The midterm elections for 2018 are still months away. Yet a Trump-supporting super PAC is already digging up dirt on billionaire executives and Wall Street titans who could be potential opponents for President Donald Trump in the 2020 race for the White House.
Super PAC America Rising is gearing up for battle against potential candidates such as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and former Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz, according to people familiar with the plan. Apple CEO Tim Cook, J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Disney CEO Bob Iger and billionaire hedge-fund executive and Democratic donor Tom Steyer are also in its sights.
A person close to the PAC's leadership provided CNBC with examples of the types of issues it could exploit. To attack Cuban, the group could use the Mavericks’ being accused of failing to confront a hostile work environment alleged by multiple employees. In response to the accusations, Cuban, who was not accused, said in February he fired his longtime human resources vice president Buddy Pittman and hired a third party to handle any harassment complaints.
It could tie Cook to Hillary Clinton, noting he was on the Democratic presidential candidate’s shortlist to be vice president. Other plans include making a case against Schultz’s defense of same-sex marriage and highlighting Iger’s public spat with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., over the minimum wage.
Cuban has said he would run as a Republican before he would as a Democrat, although he also said it was more likely he'd run as an independent. Schultz, likewise, has accused Democrats of lurching too far to the left. Beyond Cuban, it's not clear whether any of the business leaders in the group's sights are considering a run.
The focus on prospective candidates from the business world will be part of the PAC's larger effort to craft a message to persude voters that those running against Trump can’t be trusted and there is a deep divide on the direction of the Democratic Party and opposition against the president.
“These business executives are on our list of people we’re monitoring. We are expanding our tracking and we’ll be implementing the same rapid response system that we used against Hillary Clinton,” said Sarah Dolan, a spokeswoman for the PAC. “These CEOs have been more vocal on public policy than those in the past and we’ll be holding their positions accountable as they take steps to run.”
A spokesman for Dimon referred questions about a potential 2020 run to a recent CNBC interview where he said he has no intention of running for president. “Nothing has changed,” the spokesman added.
Cuban and representatives for Schultz, Cook, Iger and Steyer did not immediately return requests for comment.
The plan for America Rising's 2020 push has been communicated to the group’s extensive list of donors, according to a PAC official. That list includes Republican financiers such as John Childs, the chairman of private equity firm J.W. Childs Associates, and longtime GOP attorney C. Boyden Gray.
Childs, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, has contributed $100,000 to the PAC in the 2018 election cycle, while Gray has given up to $10,000.
Gray and Childs also have links to a host of other PACs, including Protect the House, a joint fundraising committee dedicated to defending House Republicans this year. They both gave $100,000 to the organization in June, Federal Election Committee records show.
For political strategists, the move by America Rising to start deep diving into these CEOs and other 2020 hopefuls, as Politico reported earlier, is the latest sign that Republicans are looking to head off any competition Trump may face, especially when it comes to the fundraising game. Political figures such as Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sanders are getting most of the group's attention for now, Politico said.
“The great move is to get rid of the competition before the competition gets rid of you. The best way to do that is to create bad press on the internet and through cable news,” veteran political strategist Hank Sheinkopf said. “It is an absolute preventive measure. Get rid of those guys when you can and remove the possibility that Trump will be facing a guy with a lot of money. Kill them early but not with kindness,” he added.
There’s also the growing belief among some political operatives that the titans of the business community may decide not to run because of the public scrutiny that comes with becoming a candidate for president.
Many CEOs aren’t used to having attack ads hit the airwaves against them and are in the habit of hiding behind their companies to avoid the spotlight, Sheinkopf said.
Trump's approval rating remains underwater, according to a Real Clear Politics average of polling data. Yet, some surveys have shown an increase in voters' approval of the president's performance.
A new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll showed 45 percent of participants saying they approve of the commander in chief’s efforts compared with 44 percent in the last survey.