A colorful mailer landed in some voters’ mailboxes this weekend. The mailer features mayoral candidate Michael Kudar and Jackson Town Council candidates Devon Viehman and Jim Rooks against a background image of Snow King. “Leadership you can trust,” the mailer reads.
The mailers were paid for by Turning Point Action, a political action committee of Turning Point USA. The controversial right-wing organization, founded in 2012 by then 23-year-old Charlie Kirk, has Jackson connections. Local conservative millionaire Foster Friess provided seed money for Turning Point USA, and in 2017, a few local families hosted Kirk in Jackson on a fundraising junket. This year, Kirk emceed a dinner at the Wyoming Republican Party convention.
Ads similar to the mailer appeared on USA Today’s website. Politico, Newsweek, SFGate.com, and Manchester Union Leader also featured the advertisements, according to Jackson Town Councilor Jonathan Schechter.
News of the ads spread like wildfire through political circles, with all three featured candidates claiming no prior knowledge of the mailer. However, Kudar is now using a Turning Point Action ad on his campaign website.
The PAC also sent out mailers taking aim at town council candidate Mayor Pete Muldoon and mayoral candidate Vice Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson.
In an already contentious election season, will Turning Point Action’s ads hurt or help the candidates they support?
What is Turning Point USA?
In its mission statement, Turning Point USA says its goal is “to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government.” Part of that effort includes its “Professor Watchlist,” which maligns college professors Turning Point says advance a leftist agenda. The watchlist has come under fire for threatening academic freedom.
Not stated are its affiliations with white supremacist and anti-government militia groups.
Turning Point USA members have gravitated to racist and extremist groups for years. For instance, Kirk was a featured speaker at the anti-Muslim activist group ACT for America’s 2018 conference.
Candace Owens, the former communications director for Turning Point USA, spoke at a 2019 event in London saying that Hitler’s problem was that he wasn’t nationalistic enough. “If Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, OK, fine,” Owens said, echoing President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. Owens was arguing against globalism, the concept that international politics are connected, and defending Trump’s “America First” nationalism. She later walked back the statement and called Hitler a mass-murderer.
Turning Point USA campus chapters have been rife with questionable connections to hate groups. A Turning Point USA faculty advisor in Florida was revealed to be a former member of the neo-Confederate and racist group League of the South. Turning Point USA activists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign appeared on Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes’s podcast. Proud Boys is a violent, neo-fascist group that supports Trump and has threatened to kill his rivals.
In September 2020, the Washington Post revealed that Turning Point Action was paying teenagers to spread misinformation on social media, including admonitions to not trust leading COVID-19 expert Dr. Anthony Fauci and claims that mail-in ballots will lead to fraud.
The Jackson mailer was not the first time Turning Point Action has stepped into local politics. This summer, Turning Point Action placed robocalls to residents conveying false information that the town council was set to defund the police. Dozens of protesters showed up, including Friess, who spoke to the crowd. Police funding was not on the council’s agenda at that meeting.
Kudar, Viehman, and Rooks, meanwhile, have all expressed strong support for local law enforcement.
The candidates featured in Turning Point Action’s ads said they had no contact with the PAC. Under Federal Election Commission regulations, federal PACs are allowed “independent expenditures” for ads and other communications regarding political candidates. As long as a political action committee has no ties with a candidate or their committees, a PAC can spend as much as they want to support or attack a candidate. These expenditures are the direct outcome of the controversial 2010 Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a statement on his website, Kudar said that his campaign team had not been aware of the ads and that the campaign had not been contacted by Turning Point Action.
He then said the Turning Point mailer was in keeping with what he sees as outside influences in Jackson politics. He listed “external voices closing in on our beloved valley,” including a list of media platforms like TikTok, national movements like Black Lives Matter, and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training as examples.
“There are a number of internal and external voices involved in what used to be a small-town election. DEI, Act Now JH, Common Sense, JH Voter Guide, TikTok, BLM, defund police & other digital media influences…” he wrote.
In his statement, Kudar says that he believes the Turning Point Action ads are “a result of the national attention and national television broadcast brought on by current Council (sic) several years ago.”
When KHOL asked him to clarify the national attention he was referring to, Kudar mentioned Muldoon directing town hall staff to remove a photograph of the president in 2016. Kudar also mentioned Muldoon’s 2017 appearance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Kudar noted, unrelatedly, that Colbert has a super PAC.
“There is no place for white supremacy, domestic terrorism, anti-government militias, or hate in America,” Kudar told KHOL. He did not respond to questions regarding Turning Point USA specifically. He also did not respond when asked if Friess has contributed to his campaign.
Jim Rooks was unequivocal in his denunciation of Turning Point USA. “I absolutely did not reach out to them, nor accept money,” he said. “Charlie Kirk is an anti-academic and venomous voice in youth politics.”
Rooks was equally disparaging of Friess. “I can’t stand him or his brand of politics. I have never, and will never, accept funds from him.”
Viehman says that she had no knowledge of the mailer or ads and she had received no communication from Turning Point Action. “I do not participate in or condone any racist or extremist groups,” she said.
Viehman said she may not agree with Turning Point USA but that they have a right to back candidates.
In response to the Turning Point Action ads, Muldoon said that if the message is that the candidates represent Trump’s brand of government, then voters have a decision to make. “Voters will have to decide for themselves if that’s the kind of local government they want,” Muldoon said. “I’d rather have a town council that actually looks out for local residents instead of owing favors to Republican billionaires.”
Muldoon is the target of Turning Point Action mailers accusing him and Levinson of “slashing” public services, without noting that the town, like states and municipalities across the U.S., was forced to make budget cuts because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The mailers point out that Muldoon and Levinson have similar voting records, something Kudar is using as a talking point in his campaign, and highlight Muldoon’s criminal record. The mailers also erroneously say that the mayor and vice mayor voted to raise their own salaries. In fact, the town council voted in May to raise salaries for incoming councilors and the mayor. Muldoon and Levinson will only receive that raise if they win their elections. In other words, the beneficiaries of the salary raise could turn out to be the candidates Turning Point supports.
The Teton Democratic Party issued a statement Tuesday condemning Turning Point Action. “The anti-science group, which has funded fake accounts on social media that spread lies about the coronavirus and voter fraud, has now set its target on the Town of Jackson’s campaigns,” the statement read. Teton County Democrats said Turning Point Action’s involvement threatens to undermine the community’s shared belief in science, public health, and facts across the political spectrum. “We must be vigilant against their actions to maintain truly independent local elections.”
Stemming the Rising Tide of Hate
Turning Point USA’s ties to far-right hate groups and individuals is part of a larger wave of white supremacist and far-right militia activism sweeping the nation. Groups like the Proud Boys and other anti-government militia groups are gaining the endorsement of local, state, and federal officials. In Idaho, anti-government extremist Eric Walker is running for state senate and receiving a warm embrace from GOP party leadership.
Support for militia groups includes the top layer of government. When Trump was given an opportunity to condemn white supremacy during a presidential debate in September, instead he told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
Closer to home, the Park County commissioners condoned a loose-knit militia group in Cody, Wyoming, this summer. Leaders of the group said they wanted to defend against “looters and rioters” falsely reported to be coming to town in connection with a racial justice march. According to the Cody Enterprise, Commissioner Lee Livingston joined the group of 60 armed citizens who patrolled the march. All with the sanction of the local sheriff.
Jackson Town Council candidate Jessica Sell Chambers says far right-wing organizations are popping up globally because they appeal to people who feel left out. With wealth concentrating into fewer and fewer hands worldwide, Chambers says, far-right politicians gain traction by appealing to the working class. “People are working nonstop but they don’t have what they need and their lives are not improving,” she said. “That’s when we start to see the far-right coming to political power.”
Chambers sees a connection between Jackson’s working class and working people worldwide. Her global framework conflicts with that of other candidates and elected officials.
In his public response to the Turning Point Action ads, Kudar harkened back to what he called, “a homey local in scope and homespun election (sic)” which he thinks is a thing of the past, blaming Muldoon and previous town council members.
However, Kudar is not the only voice of nostalgia. Schechter sent a letter to his mailing list expressing concerns that Turning Point Action’s involvement in local politics signals “a watershed moment.” He worried that this will be the year “when local campaigns pivoted from being homey, retail affairs to ones increasingly nationalized in both money and message.”
Whoever is to blame, Jackson politics have gained national attention from a group supporting right-wing extremism. As Schecter suggests, it may be a crucible moment for the town, where voters decide what local means in a national and global context.
[Charlie Kirk’s appearance at the 2020 Wyoming Republican convention has been added to this story. -Ed]