkin’s campaign bus, trying to smear the Republican by associating him with the neo-Nazi ‘Unite The Right’ rally

The five stood in the rain, posing as 'Unite The Right' white supremacists

The five stood in the rain, posing as ‘Unite The Right’ white supremacists

A McAuliffe loss on Tuesday would reverberate across the national political landscape, likely triggering all-out panic among Democrats. 

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For Republicans, it would be a burst of confidence and a road map for finding their way through post-Trump divisions ahead of 2022 midterm elections, which will decide control of Congress and dozens of state capitals.

What is the Lincoln Project? 

The Lincoln Project was founded in late 2019 by a group of Republicans who were dismayed at the direction of their party under Trump.  

In December 2019 they laid out their principals in an op ed in The New York Times written by Steve Schmidt, senior advisor to John McCain for his 2008 campaign; John Weaver, chief strategist for Republican challenger John Kasich in 2016; Rick Wilson, a strategist for Evan McMullin’s campaign; and George Conway, a DC lawyer.

Conway’s wife, Kellyanne, was at the time working in the White House as a senior advisor to Trump, and their political divide became a Washington DC obsession.

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The group initially made effective use of social media, playing Trump at his own game and trolling him online with memes and videos.

Money flowed in by the tens of millions of dollars from donors eager to help.

But the organization was soon facing questions about its leadership and financing.

Weaver, who was married with two children, was accused of by 21 men sexual harassment in February 2021, and the group was accused of hushing it up. They have now begun an independent investigation. 

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Questions were also asked about the use of the funds raised. 

Of the $90 million Lincoln Project has raised, more than $50 million has gone to firms controlled by the group’s leaders. Only about a third of the money, roughly $27 million, directly paid for advertisements. 

In March 2021 one of the founders, George Conway – who left amid family problems in August 2020 – said the group should close permanently. 

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Democrats have been caught off guard by Youngkin’s ability to make the election about education, and divisive teaching within the state’s schools. Loudoun County in Virginia has become the national epicenter for anger at the teaching of critical race theory – a reassessment of American history, to give renewed emphasis on the horrors of slavery and the uncomfortable truth of the past. 

Critics of CRT say it is teaching children to hate their country and feel guilty for the color of their skin. 

McAuliffe’s team also privately points to the drag of Biden’s weakened standing among Virginia voters – a shift that began in August after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

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That exacerbated traditional headwinds for candidates whose party occupies the White House. 

In 2013, McAuliffe himself became the first Virginia candidate in 40 years to win the governor’s office while his party was in power.

And within the campaign, there is concern that McAuliffe’s experience, thought to be an asset when he got into the race, may actually work against him in a political environment that continues to favor outsiders. 

Even before becoming governor, McAuliffe had been active in national politics for decades. He served as a former Democratic National Committee chairman and a chief fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton.

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The stunt on Friday was seen as a desperate ‘dirty trick’ by a side that realized it could well lose, and came as the scale of their effort in the state was revealed.

Records provided by the Virginia Public Access Project show $300,000 being spent to try and sabotage Youngkin’s chances, Fox reported.

The group spent $17,100 on pro-McAuliffe efforts and just over $280,000 on anti-Youngkin efforts.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, anti-Youngkin spending included TV ad buys, digital ads, and ‘media production.’

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Photos from Friday showed the group holding large tiki torches. 

Their appearance recalled two days of chaos in August 2017, when white supremacists gathered in the college town for a ‘Unite the Right’ rally – ostensibly to protest the planned removal of a Confederate monument.

The night before the planned rally, a group carrying tiki torches marched across the University of Virginia campus, clashing with a small group of anti-racist protesters. 

The next day a car driven by a self-avowed white supremacist plowed into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing one protester, Heather Heyer, and injuring dozens.

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McAuliffe staffers promoted a reporter’s tweet about the group’s appearance, using it to attack Youngkin and suggesting that those holding the torches were his supporters.

Youngkin staffers accused the McAuliffe campaign or Virginia Democrats of being involved, drawing disavowals.

The Democratic Party of Virginia issued a statement saying neither the party nor its ‘coordinated partners and affiliates’ had anything to do with ‘the events’ at the campaign bus stop.

White supremacists and neo-Nazis carrying tiki torches marched through Charlottesville on August 11, 2017 in a 'Unite The Right' rally to protest against the removal of Confederate statues

White supremacists and neo-Nazis carrying tiki torches marched through Charlottesville on August 11, 2017 in a ‘Unite The Right’ rally to protest against the removal of Confederate statues

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The group, chanting 'Jews will not replace us', formed a procession through the Virginia college town on August 11, 2017

The group, chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’, formed a procession through the Virginia college town on August 11, 2017

The neo-Nazi group are seen circling a statue of Thomas Jefferson on August 11, 2017

The neo-Nazi group are seen circling a statue of Thomas Jefferson on August 11, 2017

The torch-lit procession and the racist chants outraged many Charlottesville residents

The torch-lit procession and the racist chants outraged many Charlottesville residents

The incident comes at a sensitive time in the city. 

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A civil trial opened on Monday that will determine whether the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who organized the 2017 demonstrations should be held accountable for the violence.

Democratic Del. Sally Hudson, who represents Charlottesville in the General Assembly, condemned the torch-bearing incident as a ‘stunt.’

‘Charlottesville is not a prop. Our community is still reeling from years of trauma – especially this week. Don’t come back, @ProjectLincoln. Your stunts aren’t welcome here,’ she tweeted.

Trump supporters reacted with anger to the stunt, and several people – including the former president’s son – speculated that McAuliffe’s team was in fact behind it, but then used the Lincoln Project to take the fall when criticism mounted.

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‘No chance Lincoln Project staged this, even though a ‘white supremacist’ rally is right up Confederate Rick Wilson’s alley,’ said Donald Trump Jr. 

‘The VA dem operatives involved have already been identified & locked down their social media. Busted. 

‘Don’t let Pedo Project take the hit for McAuliffe.’

Jack Posobiec, the alt-Right commentator, said: ‘Virginia Democrat operatives dressed up as Neo-Nazis holding tiki-torches today to smear their opponent and attempted to pass it off as actually happening.’ 

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Nick Adams, who describes himself on his Twitter bio as ‘President Trump’s favorite author’, also thought it was a McAuliffe prank that backfired.

‘So now the Lincoln Project is taking credit for a tiki torch stunt put together with Virginia Democrat Party employees,’ he said. 

‘How stupid do they think we are?’

Brent Scher, editor of the Free Beacon, tweeted: ‘I do not think it’s out of realm of possibility that Lincoln Project is taking blame, because they have no shame and their reputation really can’t get any worse.’ 

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Dan Crenshaw, a Republican congressman for Texas, said: ‘How much more proof do we need that the Lincoln Project is nothing but a bunch of deranged hacks?’

Andrew Kerr, a journalist with Daily Caller, said: ‘Apparently, it’s totally fine to dress up as tiki torch nazis as long as you play for the right team.’ 

Journalist Glenn Greenwald said: ‘Needless to say, right-wing groups that perpetrated a fraud like this — causing media figures and campaign operatives to spend all day swamping Twitter with an outright racist lie — would be instantly banned from social media.’ 

And Brigitte Gabriel, the right-wing think tank founder, tweeted: ‘Why hasn’t the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled The Lincoln Project as a hate group? The just put together a white supremacist tiki torch rally. 

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‘Seems pretty hateful to me.’

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Other critics from the opposite side of the political spectrum took issue with Lincoln Project bringing back painful memories. 

‘My heart aches for Heather Heyer and for all her loved ones,’ said Christine Pelosi, daughter of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. 

‘Her death shook me to the core as an activist and mom. 

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‘The 2017 deadly Nazi rally was bad enough; today’s Lincoln Project tiki stunt was cruel. 

‘Some things are – or should be – beyond politics. This is one of them.’

CJ Paschall, an anchor with the local NBC affiliate in Charlottesville, tweeted: ‘Tone deaf is putting it mildly. 

‘Charlottesville is already reliving some of the darkest days of the city’s history with the trial underway. 

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‘The trauma people continue to suffer is not your soap box.’

And Lizzie Hylton, political and legislative director of the clean energy group Clean Virginia, echoed Paschall’s view.

‘Charlottesville is a real city with real people – far too many of whom are still trying to heal from the massive trauma experienced on August 11th and 12th 2017,’ she said. 

‘Bringing fake Nazis with tiki torches here for a political stunt is beyond f***** up. Shame on @ProjectLincoln.’  

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The Lincoln Project was founded in late 2019 by a group of Republicans who were dismayed at the direction of their party under Trump.  

In December 2019 they laid out their principals in an op ed in The New York Times written by Steve Schmidt, senior advisor to John McCain for his 2008 campaign; John Weaver, chief strategist for Republican challenger John Kasich in 2016; Rick Wilson, a strategist for Evan McMullin’s campaign; and George Conway, a DC lawyer.

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Conway’s wife, Kellyanne, was at the time working in the White House as a senior advisor to Trump, and their political divide became a Washington DC obsession.

The group initially made effective use of social media, playing Trump at his own game and trolling him online with memes and videos.

Money flowed in by the tens of millions of dollars from donors eager to help.

But within the organization, a crisis was brewing.

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In June 2020, members of the organization’s leadership were informed in writing and in subsequent phone calls of at least 10 specific allegations of harassment against co-founder John Weaver, including two involving Lincoln Project employees. 

Questions were also asked about the use of the funds raised. 

Of the $90 million Lincoln Project has raised, more than $50 million has gone to firms controlled by the group’s leaders, AP reported. 

Only about a third of the money, roughly $27 million, directly paid for advertisements that aired on broadcast and cable, or appeared online, during the 2020 campaign, according to an analysis of campaign finance disclosures and data from the ad tracking firm Kantar/CMAG. 

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In August 2020 Conway announced that he was withdrawing from the group, as his family was rocked by division. His and Kellyanne’s daughter Claudia began posting extensively on social media, causing her parents anxiety and ultimately forcing Kellyanne to leave her job in the White House.

In March this year Conway said that he felt the Lincoln Project should close permanently, given the scandals.

A former senior adviser to the project, Kurt Bardella, tweeted: ‘Just shut it down already … it’s over.’  

Conway agreed in his own tweet, writing: ‘It’s a shame, and we shouldn’t forget the hard work of so many people and the positive things the organization did, but yes, I think this is right.’

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He added: ‘It’s just really sad and depressing, and I hope it doesn’t tarnish the work of so many people who devoted themselves to such a good cause.’ 

Lincoln Project statement owning up to the controversial stunt 

‘Glenn Youngkin has said: ‘President Trump represents so much of why I am running.’ 

Youngkin proves it every day by trying to divide Virginians using racial code words like Critical Race Theory and supporting a ban on teaching the works of America’s only Black Nobel laureate.

The Lincoln Project has run advertisements highlighting the hate unleashed in Charlottesville as well as Glenn Youngkin’s continued failure to denounce Donald Trump’s ‘very fine people on both sides.’ We will continue to draw this contrast in broadcast videos, on our social media platforms, and at Youngkin rallies.

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Today’s demonstration was our way of reminding Virginians what happened in Charlottesville four years ago, the Republican Party’s embrace of those values, and Glenn Youngkin’s failure to condemn it.

The Youngkin campaign is enraged by our reminder of Charlottesville for one simple reason: Glenn Youngkin wants Virginians to forget that he is Donald Trump’s candidate.

We will continue to hold Glenn Youngkin accountable. If he will denounce Trump’s assertion that the Charlottesville rioters possessed ‘very fine’ qualities, we’ll withdraw the tiki torches. Until then, we’ll be back.’

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