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Feb 2, 2024, 1:51pm EST
politics

Charlie Kirk’s strategy: Fight every culture war, win every election

Founder and executive director of Turning Point USA Charlie Kirk speaks at the opening of the Turning Point Action conference on July 15, 2023, in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Getty Images/Joe Raedle
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The Scene

LAS VEGAS – In a Planet Hollywood hotel ballroom, a few steps away from the Criss Angel Theater, around 200 Republican Party activists worked on their battle plans. The Republican National Committee would not save them. They would save themselves.

“No more culture of losing,” Turning Point USA CEO and co-founder Charlie Kirk told an audience of RNC members, GOP county chairs, and plugged-in activists. “Embrace Donald Trump. Don’t fight Donald Trump. Embrace what he’s brought to the party. It’s a populist, people-centered movement, and this is what the oligarchs fear the most.”

The two-day Restoring National Confidence summit was built to tweak Ronna McDaniel’s party committee, whose 168 members were about to meet in another hotel on the strip. Both meetings unfolded as the RNC released its weakest yearly fundraising numbers of McDaniel’s tenure.

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TPUSA, with annual revenue not far off the RNC’s, had been building an alternative power base for years. It advocated non-stop “relational” organizing, developing an app that its allies could use to find votes. It had identified low-propensity voters — “disengaged voters,” as Arizona RNC member Tyler Bowyer called them — and put their information in binders for conference attendees. And it had built an influential media network, including Kirk’s show, which revels in the weekly churn of cultural battles that obsess the young, online right.

One host last week had expounded at length on the potential “psyop” of the Kansas City Chiefs making it to the Super Bowl and Taylor Swift endorsing Joe Biden — a topic that came up several times on stage in Las Vegas. Democrats, explained Bowyer and pundit Jack Posobiec, would use Swift’s fame to engage those lower-propensity, low-information voters.

The same week, Kirk had caused his own uproar by lashing out about diversity efforts at airlines — “I’m sorry, if I see a Black pilot, I’m going to be like boy I hope he’s qualified,” he said on his show — and posting at length about the criminal records of the Central Park Five, after one of them, the recently elected New York City Council Member Youssef Salem, was pulled over by police. Earlier in the month, he’d commemorated Martin Luther King Jr. Day by remarking upon the civil rights leader’s “awful” personal life. The comments drove shocked media coverage — and, according to Kirk, getting no blowback “outside of one donor.”

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David’s view

Kirk’s group started as an effort to supercharge conservative outreach to young people. But the Vegas conference was a reminder of how vastly its kingmaking ambitions within the Republican party have grown. The fact that Kirk and Turning Point’s stable of podcasters have become some of the MAGA movement’s premier podcasting shock jocks has, if anything, appeared to help that effort, building its credibility among the GOP base at a moment the RNC is shedding its own.

One year ago, Kirk and the more rebellious RNC members took a run at McDaniel and lost. The chair won a fourth term with 111 votes, to 54 for California RNC member Harmeet Dhillon and four for MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. McDaniel, at the time, chided Kirk and Dhillon for “trying to take over the RNC,” shortly after the GOP in Arizona — where Kirk lived, and where TPUSA had implemented its strategies to shape the party — had lost key races.

Dhillon is now representing Trump in his challenge to states that have cited the 14th Amendment’s insurrection clause to block him from the ballot; Lindell was at Kirk’s summit, talking the crowd through his challenges to the 2020 election. TPUSA had remained resolutely pro-Trump as the RNC tried to run a neutral primary, and that was why it could be trusted, according to the luminaries on stage.

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“The forces of the world are against him, including all the money and all the power in the Republican Party,” Steve Bannon told the crowd on Tuesday. “That’s what the RNC has. They’ve been harnessing the donor money to stop Trump. They should not get another penny.”

Around two dozen RNC members stopped by the alternative summit, sitting in the front row for strategy sessions, chatting in the hallways about why they’d given up on party leadership.

“I would love for Ronna McDaniel to let us know that she’s stepping down,” said Fanchon Blythe, an RNC committeewoman from Nebraska. “The RNC is a bunch of fluff.”

Some talk in the hallways speculated on when McDaniel might go and who should replace her. In training sessions, the question was bigger: How could Republican activists build a permanent infrastructure, one that always beat the left?

Kristina Karamo, the ousted MAGA chair of the Michigan GOP, met allies who wanted to help reverse her purge. Bannon hosted hours of his War Room podcast, passing the microphone to local party leaders who felt let down by HQ. Donald Trump Jr. thanked Kirk and the audience for being “the tip of the spear,” fighting where too many people had conceded.

“People want to know, what are we gonna do to save our country?” Karamo told Semafor. “We can’t let the internal conflict become the dominating factor — and then that becomes what we focus on instead of saving the country.”

Plenty of Republicans see Karamo’s politics — and TPUSA’s — as the source of that conflict. She won her chairmanship after running and losing a 2022 race for secretary of state, which she never conceded; she’d won that nomination after working as a 2020 poll watcher and appearing across conservative media as an on-the-ground expert on the fraud she saw. She was ousted after complaints about the party’s shrinking events and flatlining fundraising, with her opponents picking ex-Rep. Pete Hoekstra to replace her.

The problem for the official party apparatus, though, is that it can’t reach the most disgruntled MAGA voters, who tend to view the world a lot like Karamo. TPUSA thinks it can. Even Hoekstra made a brief stop at their conference on his way to the RNC meeting.

“Type in ‘Wisconsin conservatives.’ A lot of election integrity groups exist on Telegram,” Turning Point Action enterprise director Brett Galaszewski said at one training session. “These are prime crowds for recruiting.”

One of the newest RNC officials at the conference was Gina Swoboda, the new chair of the Arizona Republican Party, who won that role after Senate candidate Kari Lake released an audio recording of former chair Jeff DeWit telling her that “very powerful people” might offer her money to quit. DeWit, who’d once called TPUSA “more powerful than the RNC,” had handed his job to a Trump campaign alum who’d spent years publishing voter rolls to find evidence of fraud.

“I’m wearing the armor of God,” Swoboda told Bannon during one of his conference livestreams. “I think that the reason that God made me my nerdy election self is for this time.”

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The View From A Skeptic

Marc McMain, the party chair of Walton County, Georgia, said that he’d come to the conference to learn best practices. He found some, but wasn’t swayed by the talk about challenging the 2020 election. He confronted Jack Posobiec when he suggested that Gov. Brian Kemp, by not finding a way to reverse Trump’s Georgia defeat, bore responsibility for the deaths of soldiers. And he was unmoved by presentations alleging 2020 election fraud by mathematician Doug Frank and Mike Lindell.

“God bless him, but that’s not my wheelhouse,” McMain said. “I think there was nefarious activity in the election, but, you know, I just want to win the next race. I can’t stand that faction of our party that wants to shoot within the tent.”

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Room for Disagreement

McDaniel’s RNC kept the press out of its winter meeting, but pushed back on the TPUSA storyline of a well-fed party elite that never did anything. The RNC tallied up 73 trainings across the country in 2023, with more 2,100 attendees; that included four trainings in D.C. that county chairs were invited to attend. The party said it offered help, to any GOP official who wanted it, on basically everything — handling press, turning out the vote, and advertising online. And if TPUSA was going to keep training poll watchers and contacting voters, the party had no problem.

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Notable

  • In the New York Times, Neil Vigdor reports on the Michigan GOP’s power struggle in Las Vegas, “a microcosm of the lingering tensions between the party’s far-right wing and its old guard.”
  • In Puck, Tara Palmeri talks with RNC members about the comeback talk they got from McDaniel; 2023 was a lousy fundraising year, and the party was close to figuring out a workable abortion message.
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