As Republican presidential candidates converge on Milwaukee for the first debate Wednesday evening, a new $2 million advertising campaign is sending them a message: “I’m a Republican. I support Ukraine.”

Ten billboards featuring Republican voters in favor of continued aid to Ukraine have been plastered across the city, including two blocks away from Fiserv Forum, the venue for Wednesday’s debate. TV ads with the same message will debut on Fox News during debate coverage. And a series of YouTube ads and online testimonials will circle airwaves through the end of the year.

One of those testimonials was recorded by George Graff, a St. George, Utah resident, who is a lifelong Republican and 41-year U.S. military veteran. Graff got involved with the campaign after seeing members of his party oppose continued support for Ukraine.

“I realized really quickly that Ukraine is fighting the war that we never had to,” Graff said in an interview with the Deseret News. “By Putin starting that war, he’s really starting a war against the West and against us.”

The campaign, called “Republicans for Ukraine,” is a project of Defending Democracy Together, a 501(c)(4) launched by Bill Kristol and Sarah Longwell, co-founders of the news outlet The Bulwark. Previous projects funded by Defending Democracy Together include “Republicans for the Rule of Law,” which encouraged Republicans to “demand the facts” during former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, and the “Republican Accountability Project,” an ongoing initiative to hold Republican officeholders who attempted to overturn the 2020 election accountable.

John Conway, director of strategy for Republicans for Ukraine, said the project is being funded by a “diverse group of donors across the political spectrum” with a common interest in “being a pro-democratic force in our politics.” Conservative critics of Kristol and The Bulwark, however, have pointed to large left-of-center donors who have supported Kristol’s efforts in the recent past.

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The war in Ukraine has become a sharp dividing line among Republican presidential hopefuls. Among the candidates who will be onstage Wednesday, two of them — former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — visited Ukraine this summer and met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Both support continued U.S. military aid to Ukraine, as do former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

However, Trump’s two leading challengers in most national polls — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — have staked out non-interventionist positions.

In a Fox News interview in March, DeSantis called the war a “territorial dispute.” The governor later walked back his comments, but continues to insist defending Ukraine is not a national security priority.

Ramaswamy claims aiding Ukraine does not advance American interests. He proposes pulling U.S. troops from Eastern Europe and ceding portions of Ukraine to Russia in exchange for a cease-fire. “I think that by fighting further in Russia, by further arming Ukraine, we are driving Russia into China’s hands,” Ramaswamy told ABC News.

And Trump, who leads the Republican field by more than 40 percentage points in many national polls, has said President Joe Biden’s support of Ukraine is “dragging us further toward World War III” and claimed that the U.S. is sending so much aid “that we don’t have ammunition for ourselves.” Some Ukrainian civilians, fearing a second Trump term, have started learning how to build their own weapons, Politico reported Monday.

In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, second left, listens to former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, right, during their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, June 29, 2023. | Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via Associated Press

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, a growing share of Republican voters have become skeptical of the U.S.’ involvement. According to a Pew Research Center survey, in March 2022, 49% of Republican voters said the U.S. was not providing enough support to Ukraine, while just 9% said the U.S. was providing too much. By June 2023, those figures had nearly switched: 14% said the U.S. was not providing enough, while 44% said it was too much.

While the American populace at large has become increasingly skeptical of U.S. aid for Ukraine, there continues to be a huge partisan split: a SSRS/CNN poll conducted last month found that 71% of Republicans oppose further aid from Congress, while 62% of Democrats support more funding.

But there is still support for Ukraine among Republicans in Congress. In Salt Lake City Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized President Biden’s response to the war effort — “He’s never done anything as quickly as he should” — but also praised U.S. support, stating: “Putin has already lost.”

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At a Orrin G. Hatch Foundation awards dinner, where McConnell and his wife Elaine Chao, a former labor and transportation secretary, McConnell spoke about the importance of strengthening NATO, and said financial support for Ukraine amounts to a tiny sliver of the American gross domestic product. Much of that spending is done in America to build up weapons support, he continued, countering the argument that the U.S. spends too much.

But McConnell doesn’t speak for many in his party, who have taken a harder line on spending for the war.

“It is just astounding that we have representatives and senators that are in any way challenging this, and I can’t — for the life of me — figure the basis for it,” Graff said. “I’m so concerned about it, I’m willing to do whatever I can to contribute to any effort to counter that.”

Conway noted that public opinion polling — which showed slipping Republican support for Ukraine — inspired the TV ads and billboards. “That’s why we’re starting the project: to kind of create permission structures with Republican voters to continue supporting democracy at home and abroad,” Conway said.

One Milwaukee billboard shows Mike Beverly, a North Carolina lawyer, with the message “GOP: STAND UP TO PUTIN.”

“I came up in the Cold War,” Beverly told the Deseret News. “I registered as a Republican to vote. I cast my first vote for Ronald Reagan. The Republican Party always stood by its NATO allies.”

Beverly’s work took him to Eastern Europe, and as he developed friendships there he saw the influence of Republican foreign policy. “Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. are still heroes in those parts of the world, because of how steadfast they stood for democracy and against authoritarianism,” he said. “And to see the party drifting away from that ... position, pro-democracy and anti-authoritarianism, it suddenly seems to be anti-Ukraine and even worse, pro-Putin.”

“My support will go toward someone who supports Ukraine,” Beverly continued. “It is not the only issue, but it is a significant issue.”