Prior to Donald Trump’s 1 a.m. Twitter rant last month raging against the “group of RINO Republican…loser types” at the “so-called Lincoln Project,” Ben Howe, a video editor and one of the top creative minds behind the super PAC’s notorious anti-Trump ads, had avoided associating himself with the group. “I didn’t publicly acknowledge my involvement until the president went after our ‘Mourning in America’ ad,” Howe told me during a phone interview, referencing a viral Lincoln Project spot blasting the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. “Once he did that—well, it had been my personal mission to have him call me a loser someday. So, I was like, Okay, I can’t stay quiet anymore.”
Like the Lincoln Project’s other members, Howe—the creative mind, video editor, and, he said, sometimes narrating voice on many of the group’s ads—spent years supporting conservative policies and working on various Republican campaigns. In December, in an effort to help ensure Trump doesn’t win a second term, Howe joined forces with Rick Wilson, a Defense Department appointee under then secretary Dick Cheney and GOP strategist who contributed to Rudy Giuliani’s winning mayoral ad campaigns; George Conway, a Washington attorney and husband of top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway who in 2017 was considered for a number of Justice Department posts before turning on the White House; Steve Schmidt, a top strategist for George W. Bush’s 2004 bid, operations chief for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, and campaign manager for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2006 reelection bid for California governor; and John Weaver, the chief strategist for John Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign. Considered turncoats due to their shared opposition to Trump, the group united under the name of Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, and formed a super PAC with the explicit goal of preventing Trump from being reelected by swaying swing voters and moderate Republicans—and pissing him off in the process.
Howe first honed his skills as an ad creator working for the anti-Obama Tea Party movement. He launched his political ad-making career after his business, a trademark-research firm, went under during the recession. In 2010, he created a video promoting the Tea Party for RedState, a conservative website where his brother, Caleb Howe, wrote at the time. Following the clip’s semi-viral success, Howe was contracted by FreedomWorks, a Koch-founded advocacy group that played a major role in astroturfing the Tea Party wave, for another video. His success, he said, resulted in him working with the Heritage Foundation on video proposals of their own. His new company, Mister Smith Media, which he told me is named after the 1939 political dramedy starring Jimmy Stewart, went on to craft online clips and ads for Ted Cruz’s inaugural Senate campaign, which has arguably proven to be the Tea Party’s most enduring success in Washington.
In subsequent years, Howe told me his company continued to make videos for Heritage, National Review, and Senator John Cornyn, another Texas Republican. He didn’t predict, nor was he prepared for, the rise of Trump, but for him it represented a breaking point. During the 2016 election, he vowed to phone bank for Hillary Clinton if Trump won the nomination. He subsequently created an oppo documentary about the Trump campaign titled The Sociopath “in January of that year before I even left the party,” he said.