Politics

Anti-Trump group led by longtime GOP strategist Bill Kristol raised, spent millions during 2020 campaign

Key Points
  • A group led by longtime GOP strategist Bill Kristol and a group of fellow so-called Never Trump Republicans raised more than $35 million during the 2020 campaign.
  • The nonprofit organization, Defending Democracy Together, spent millions on projects attacking then-President Trump during the same period.
  • Its biggest single contribution, $6 million, went toward one of the group's projects, Republican Voters Against Trump, according to a 990 tax disclosure first reviewed by CNBC.
William Kristol
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

A group led by longtime GOP strategist Bill Kristol and a group of fellow so-called Never Trump Republicans raised more than $35 million during the 2020 election, funding projects that targeted then-President Donald Trump.

It was a record haul for the relatively young nonprofit organization, which was established in 2018, the second year of Trump's term in office. In 2019, it raised $9 million, according to a filing.

The group, called Defending Democracy Together, used its haul to spend more than $13 million on grants during 2020. Its biggest single contribution, $6 million, went toward one of the group's projects, Republican Voters Against Trump, according to a 990 tax disclosure first reviewed by CNBC.

That project was intended to give what the group says were Republican voters a chance to speak out through video testimony on their dislike of the former commander in chief.

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Defending Democracy Together also donated over $4 million to WorkMoney, a separate 501(c)(4) nonprofit that recently launched a campaign to press moderate lawmakers to fall in line with President Joe Biden's agenda.

A spokeswoman for Defending Democracy Together did not return a request for comment before publication.

Kristol was not always sympathetic to Democratic causes. He was an advisor in President Ronald Reagan's administration, and he became one of the leading voices of the neoconservative movement in the Republican Party. He was the founder and editor of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, and was a vocal supporter of President George W. Bush's Iraq invasion. Kristol is also known for his early support of then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who would go on to be Sen. John McCain's running mate on the GOP ticket in the 2008 election, when Barack Obama and Biden won control of the White House.

During Trump's rise, however, Kristol largely broke with his party and became one of the leading voices on the right to oppose the former president and his agenda.

Defending Democracy Together is, like WorkMoney, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that does not publicly disclose their donors. Its 990 disclosure form shows two anonymous donations each worth over $10 million. One of those donations came from the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a dark money fund that often backs Democratic leaning causes.

Previous backers of the group include a foundation run by conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch's son James Murdoch and his wife, Kathryn. The Murdoch family own a sprawling media empire, including Fox News. Another previous financier of the group is a foundation funded entirely by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

Kristol is not the only Republican running the organization. Sarah Longwell, a veteran Republican strategist, is the group's executive director. Their website lists former Republican New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman as a director.

Outside of the grants, Defending Democracy Together spent over $7 million on Facebook ads, according to its financial report. The group also paid over $4 million to Longwell Partners, a communications firm run by Longwell herself.

Defending Democracy Together also paid over $3 million for advertising to Applecart, a data firm that saw an investment from Hollywood super agent Ari Emanuel, the brother of former Obama chief of staff and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.