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How Turning Point, a pro-Trump youth group, remade the Arizona GOP

How Turning Point, a pro-Trump youth group, remade the Arizona GOP

The Washington Post

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Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point network worked to purge officials who affirmed the 2020 election results

GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake and Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk on Tuesday in Chandler, Ariz. (Caitlin O’Hara for The Washington Post)
GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake and Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk on Tuesday in Chandler, Ariz. (Caitlin O’Hara for The Washington Post)

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PHOENIX — The young conservative activist had a plan, and he wanted the veteran Arizona House speaker to push it.

The two men huddled at a barbecue joint in January as the activist — Tyler Bowyer, the chief operating officer of the pro-Trump youth group Turning Point USA — unspooled his demands: Republican legislators, he insisted, should carve up booming and fast-diversifying Maricopa County, diluting the power of Democrats in a state that had helped deliver Joe Biden the presidency.

But the Republican House speaker, Rusty Bowers, ultimately balked at redrawing the state’s map to seize partisan advantage. As the pair’s political differences grew, the activist, who was half the speaker’s age, vowed revenge.

“Rusty, I will be working toward ensuring you do not win your election in 2022,” Bowyer warned in a March text message obtained by The Washington Post. “I appreciate your service, I will do whatever it takes to ensure you are retired.”

Soon, the state legislator faced a rush of ridicule on social media and in negative ads as Turning Point’s political arm launched a campaign to “Replace RINO Rusty.” The speaker lost his primary for an open state Senate seat in August to a Turning Point-backed Republican who called the 2020 election a “conspiracy headed up by the Devil himself.”

The takedown of one of the most powerful Republicans in the state illustrates the rise of Turning Point USA and its network of affiliates, which have pushed beyond their core mission of energizing college conservatives to turn Arizona into a laboratory for a new brand of Republican organizing. The decade-old nonprofit organization has helped transform the state GOP, seeking to elevate acolytes of former president Donald Trump and purge old-guard centrists who led in the tradition of the late Republican senator John McCain.

The group’s success is reflected in the Republican midterm election slate — nearly every statewide candidate and many of those farther down the ballot have embraced Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged. The political career of Kari Lake, the state’s GOP gubernatorial nominee, took off at a Turning Point event last year, and she has filled her campaign staff with former Turning Point employees. Lake has promised, if elected, to overhaul how votes are cast and counted in this pivotal swing state.

“They have a bigger impact than any other Republican group I know,” said Jeff DeWit, a former state treasurer in Arizona who served as chief operating officer for both of Trump’s presidential campaigns. “They’re more powerful than the RNC,” he said, referring to the Republican National Committee.

This account of Turning Point’s quest to remake the Arizona Republican Party is based on audio recordings of private meetings, personal messages and interviews with more than 80 people, including current and former Turning Point employees, public officials and their staffers, political consultants and state and local party activists who have interacted with the nonprofit’s leaders. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to share sensitive details or avoid professional reprisal.

The Post review found that Turning Point, which forged an early alliance with the pro-Trump movement in 2016, devised an aggressive strategy to enforce discipline and purity in a divided GOP that was struggling to overcome Democratic gains in the state. The group recruited like-minded activists into the party ranks and often used provocative rhetoric online to pressure old-guard Republicans and “barrage the left,” as one internal document put it, while creating a new political action committee to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into statewide and legislative campaigns.

Nationally, Turning Point solidified its identity in the MAGA era. Like Trump, Turning Point’s leaders gravitate toward messages primed to go viral on social media, including a recent call for a “hero” to bail out of jail the man accused of assaulting the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Founder Charlie Kirk, now 29, was the 10th-biggest “superspreader” of misinformation about the 2020 election on Twitter, according to the Election Integrity Partnership, a consortium of researchers. Kirk encouraged his followers to attend the Jan. 6, 2021, rally that preceded the assault on the U.S. Capitol, and a website promoting the rally listed Turning Point Action, the group’s political arm, as a backer.

The Attack: The Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol was neither a spontaneous act nor an isolated event

With more than $65 million in annual revenue, more than 400 employees and a massive network of conservative influencers, Turning Point’s vast network exerts its influence through a dizzying array of mediums, from podcasts to social media to concert-like rallies, funded by GOP mega-donors and aimed at younger generations.

Kirk is a prolific fundraiser, using his connections in Trump’s inner circle to fete donors at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida. But it’s Bowyer, 37, who translates that influence and those resources into raw political power in Arizona, a state increasingly setting the tone for the national GOP.

Kirk and Bowyer declined to comment for this report. Andrew Kolvet, a spokesman for Turning Point USA and its affiliates, said that both men effectively channel conservative interests and that the group’s years-long work in Arizona is “bearing significant fruit in 2022.” Kolvet sought to distance Turning Point from some of Bowyer’s political advocacy, which he said was undertaken in Bowyer’s “capacity as a Republican Party leader.”

In a private meeting with conservative activists this year, Bowyer remarked on his role at Turning Point by calling himself “the guy that basically runs everything,” according to an audio recording obtained by The Post. At another point in the conversation, he boasted of his enthusiasm for political confrontation: “I have giant balls.”

Forged in the MAGA movement

It was January 2015, and a pivotal presidential election loomed.

Bowyer had just started to work for Turning Point as part of its expansion in Arizona and other parts of the West. He was also elected chair of the Maricopa County GOP, promising to revolutionize the party by recruiting a new generation of volunteers at the lowest levels of the party — a strategy now at the center of pro-Trump organizing.

Bowyer, who touts that his family has lived in Arizona for seven generations, had long chafed at the conventional party apparatus and longed for one more willing to push boundaries. As a student at Arizona State University, he earned the adoration of tea party activists when he ridiculed Gov. Jan Brewer (R) for expanding the state’s Medicaid program.

In the summer of 2015, Bowyer received a call from Trump’s campaign manager, who was trying to schedule a small gathering in Phoenix but was facing pushback from Republican state leaders who had recoiled at Trump’s style and uncompromising approach to immigration, according to a person familiar with the call.

The young activist and others helped organize and promote a rally that attracted thousands on a sweltering July day. Bowyer warmed up the crowd ahead of Trump’s 90-minute speech.

In the final months of the campaign, Kirk, then 22, took a leave from Turning Point to travel the country with Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., 38 at the time. They focused on events tailored to students and appeared at a Fox News town hall aimed at millennials.

As they campaigned in the Phoenix area, Bowyer recorded a video of Trump Jr. helping a stranded motorist and pushing a car in triple-digit heat. He posted it on Twitter, writing, “This is why I’m voting Trump!” The message, which has been viewed more than half a million times, made clear to Turning Point leaders the online appetite for pro-Trump content.

Trump went on to win Arizona in 2016, and Republicans swept other races. Turning Point and the Make America Great Again movement fell into a well-defined symbiosis: Kirk and his associates helped amplify Trump’s messages on social media, and the group’s fundraising exploded.

In 2018, Kirk relocated his enterprise from the Chicago suburbs, where he was raised, to a two-story headquarters in a Phoenix office park. The sprawling facility includes a television studio where several live-stream shows are filmed, near a wall decorated with a huge American flag and pennants from dozens of college campuses.

An opening ceremony drew big names from across the Republican Party’s ideological divide, including Gov. Doug Ducey. Bowyer, who had recently had been promoted to chief operating officer, addressed the crowd.

“One thing I hope that you take away from today,” he said, “is that you see all of the wonderful things that are happening across the country in the name of conservatism.”

A rival to the GOP mainstream

Within months, Arizona Republicans were in crisis. Democrats had swept the 2018 midterm election, flipping a U.S. Senate seat, the secretary of state’s office and races down the ballot. Arizona had quickly gone from a conservative stronghold to a true swing state. Turning Point leaders and other conservatives saw it as confirmation that the state party needed a dramatically different strategy.

Bowyer viewed the results as affirmation of his long-standing philosophy: “If the Republican Party doesn’t do its job, you know, then the Republican Party has to go,” he said in the private meeting with activists this year, according to audio obtained by The Post.

Kolvet, the Turning Point spokesman, declined to elaborate on Bowyer’s comments but said, “Turning Point is confident Mr. Bowyer had the best interest of the conservative movement and the organization in mind.”

In January 2019, party members gathered in a Phoenix church to pick their next leader.

Bowyer threw his support behind Kelli Ward, a former state senator who had unsuccessfully run for U.S. Senate twice and had publicized her disdain for the establishment wing of the party. She pledged to recruit MAGA Republicans as foot soldiers and oversee a transformation of the state party.

Bowyer worked the room that day with help from Jake Hoffman, a Turning Point consultant. Hoffman ran a marketing firm that worked for a PAC that had supported Ward’s failed Senate bids.

Ward prevailed over a McCain ally, and Hoffman helped her transition into the role of party chair. When Republicans wanted to reach Ward, they started with Hoffman, whose businesses have remained key vendors for the state party, according to campaign finance records.

As the state’s top Republicans kept their distance from Ward, Turning Point saw an opportunity. Her title gave Turning Point credibility.

Ward, in a statement, called Hoffman and Bowyer “friends and allies” and “two of the most righteous people I know.”

Hoffman, a former school board member and town councilman, was listed on Turning Point’s staff directory through at least early 2019. In 2020, The Post revealed that he was running a deceptive online operation for Turning Point’s political arm in which teenagers peppered the internet with pro-Trump messaging, some using fake accounts. Hoffman defended the practice at the time.

Over the years, Hoffman has been an administrator for the Facebook pages of Turning Point, Kirk and Trump Jr., according to a person familiar with the setup. Hoffman did not dispute the details of his social media work for Trump Jr. or Turning Point, saying that he was “happy to consult with the organization.”

That fall, Hoffman won a race for the Arizona House, giving Turning Point an ally in the statehouse.

Turning Point was no longer on the GOP’s fringes. It was at the party’s center.

‘Repercussions could be big’

In 2020, Turning Point told donors its task was activating young voters, registering thousands to vote and delivering Arizona and other swing states to Trump, according to documents obtained by The Post.

The group aimed to capitalize on the electorate’s intensifying distrust of government, media and political parties, the documents show. Opportunities to do so expanded with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Kirk argued that the “China Virus” proved the need for Trump’s promised wall on the southern border, and text messages sent by Turning Point Action falsely claimed that the government was “sending goons DOOR-TO-DOOR to make you take a covid-19 vaccine.”

When Trump resumed holding large campaign events, Turning Point Action’s Students for Trump helped pack Phoenix’s Dream City Church for a June 2020 rally. Outside, police in riot gear clashed with protesters. Inside, the megachurch’s cavernous auditorium offered refuge from mask mandates.

Ahead of the election, Turning Point Action touted its “round-the-clock Digital War-Room to promote content we create and constantly barrage the left online,” according to a slide deck obtained by The Post. It seized on divisive culture-war issues such as how race is taught in public schools, the rights of transgender individuals and illegal immigration.

But Trump lost Arizona — the first time a Republican presidential candidate had ceded the state since 1996. Quickly, Turning Point became a linchpin of Trump’s efforts to deny his defeat and reverse his loss.

Bowyer, elected that year to the Republican National Committee, gathered with Hoffman and Ward at the state party’s headquarters on Dec. 14, 2020, the day the state’s presidential electors met to cast their votes for Biden, according to state party tweets. As part of a seven-state plan, the trio signed paperwork falsely declaring themselves the state’s electors. That plan is now a focus of congressional investigators and prosecutors probing Trump’s quest to stay in power.

On Twitter, the state party asked followers whether they would be willing to die to keep Trump in the White House. Another post proposed “contempt & jail time” for county officials who affirmed Biden’s win.

The posts alarmed Trey Terry, 35, a conservative who lives near a Republican county official who had helped oversee the election and was facing death threats as a result. Terry urged Bowyer to help tone down the messaging in a private exchange over Twitter that was obtained by The Post.

“His kids and wife can’t go anywhere without being harassed as they go in and out of their house,” Terry wrote, describing the county official’s experience. “That s— is out of line. So it’s hard for me to ignore.”

Bowyer responded that while he had sympathy for the county official, elected leaders must adhere to the party’s platform and “repercussions could be big for those who aren’t on the same page with the party.”

Terry accused party leaders of “whipping” up activists “based on zero evidence” of widespread fraud. Bowyer did not disagree but suggested that his approach is the reason for Turning Point’s success.

“I didn’t build a 45 million dollar a year organization,” he wrote, by “misunderstanding the base.”

Meanwhile, Turning Point Action arranged for seven buses to take 350 activists from several states to D.C. for the Jan. 6, 2021, rally near the White House, according to three people familiar with the rally planning. Bowyer and Kirk have been interviewed by the House committee investigating the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol that followed the rally, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Austin Smith, a Turning Point Action employee, tweeted a photo of himself speaking to “thousands of patriots” at a rally in Washington on Jan. 5.

“Don’t get comfortable,” he wrote in a since-deleted tweet. “Fight like hell.”

Kolvet, the Turning Point spokesman, said the group’s involvement that day was “isolated to the president’s speech at the Ellipse.”

In the months that followed, Maricopa County became a hotbed of unsupported claims about the election, and Trump allies launched a haphazard review of the results, over the objection of county officials and election experts.

The next year, Bowyer tried to convince Bowers, the Arizona House speaker, that the party needed to intensify its efforts to maintain power, Bowers said.

With a map in hand, the activist zeroed in on sprawling Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and 60 percent of the state’s voters, and called for breaking it into four counties, one that would concentrate most Democrats and three that would favor Republicans.

Hoffman, the marketing consultant close to Turning Point who was elected to the state House in 2020, introduced legislation to make it happen — but the opposition of legislative leadership ensured its demise.

A few months later, the speaker testified before the U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. Bowers detailed Trump’s attempts to overturn the election and his own decision to resist, intensifying the attacks from Turning Point influencers.

Alone in Washington, Rusty Bowers tells world what happened in Arizona

Turning Point expanded its political operation this year with a new PAC under Bowyer’s direction. The group has unleashed more than $415,000 in Arizona since July, according to state records, and has reported more than $600,000 in spending to the Federal Election Commission. About half of its spending in Arizona has boosted Lake after a bitter primary that pitted her against the party establishment, including the governor. But the money has also extended to legislative races in which spending is traditionally restrained. Hundreds of thousands of dollars went to Hoffman’s firm, records show.

The PAC helped a crew of far-right candidates win primary contests in state races, including Steve Montenegro, who helped coordinate bombastic election-denying messaging during the review of Maricopa County’s 2020 ballots; Liz Harris, who routinely spreads election falsehoods; and Smith, the Turning Point Action enterprise director who spoke at a D.C. rally the day before the insurrection.

Turning Point has played a wide-ranging role in Lake’s campaign, and former Turning Point staffers have filled key positions on her campaign, including a top adviser and a former press secretary. This summer, Lake said on Twitter that her daughter was involved with the group. In fact, she’s a full-time Turning Point employee, according to two people familiar with the matter.

“Turning Point has been essential in turning … enthusiasm into a tsunami of activists that naturally flock to candidates like Kari Lake,” Caroline Wren, a senior adviser on the Lake campaign, said in a statement.

Election deniers march toward power in key 2024 battlegrounds

Lake’s rise also created new opportunities for Hoffman, whose firm was paid about $2.3 million by a pro-Lake super PAC, according to state records. A complaint about the source of the PAC’s funding is under review by the Maricopa County elections department. Hoffman said his company is “routinely contracted” for such work because it is “one of the leading creative agencies in Arizona.”

Lake, a former television anchor, gained MAGA stardom at a Turning Point Action candidate forum in the summer of 2021, when she urged the crowd not to forget about the 2020 election. When Trump spoke on the same stage and name-checked Lake, the room erupted in applause. He cocked his head and clapped. “This could be a big night for you,” he said.

One year later, Lake won the Republican primary and celebrated at a victory party at a Scottsdale resort. On the lush lawn, young women in semiformal dresses and strappy heels lined up for photos. Music blared from inside a ballroom as partygoers snapped selfies. The scene, reminiscent of a graduation party or school dance, highlighted how Turning Point has thrust young people to the center of the state party’s transformation.

One is Carrera Horan, 18, who attended the Turning Point summit that elevated Lake and watches Kirk’s videos on Instagram. “He tells you what you need to be hearing rather than just what you would want to hear,” she said.

Daniel Fuentes, 25, joined his Christian university’s Turning Point chapter, which offered a ready-made friend group. He tunes in to Kirk’s radio show every day on Spotify.

Fuentes is volunteering for Lake’s campaign, and he attended a recent Turning Point canvassing event at a Mesa park, one of 200 that the group says it has hosted nationally this cycle. With the smell of chicken roasting in barbecue pits wafting through the air, he listened intently as Bowyer spoke of the need to “rebrand the conservative movement and the Republican Party as a hope for a future generation.”

Fuentes argued that “Democrat clubs on college campuses are not doing this. Liberal, woke, feminist clubs, they’re not out there telling people: ‘Let’s go out and knock doors. Let’s go out and, you know, sign up to be a precinct [committeeman].’”

The midterms will test whether Turning Point can win races or just disrupt them.

After winning the primary, Lake quickly made overtures to the state’s GOP establishment.

When Bowyer learned that Lake was meeting with a former state GOP chairman who had been close to McCain, he erupted at her during a phone call as she traveled on a donor’s plane, warning that the base would turn against her, according to three people who heard about his comments.

Lake was unfazed, these people said. Kolvet said Lake and Bowyer “maintain a great relationship.”

With a growing number of well-placed allies, Turning Point is poised to again push election-related legislation favorable to Republicans ahead of 2024. A preview of that came last week when Lake promoted a legislative proposal from Hoffman to punish media outlets that mistakenly report election results.

The Turning Point strategy, said Kirk Adams, a top Republican operative in the state and Gov. Ducey’s former chief of staff, is “all geared toward 2024,” aimed at elevating GOP officials at every level who could thwart an election outcome unfavorable to the party. “Get a compliant governor,” Adams said, describing the strategy. “Get a compliant secretary of state. Get compliant legislative leadership.”

Turning Point’s leaders are looking ahead to 2024. The group’s political arm has hosted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), widely seen as a possible presidential contender, at rallies aimed at high-stakes races in Arizona and beyond.

Lake has embraced the title of “DeSantis of the West.” Others view her as a potential vice-presidential contender. For the moment, she wants to be governor — and if she wins, it will be with Turning Point’s help.

One week before the election, a Kirk aide — who also works as Lake’s deputy field director — kicked off a rally outside a steakhouse in suburban Chandler by praising both of her bosses. Once on stage, Kirk and Lake embraced.

“Kari’s really special,” Kirk said.

“Thank you for the compliment. I’ll take it,” the candidate said. “… We have to tune in to people like Charlie.”

Jacqueline Alemany, Alice Crites, Josh Dawsey and Beth Reinhard contributed to this report.





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