Fri. Apr 12th, 2024

Conservative activist Charlie Kirk helped oust Ronna McDaniel at the RNC. Now the knives are out for him.

By 37ci3 Feb18,2024


For more than a year, Charlie Kirk, the conservative activist and MAGA influencer, was aimed like a heat-seeking missile toward one goal — ousting Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.

It’s a battle he won. Just this week, former President Donald Trump endorsed a new slate of leaders to head the party apparatus and signaled that McDaniel’s four terms would soon come to an end.

Few Republican groups have had as meteoric a rise as Kirk’s Turning Point USA, which launched in 2012. It sought to activate young conservatives and saw its fortunes grow as it attached itself to the Trump movement in 2016. The organization has raised roughly a quarter-billion dollars since, as The Associated Press reported last fall, with its fundraising exploding during the Covid pandemic.

But the RNC effort has Kirk increasingly under the microscope in Trump world. In recent weeks, at least three people, including McDaniel herself, have privately warned Trump about Kirk’s conduct, seven sources familiar with the discussions told NBC News.

Kirk came up during her conversation with the former president at his Mar-a-Lago resort this month in which her future at the helm of the RNC was discussed. It’s disputed who first brought up Kirk, but McDaniel blamed him for some of the RNC’s fundraising woes, saying his organization is collecting from donors who would otherwise fund a more robust party effort.

The discussion of Kirk was first reported by RealClearPolitics. NBC News spoke with more than two dozen Republicans for this report. Both the RNC and Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

McDaniel also asked Trump if he was aware of comments Kirk made on his popular podcast questioning whether Martin Luther King Jr. deserved a federal holiday and remarking that diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in the airline industry made him skeptical that Black pilots were qualified. He was not, so she relayed them to him.

Those comments sparked a second person, Darrell Scott, a pastor from Ohio who was one of Trump’s first vocal Black allies and has been an adviser to him, to express concerns directly to the former president, four people familiar told NBC News. Scott had already shared his complaints publicly, on a podcast hosted by conservative commentator Tudor Dixon, a Trump-endorsed candidate for governor of Michigan in 2022.

Scott said he could “neither confirm nor deny” that the conversation with Trump took place. But he acknowledged that he has heard from people close to Trump who share his view that Kirk’s commentary may harm the former president’s prospects with Black voters.

“I’ve got to say, racism is like the word ‘ugly.’ I can’t always describe it, but I know it when I see it,” Scott said in an interview with NBC News. “That boy’s a racist right there.”

It’s unclear how Trump has taken to the warnings. Trump allies offered conflicting accounts of whether he was bothered by any of the issues raised to him, with one ally who has warned him about Kirk saying Trump believes Kirk is a “juggernaut.”

“Trump is f—ing pissed that Charlie is out causing problems for him in the Black community,” said another person close to Trump who claimed direct knowledge of his thinking.

Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s eldest son and a close Kirk ally, said the idea that Kirk is in anything less than “great standing with both my father and the entire Trump campaign” is “nothing more than fiction coming from people jealous of the close relationship Charlie has built with our family.”

“Frankly, it’s sad that there are some people attempting to increase their own relevancy by manufacturing lies that Charlie is on the outs,” he said in a statement. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Last year, people close to Trump said he was irked with Kirk because the conservative influencer made overtures to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as he was preparing to challenge Trump for the GOP nomination. But the Trump campaign and Trump Jr. said nothing was amiss.

“When you take on the RNC, you’re bound to make a few enemies,” Andrew Kolvet, a Turning Point spokesperson, said, adding the organization was “warned” in recent weeks “to brace for” Kirk and the group to take hits “as a parting shot from the old guard at the RNC.”

“But there will be no more business as usual, and President Trump supports and champions that,” he added. “We are his greatest defenders and Charlie’s relationship with the president remains excellent.”

What’s more, many of Kirk’s critics say his passionate effort to unseat McDaniel had less to do with the party’s lackluster electoral results in recent cycles and more to do with further bolstering Turning Point’s bottom line. The group has steered at least $15 million of its massive haul to companies affiliated with the organization or its associates, the AP reported.

At the “Restoring National Confidence” summit, hosted by Turning Point Action ahead of this month’s RNC winter meetings in Las Vegas, state and local GOP chairs were pitched on transitioning their voter outreach and canvassing efforts to an app created by Superfeed Technologies, a company led by Tyler Bowyer, the chief operating officer of Turning Point USA.

“This is why he was trying to get rid of Ronna,” the Trump ally said. “He shouldn’t make it sound like, ‘Oh, we’re tired of losing. We don’t have an early vote program.’ He should have just said, ‘Listen, he who controls the RNC controls millions of dollars and I want to get my hands on them.’ I mean, that would have been a more honest grift.”

Turning Point pushed back on the idea the effort was about boosting Kirk’s bottom line, noting that his combined income from Turning Point USA and its political arm has roughly been between $300,000 and $400,000 in recent years, a small fraction of what the group raises, and that last year he donated more than $300,000 to the organization, mostly from book royalties.

“It’s not about anything other than winning,” Kolvet said.

‘A humongous role’

A handful of Republicans close to the RNC said they felt Trump’s endorsement of a new slate of party leaders had more to do with the anemic fundraising numbers the RNC just released, combined with frustrations over the primary debate process, more so than anything Kirk and his organization did to push for her ouster. (Kolvet said the group was “one of a chorus of grassroots voices pushing for change.”)

“Charlie’s had it in for her for a long time. And Tyler as well,” Oscar Brock, an RNC committeeman from Tennessee, said.“There was only one person whose influence mattered in this deal,” he added, referring to Trump.

But that opinion was not unanimous. Kirk was influential in boosting an unsuccessful challenge to McDaniel last year. He also floated the idea that Trump should tap his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, for a party leadership post days before he endorsed her to serve as co-chair alongside North Carolina GOP Chairman Michael Whatley. And while many similarly situated online influencers lobbied for McDaniel’s ouster, few were as close to Trump and had as strong of an apparatus behind them as does Kirk.

Image:
Former President Donald Trump has called for the replacement of Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel.Jae C. Hong / AP

“Turning Point probably played a 10% role in getting members to be like, ‘We’ve got to get rid of Ronna,’” a former senior RNC official said. “But I do think in Trump’s orbit, and with Don Jr. and those types of people, I think they played a humongous role.”

Then there’s the fact that unlike other players, Turning Point USA’s reach goes beyond Kirk’s outside influence campaign and directly into the RNC. Bowyer, Kirk’s right hand, became an RNC committeeman in Arizona in 2020, a move critics say was key to the group’s overt influence over the state GOP. During his ascent within Turning Point USA and Republican politics, Bowyer became the chairman of Superfeed.

Around the party’s winter gathering this month, Bowyer discussed Superfeed’s app with several RNC members in meetings that left some who attended concerned the focus was as much on diverting resources from the the Republican Party to the Turning Point organizations as it was on improving the party’s voter engagement efforts.

Bowyer pitched the idea of state and county Republican parties across the country purchasing the new app, which helps organize things like text message campaigns, the creation of custom voter contact lists for phone banking and programs to help organize grassroots door knocking campaigns.

That data would then be kept by Superfeed — not the RNC, state or local parties — and could then be packaged and re-sold for a significant asking price.

“Superfeed securely collects data from every interaction and survey response, storing it securely in our expansive user database, in real time,” read a slide from one of the company’s presentations, which was shared with NBC News.

This is a very lucrative part of Republican campaigning, with leading data apps bringing in millions every cycle. Campaign Sidekick, one leading GOP-aligned data platform, received more than $3 million from campaigns and party apparatuses during the 2022 cycle, Federal Election Commission data — which only shows expenditures for federal races, not state and local ones — showed.

“It feels like Turning Point is using mistrust in the RNC to hoodwink people to build their data operation,” said one RNC member who saw the presentation in Las Vegas.

Turning Point Action, which also seeks to build up a team of battleground state “ballot chasers” to help cut into the Democratic advantage with mail-in and early voting, vehemently rejected the idea this was just to make a quick buck.

“Charlie has no financial stake in the data or the tech, nor are Tyler or Charlie paid for their consultation,” Kolvet said. “It’s all done pro bono. Hundreds of full-time ballot chasers in multiple states is a massive expense. We just put our head down and work and let the critics complain from the sideline.”

Republicans who spoke with NBC News and have worked in grassroots organizing, voter outreach and canvassing said Kirk’s organization has so far had very little impact in the field.

“Of all the legitimate players out there, probably Charlie Kirk and TPUSA are the ones I worry about the least,” one Republican operative said. “They’re not a legit operation.”

‘Charlie’s bullcrap’

As Turning Point USA flourishes, Kirk simultaneously has another venture that is making waves throughout the right — his podcast. A Turning Point spokesperson provided NBC News with internal data showing that it is being downloaded between 500,000 and 750,000 times each day. It’s ranked No. 13 on Apple Podcasts for news. Phil Boyce, the senior vice president of Salem Media Group, called Kirk a “force of nature” who “is also the most profitable host in our network with the most total affiliates and the second most radio affiliates, just a few behind the legendary Hugh Hewitt.”

But it’s that show that’s also gotten him into hot water with Scott, McDaniel and others.

On recent episodes of his podcast, Kirk has called MLK Jr. “a myth,” questioned whether he deserves a federal holiday named for him and wondered if Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon and former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is more deserving of such an honor. Kirk also has ridiculed DEI initiatives in the airline industry, saying it has caused him to wonder, “If I see a Black pilot, I’m going to be like, ‘Boy, I hope he’s qualified.’”

Those remarks led to a public rebuke from Dixon, the Michigan Republican who hosted Scott this month on her podcast, where both condemned Kirk’s comments.

“While Charlie Kirk has traded on his social media following to draw millions from the Republican donor base, the data shows since he founded Turning Point the Republican share of the youth vote has only declined, while Democrats’ has soared,” Dixon, who has made multiple appearances on Kirk’s show, said in a statement. “His recent attacks against Black people and women are despicable, do not reflect the Republican platform, and deserve condemnation.”

Scott, in an interview, said that when someone like Kirk who is known for his close relationship with Trump makes “these kinds of inflammatory statements … some people will conclude that Trump shares those same sentiments.”

“There are a number of others that are not in agreement with Charlie’s bullcrap and that are saying we don’t need this,” Scott added. “Every single call I’ve got from some people high up in the Republican Party and people high up in the Trump orbit — they’re all on my side. They’re all saying, ‘I’m glad you’re telling him to shut up.’”

Turning Point USA pointed to a number of right-wing influencers and activists, including Jordan Peterson, Matt Walsh, Tim Pool and Allie Beth Stuckey, who came to his defense, saying he was not being racist but making what have become frequent criticisms from conservatives about the consequences of diversity initiatives.

“We will listen to our critics and fans alike, and Charlie and Turning Point will continue refining their approach,” Kolvet said in a written statement, adding: “For every critic, Charlie has 10 people encouraging him to keep pushing and challenging the sacred cows of political correctness. We are 100% in alignment with President Trump and are working hard to welcome more and more black and minority voters into the conservative movement.”

The Trump ally who spoke with him about Kirk also noted the firebrand’s comments about pop star Taylor Swift, pointing to comments Kirk made in which he questioned if she has “any eggs left?” This person added: “It’s not just Ronna warning.”

Still, Kirk’s opponents know it’s an uphill climb to put space between him and the former president.

“There are people trying to make the 2024 Trump campaign another family affair and the RNC a family affair,” this person said. “And Charlie considers himself family.”





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