Pro-Trump super PAC acts as candidate stand-in on bus tour

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LAKE MARY, Fla. (AP) — The tour bus features a giant photo of a waving, smiling Donald Trump, but the person who steps off it is actor Jon Voight. He’s trailed by conservative radio stars and strategists for a super political action committee.

Great America PAC is rolling through battleground states, opening offices and registering voters. In a presidential race where the Republican candidate has paid little attention to the ground game, this outside group has decided the best way to support him is to take such matters into its own hands.

“We look at it as, how do we fix the missing pieces of the campaign?” said Ed Rollins, lead strategist for Great America.

The group is using a different playbook — both in how it raises and spends money — than the usual super PAC. It has struggled to land major donors, but has toiled along since January, making it one of the most senior and active outside groups in the Trump orbit.

Unlike candidates, super PACs can accept unlimited amounts of money from donors, so they typically focus on getting the biggest checks possible. Then they often spend most of their money on TV ads, one of the most expensive parts of any race and the easiest way to reach millions of voters. Great America sees another way.

“Gone are the days where a super PAC should be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on slick TV ads,” said Eric Beach, the group’s founding chairman, between stops in Florida. “We are coming out with a new model, and that is the grassroots. Getting out and registering voters. Getting them excited.”

While Priorities USA, a super PAC backing Democrat Hillary Clinton, had accepted 42 contributions of $1 million or more each and plans to spend $119 million on TV and radio ads by Election Day, no donor to Great America had given more than $75,000, according to federal records through July 31. Instead, the bulk of its $7.6 million came from small donors.

The group is hoping to change that. On Tuesday night, about 50 super PAC donors dined at Trump Tower in Manhattan, where they heard from the candidate’s son, Eric Trump.

Federal rules prohibit super PACs from coordinating with campaigns on their how money is spent, and campaign officials may not explicitly ask donors to give more than $2,700. But it’s become standard for the campaigns to send stands-ins for the candidates — or even the candidates themselves — to super PAC events.

Great America claims to have contacted several million new voters through online solicitations, telemarketing and television ads featuring a 1-800 number — something more in line with hawking a gadget than promoting a presidential candidate.

“We need millions of concerned Americans to call,” a male narrator breathlessly shouts in one low-budget ad. As side-by-side photos of Trump and Clinton are shown, the narrator repeats the number three times, calling it an “insta-voice presidential poll.”

Callers are asked a few questions and urged to make a small donation.

Super PACs don’t usually seek out low-dollar contributions because doing so “can cannibalize donors” who would otherwise give directly to the campaigns, said Charlie Spies, a veteran Republican super PAC operative and attorney.

Mike Murphy, who led a super PAC supporting Jeb Bush in the primary, said that while he knows and likes Rollins, he has no idea what the group is doing.

“Since Trump is losing and the ads seem more about signing up donors than moving voters to Trump, cannot say I understand their plan,” Murphy emailed. “Other than fundraising.”

Rollins defended Great America’s approach. “We built a lot of our operation on small donors because we were reaching out to them anyway,” he said.

He argued that anyone who gives a few bucks, whether to the candidate or to an outside booster, is more likely to vote for that person.

The group’s cross-country tour began Monday in Florida, continues Thursday in Ohio and concludes Saturday in Colorado. When the entourage flew in to join the bus Tuesday in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the vehicle rolled onto the tarmac just as Chelsea Clinton and her Secret Service detail sped off to a campaign event for her mom.

The super PAC is planning a second tour with four or more buses in October, Beach said.

Presidential candidates have long used roadshows to connect with voters, but Trump “likes to fly in his own plane and sleep in his own bed every night,” Rollins said, adding he’d love to see him hit the road. Rollins was President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign manager and accompanied him on a “train tour” of America.

Aboard the bus this week are popular conservative radio hosts, Salem Media executives and super PAC operatives. In Florida, the group was joined by Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, an outspoken African-American figure new to the conservative circuit.

Voight, one of the few highly visible conservatives in Hollywood, provides a dollop of the celebrity that Trump himself would.

“I’ve known him for a number of years, not very well, but I like him,” Voight said in an interview. “He’s a doer, and he organizes his thinking to accomplish goals.”

As the bus rolled through Orlando suburbs, Clarke and Voight, who’d just met, chatted genially. Radio hosts Hugh Hewitt and Dennis Prager (who tells crowds Trump was his 17th choice but a better option than Clinton) pecked away at keyboards.

Fox News blared on TVs, and as a Clinton ad featuring Republicans slamming their nominee came on the air, the bus fell silent.

Later in Tampa, just before an event with more than 1,000 people, Dan Frishberg, a local drive-time host for Salem, said of Great America: “I love that they’re doing this. We need it. Anything to help with enthusiasm.”