Last Friday, the White House-backed group America First Policies revealed a seven-figure ad campaign targeting a member of President Donald Trump's own party, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, who recently announced he would oppose the GOP's healthcare bill.
The attack startled many Republicans, who think the threatening tactic lacks strategic value and belies a breakdown in communication between Congress and the White House.
"Running ads targeting the most vulnerable Republican incumbent senator for not voting for a bill" that is is fairly unpopular "is one of the dumbest things that can be done by this group, or any group for that matter," Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist and author of the book "GOP GPS," told Business Insider.
Heller will likely face a tough reelection battle in 2018. Hillary Clinton won the state of Nevada in November, and the state expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.
In a tweet on Friday, America First Policies — which is run by former Trump campaign advisers — accused Heller of lying to his constituents.
Heller told reporters that he could not support a bill "that takes insurance away from tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Nevadans" and fails to lower insurance premiums.
Siegfried called the ad campaign, which will reportedly be rolled out this week, "reckless" and counterproductive, arguing that the move has likely delighted Democrats.
"If they're going to attack the very people they need and end up hurting us to the point that it results in Democrats taking that seat, they'll have nobody to blame but themselves," he said, adding that the move is reflective of Trump's approach to Congress, which he said is to treat Republican lawmakers as "middlemen."
Matt Mackowiak, a conservative consultant and president of Potomac Strategy Group, agreed that the attack plan will likely be unhelpful to Trump and the GOP, but noted that the strategy was not intended to be persuasive. Rather, the White House is attempting to send a signal to other Republicans who are on the fence about the bill.
"It was about deterrence, not about persuasion," Mackowiak said.
Some Republican operatives have also criticized the group for targeting one of Heller's legislative aides, Rachel Green, by including her Twitter handle in its tweets condemning Heller.
So far, five Republicans have said they will not vote for the bill in its current form, and five others have voiced concern about it.
Mackowiak argued a conciliatory approach would likely be more effective, but noted that America First Policies might be making up for opportunities it missed during the House healthcare debate.
"They were looking back at the House experience and saying I wish we'd done this then, let's do this now," Mackowiak said, adding that these kinds of outright attacks are often more effective against congressmembers, who are up for election more frequently than senators are.
But Siegfried said that Trump is likely incapable of effectively persuading or pressuring GOP lawmakers.
"The Trump mindset is to attack — they've never been able to encourage and cajole people into doing things," Siegfried said. "It was a carrot and stick situation without a carrot, and they went right to the stick."
While Trump himself has not directly attacked Heller or other Republicans, he tweeted his displeasure with them last Saturday.
Amid reports on Monday that America First Policies might rethink its planned attacks on Heller, following pressure from Republican leadership, the group tweeted on Monday afternoon that it "won't hold back."
Erin Montgomery, a spokesperson for America First Policies, told the Washington Examiner on Monday that the group had never considered de-fanging its campaign against Heller.
"We were always making multiple creative ads in the event that Heller changed his mind, but we're not giving him a second chance," Montgomery said. "We are moving forward with ads regardless, we're not waiting on him to change his mind."
The Associated Press reported on Monday that the group is expanding its campaign to include four other Republicans critical of the bill: Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
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