Oct 27, 2020 - Economy

Scoop: The Lincoln Project is becoming a media business

Illustration of microphone wearing a stove pipe Lincoln hat

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The Lincoln Project is looking to beef up its media business after the election, sources tell Axios.

Driving the news: The group is in talks with the United Talent Agency (UTA) to help build out Lincoln Media and is weighing offers from different television studios, podcast networks and book publishers.

Why it matters: Lincoln's plan is part of the new trend of activists developing massive audiences for political influence that they are then able to spin into commercial media success.

  • Flashback: After the 2016 campaign, former Obama staffers launched Crooked Media, which now boasts a sprawling network of podcasts, streaming video, live tours and events.

Catch up quick: The Lincoln group, which is run by prominent "Never-Trumper" Republicans like Ron Steslow, Rick Wilson, George Conway, Jennifer Horn, Reed Galen, Mike Madrid and Steve Schmidt, has transformed from an election-focused advertising PAC into a media company with millions of followers.

  • Already, its main account boasts a following bigger than the GOP's main account and the main accounts of groups like Crooked Media on Twitter.
  • To date, it has focused its media efforts mostly on podcasts and streaming, with some experiments in newsletters and enormous success selling merchandise.
  • "As a media business, we're putting a pretty big bet on the idea that they know how to get audiences," says Ra Kumar, a UTA agent who represents the Lincoln Project's Rick Wilson.
  • Kumar notes that the level of outreach UTA has received about Hollywood firms wanting to work with the project has been unprecedented.
  • To that end, the group recently launched a new ad campaign promoting a music video it made for Demi Lovato’s new song, “Commander in Chief."

Details: The group, formed in late 2019, has been approached by several media and entertainment companies and podcast platforms looking to launch franchises from its brand. .

  • The group is currently working with a documentarian and a motion picture producer to create a non-fiction film after the election.
  • It's also attracted interest from TV studios looking to work with the Lincoln Project to help develop a "House of Cards"-like fiction series.
  • One source notes that a few linear TV networks have indicated interest in having Lincoln Project's streaming show "LPTV" on their networks.
  • UTA has a long-standing relationship with Rick Wilson working in partnership with his literary managers at Fletcher & Company.

By the numbers: The Lincoln Project's current media efforts were never meant to be spun out into independent media ventures, but they've grown quickly enough to catch the attention of Hollywood heavyweights.

  • The Lincoln Project podcast, which launched in mid-June, has consistently been ranked as one of the top podcasts on Apple in news and politics. It sees roughly 1.5 million downloads per month, and is on track to hit 2 million downloads in October.
  • LPTV, which streams on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, includes two shows, "The Breakdown," hosted by senior advisor Tara Setmayer and co-founder Rick Wilson, and" Vote for America," hosted by co-founder Jennifer Horn. The company says it had 16 million views so far across both shows.
  • Its gear store has already fulfilled 70,000 orders accounting for more than $1.8 million in total sales through mid-October, $670,000 of which the group says is profit.
  • In terms of staffing, the group has 4 full-time staffers working on its podcast, and several more working on its TV shows.

Between the lines: The group has poured millions of dollars into pithy anti-Trump advertising spots, all of which have been produced in-house.

  • Its media success has helped it secure record levels of fundraising, making it one of the top outside spenders of the 2020 election. Those media channels have also helped it lure thousands of small-dollar donations from fans, which is notable, given that most big political PACs are floated almost exclusively by donors with big pockets.

Be smart: For the Lincoln Project, becoming a media entity happened serendipitously, but it's been helpful in accomplishing its advocacy goals nonetheless.

  • "We discovered in doing research that voters are getting lots of information from streaming and podcasts," says Rick Wilson, veteran Republican strategist and co-founder of the Lincoln Project.
  • "We decided to build those things as advocacy vectors. We didn't set out to become a media company, but we've inadvertently become a content creation machine."

Yes, but: The group will face new scrutiny as it further explores media.

  • Already, it's being criticized by the online left for stealing memes without attribution.
  • Its brand of Republicanism may have a limited future in a country where Trump has long commanded unquestioning support from vast swathes of the GOP.
  • It may also have difficulty sustaining interest after Election Day.

What's next: For now, the group's immediate focus is next week's election. But in its effort to defeat "Trumpism," a culture of blind loyalty to the president, the group says it will be pushing harder into media products that help it speak to centrists.

Editor's note: This post has been updated to correct that the Lincoln Project is in talks with UTA. A previous version said they'd signed with UTA.

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