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When he was executive director during the heyday of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed appeared to enjoy talking about organizing and conducting stealth campaigns to get conservatives elected to as many political offices in as many states as possible. In an early nineties interview with Norfolk, Virginia's Virginian-Pilot, Reed said: "I want to be invisible. I paint my face and travel at night. You don't know it's over until you're in a body bag. You don't know until election night." To the Los Angeles Times, he later explained stealth as akin to "guerrilla warfare. If you reveal your location, all it does is allow your opponent to improve his artillery bearings. It's better to move quietly, with stealth, under the cover of night."
Flash forward two-+-decades, and Charlie Kirk, founder of the conservative group, Turning Point USA, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, has initiated his own version of stealth campaigns in order to try and seize power on college and university campuses across the nation; campuses he describes as "islands of totalitarianism."
In the book Time for a Turning Point, co-authored by Turning Point USA Board Member, Brent Hamachek, they indicated that he wanted to make Turning Point "the MoveOn.org of the right." As The Chronicle of Higher Education's Michael Vasquez pointed out, since its founding, Kirk has moved up in conservative ranks, boosting his own public profile, and receiving donations from high-powered, longtime GOP supporters, including Foster Friess, a major conservative Christian evangelical donor. The organization's budget went from $52,000 in 2012 to $5.5 million last year, according to Kirk's book.
According to Vasquez, Kirk has a launched a "secret counteroffensive" aimed at "getting young conservatives elected to student government" positions.
Why put so much effort and money into battles over student governance?
Vasquez pointed out in a story titled "Inside a Stealth Plan for Political Influence," that Kirk "noted that at large universities, student-government budgets can be as much as tens of millions of dollars. And student leaders increasingly have the bully pulpit to champion certain causes – whether progressive issues like divesting college endowments from fossil fuels, or conservative priorities like the elimination of free-speech restrictions."
In addition, "there are potential off-campus perks" as well, including working with legislators to craft education policies. According to Vasquez, "a student body president at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Marcus Fotenos, helped persuade state legislators to pass a bill outlawing 'free-speech zones' on campus." Free-speech zones stifle unpopular points of view argue conservatives.
Being an elected student official may also pave the way for a future in politics.
Founded in 2012, early on, Turning Point became known for its Professor Watchlist website, on which it "lists faculty members" that it deems to have a "radical" agenda. "It's no secret that some of America's college professors are totally out of line," Kirk wrote in a blog post, adding it is "time to expose them."
The Professor Watchlist says it will "continue to fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish" but states "students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls."
On some campuses, Turning Point was said to have offered conservative candidates thousands of dollars to get their campaigns off the ground.
The organization has had some electoral successes and some monumental failures. They've won victories at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. They've lost, or had their candidates drop out, after revelations of Turning Point's involvement at Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, University of Maryland at College Park, the University of Oregon, the University of South Florida and the University of Virginia.
At a couple of colleges, Vasquez pointed out, "the organization's contributions leaked out … and the abrupt withdrawal of the affiliated candidates."
In an interview, Vasquez told Ring of Fire's Sam Seder that Turning Point says "that they have a presence in more than 1000 college campuses around the country. They've done a lot of things, from inviting controversial speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos to campus to being involved in the larger free speech debate on campus."
While a typical campus campaign might cost a few hundred bucks and consist of a handful of minor promotional materials, including giving away t-shirts, key chains, and other small-time gifts, a Turning Point campaign runs of much bigger bucks. Kirk told an audience at the David Horowitz Freedom Center that his group provides a suite of professional services to its chosen students.
"You would be amazed," Kirk said. "You spend $5,000 on a race, you can win. You could retake a whole college or university."
Despite Kirk's denial of involvement in elections, a number of e-mails and recorded conversations, surfaced by The Chronicle of Higher Education, appears to indicate that the organization has been deeply involved in some campaigns. "A huge part of what Turning Point does, that's really important to the donors, is running these student-government races," Alana Mastrangelo, Turning Point's heartland regional director, said in a recorded phone call, regarding an election at Ohio State University. "Keep it, like, on the DL," she said. "Like hard-core on the DL, because Turning Point in general has a huge reputation for being really conservative. They're starting to call us the alt-right."
In an introduction to a Turning Point video, The Heartland Institute, a conservative public policy center, wrote that "Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk shares a vision for America's future embracing first principles, free markets, and small government."
Called a "conservative Boy Wonder" by Bloomberg News, Kirk is definitely a rising star in the Republican Party. He's made numerous appearances on Fox News, he delivered a speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention and teamed up with Donald Trump Jr. to campaign for Donald Trump.