The super PAC supporting President Trump’s re-election is planning a $10 million advertising spree to attack former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in three Rust Belt states that were crucial to the president’s 2016 victory, officials with the group said on Wednesday.
The announcement about the ads — which will appear in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — came after a growing chorus of complaints from White House officials, campaign aides and a wide range of the president’s allies about a lack of activity from the group, America First. Outside Democratic groups have started airing blistering ads criticizing Mr. Trump’s belated response to the coronavirus and telling Americans that the country needs to elect a leader it “can trust.”
Trump campaign officials have long been frustrated by what they see as lagging fund-raising by America First, which had raised $106 million as of its last filing on Jan. 31. The former head of the Small Business Administration, Linda McMahon, left that post last spring to become the top fund-raiser for the group. The hope was that as a self-made billionaire, Ms. McMahon would be able to make multimillion dollar requests of other donors as a peer. But even with Ms. McMahon at the helm, little has improved, officials say.
Campaign officials also see a clear opportunity in the midst of a pandemic to draw a contrast between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, the likely Democratic nominee, that they think has not been fully capitalized on, and that would typically be a job taken on by the outside group.
“We cannot let Biden hide in the shadows,” Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign manager, said on a conference call with surrogates this week, which was described by a person on the call. “We need to pick up the pace on him.”
Mr. Parscale noted that the current pause in campaigning because of the virus was an opportunity to reach a potentially crucial percentage of voters who hadn’t yet formed an opinion of Mr. Biden. He encouraged surrogates who are going on television to not just praise Mr. Trump’s leadership but to “double down on Biden during this as a contrast.”
Campaign finance rules prohibit coordination between the campaign and the super PAC. But the super PAC has been slow to mount any attack on Mr. Biden, campaign allies and other Republicans said.
“The president has the attention of the entire country right now at an unprecedented level even for him,” said Nicholas Everhart of Medium Buying, a firm that places advertising and tracks spending. “But the flip side of that coin is that TV — particularly cable and broadcast news — ratings are soaring, and attack ads from Unite Our Country and Priorities USA are pummeling the president in a vacuum.”
Unite Our Country is a relatively new group that was set up to support Mr. Biden’s campaign, and Priorities USA has served as the main Democratic super PAC since President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. Both groups have taken to the airwaves with spots aimed at defining Mr. Trump before the general election.
While the pandemic has overshadowed political news, Mr. Everhart added, “it doesn’t mean that the ads running between the constant TV watching going on simply don’t matter or don’t have an impact,” especially when they raise questions about the president’s management of a crisis in real time.
Some Republicans defended America First, saying it had the thankless task of raising money for the president when Mr. Trump and his family members frequently participate in fund-raisers, leaving little incentive for big donors to fork over millions of dollars to the group when they can gain access to the president for far less.
The super PAC has also been spending resources on voter registration efforts, which its defenders said would make a bigger difference on Election Day than airing television commercials now.
“It’s donor malpractice to be spending money on 30-second ads,” said Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, who briefly served as an adviser to the super PAC. “What could you possibly be saying when the president is on television every day and he’s his best messenger?”
Mr. Spicer said the outside group was rightly focused on identifying and registering voters because “that’s what will win this election. Not pissing money away on 30-second ads.”
But for months, Republicans have complained that the super PAC was blasting out emails like one soliciting votes for Mr. Spicer when he appeared as a contestant on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” while donors had little sense of a return on their investment. While Ms. McMahon is a former Senate candidate herself, she was never a strong fund-raiser, according to people who watched her campaigns, and many in her donor network haven’t wanted to chip in.
Brian O. Walsh, the president of America First Action, defended Ms. McMahon. “Linda McMahon is working extremely hard every day to support President Trump,” he said in a statement. “She is an extraordinary leader and huge asset to our organization. Any suggestion otherwise is misguided.”
Officials familiar with the America First plans also noted that when Priorities USA was supporting Mr. Obama’s re-election effort in 2012, did not begin its aggressive ad campaign until May that year.
Democrats have registered the lack of activity. “It has been surprising, given that you have so many donors that are writing seven- and eight-figure checks to the Senate leadership funds, that they’re not doing the same for the Trump campaign,” said Guy Cecil, the chairman of Priorities USA. He said that was probably partly because the campaign itself has been so successful at raising money that big donors “don’t think they have to.”
Mr. Cecil said his decisions about when to go up with advertisements and how much to spend — his group announced another $10 million ad buy on Wednesday and has already spent about $19 million nationwide — were based more on what Mr. Trump was doing in the briefing room than on any moves by the super PAC on the other side that his group was competing against.
“We have a presidential campaign that’s been raising for the general since the beginning, and a president who uses medical press conferences as pep rallies,” Mr. Cecil said, acknowledging that it posed a real challenge for Democrats.
Yet America First faces other problems, several Republicans close to the campaign conceded. One is that it’s a conventionally structured group supporting an unconventional campaign and candidate.
Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist who ran a well-funded super PAC supporting Jeb Bush in 2016, said that one problem for the Trump campaign that no outside group could solve was that Mr. Trump’s main political strategy — slashing and burning — was a tough sell during a national crisis.
“I think that’s probably what they’re frustrated about,” he said. “They don’t have another formula.”
Priorities USA was able to make its mark during the 2012 campaign, the first when super PACs existed, through a series of aggressive ads depicting Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, as a heartless corporate raider. But veterans of the Romney race suggest that the effects of super PACs are overstated.
“The overall impact over the course of the campaign was minimal,” said Kevin Madden, a former Romney campaign adviser. “I doubt anyone who was working or covering that campaign can cite one memorable ad or tactical play from the super PAC that made a difference.”
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