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Who is the group behind the Donald Trump 'BIG MISTAKE' billboard?

The sign caught the eye of Minnesota drivers on Highway 52.

"BIG MISTAKE."

The words jump off the white billboard, and lead the eyes of anyone reading it right to the picture of a smiling President Donald Trump. 

The sign was spotted along Highway 52 near Hampton, Minnesota, back in October. That's in Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District, an area that's gone Republican for many recent elections.

Interest in the Trump billboard was rekindled after it was shared on Twitter by user @PaladinCornelia on Dec. 31. 

It's not the only time that particular elevated billboard has been used this way. Another version read simply "Clueless," with the president's face in the same place.

At the bottom of each is what looks like the group responsible for placing the billboards: Republicans for Honesty in Government. That's not the official Republican Party of Minnesota, nor is it a particularly large, active group.

In fact, Google "Republicans for Honesty in Government" and you'll find ... next to nothing. So who exactly are they?

Who's behind Republicans for Honesty in Government?

They're not the easiest to find.

"Republicans for Honesty in Government" does not show up on a Minnesota Campaign Finance Board website search.

It is also not on a list of political committees registered with the board, nor is it in the Federal Elections Commissions database.

It does, however, show up on the IRS website, having registered in 2004 as a 527 political organization – though with no campaign spending records to speak of listed on OpenSecrets.

It also pops up as a nonprofit on the Minnesota Secretary of State's website, as Twitter user @TacoMachine points out. It was registered in '06, dissolved a few years later, but was reinstated in March of 2017.

And listed as head of Republicans for Honesty in Government?

Meet Robert Johnson

One name behind the group is Robert Johnson, founder and president of AEI Capital Corporation based in St. Paul.

GoMN reached Johnson by phone at his office Wednesday morning, and asked about the billboards, as well as Republicans for Honesty in Government.

Johnson, now 73 years old, said years ago he leaned Republican, and voted at times for conservative candidates. Over the past 14 years or so, campaign records show he has given to DFL candidates, as Bluestem Prairie noted.

What caused the switch? A shift by the Republican Party to the far right, he said.

“My political position was staked out decades ago and has not changed," he told GoMN. "What has changed is the positions of the parties and their platforms.”

It's a pattern that places such as the Washington Post have written about, and researchers including Pew have measured it in the views of Americans.

Johnson said that in 2004, he and couple of others started Republicans for Honesty in Government. They didn't do much then, and were inactive for awhile. But in recent months the group began revving the engine again, frustrated with the quality of the presidency and party candidates.

The billboards, he explained, are a reminder to voters in Minnesota (particularly conservatives) "to be thoughtful about the fact that every vote does count, and who they put in office does matter." Whether it's Trump himself, or others who share similar values.

The billboard messages aren't going anywhere

The billboard posters aren't just to bash Trump, Johnson said. 

But he hopes they get voters "to maybe rub their chin metaphorically a little bit and wonder, what kind of decisions are we making?"

The giant messages also aren't going anywhere.

Johnson said Republicans for Honesty in Government plans to keep the one along Highway 52 up through 2020 if possible. And they're scouting more potential locations where a similar message might be effective.

The "BIG MISTAKE." one will actually be swapped out soon, he said, with a new message about "millions" for some and "pennies" for others, meant to remind people of the recent tax reform package.

"And," Johnson said, "to possibly spend a little time thinking about whether or not the man who’s in office right now really was the best choice, and should he continue to be there."

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