As the Florida primary election results rolled in, in late August, Gov. Ron DeSantis publicly celebrated big wins in posts that traditionally have flown well-below the radar of governors: those of local school boards.
This year’s school board races in Florida have received national attention, as dozens of political action committees (PACs) linked to leaders of the Florida GOP, including DeSantis, funneled money to right-wing candidates. And they didn’t do it alone.
Also celebrating the school board victories and claiming them as their own were anti-public education groups like Moms for Liberty, a 501(c)(4) group that worked closely with DeSantis in the months leading up to the election. Many of the DeSantis-backed candidates were funded by Moms for Liberty’s state PAC, which drew almost exclusively on a $50,000 contribution from Publix heiress Julie Fancelli, who helped fund the January 6 rally that led to the Capitol insurrection.
Although Fancelli’s donations to Moms for Liberty’s PAC were disclosed, major funders of Moms for Liberty itself are not, allowing that dark money group to exert power and influence politics to their funders’ liking without transparency. The success of the right-wing school board candidates in Florida followed — and built on — a playbook employed by such groups in the 2021 gubernatorial election in Virginia.
In Virginia (as with Florida) dark money groups demonized public schools by appealing to white grievances against inclusive teaching content and inciting hate against marginalized groups, especially the transgender community. After Trump ally and GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin won his bid for governor in Virginia, these groups attributed the victory to their disingenuous rallying cry of “parental rights.”
The massive amounts of GOP and dark money-tied funding for right-wing school board candidates, however, is a relatively new development (although Koch money was deployed to target school boards in Colorado a few years back, before being repelled by voters).
If Florida and Virginia are any indication, Moms for Liberty and other anti-public education groups are gearing up to play a key role in the GOP strategy to dominate the elections in November and beyond. After all, bolstering turnout for right-wing school board candidates will also likely inflate support for GOP candidates on the up-ballot. In what follows, drawing on information unearthed by True North Research, the investigative research watchdog organization at which I work, I will outline how these groups may use their deep pockets to attack schools and subvert the will of the people.
Dark Money: An Ongoing Threat to Electoral Democracy
If the GOP wins big in the November midterm elections, the party’s success will likely serve as another case study in how anonymous ultra-wealthy donors can use dark money groups to buy an election.
Dark money groups are vehicles through which the uber-rich can use their vast disposable income to distort public policy and amplify their voices. As the saying goes, “In politics, money doesn’t talk. It screams!”
By anonymously funding influence operations that call themselves “think tanks” and “action arms,” right-wing elites have pushed extremist free-market and Christian nationalist ideologies on the public with little to no accountability.
Supporting these anti-taxation groups can pay big dividends for their donors in the form of huge tax breaks, which the GOP has consistently fought for on behalf of the richest few.
This corrupt system leaves those with fewer financial resources at a stark disadvantage in influencing public policy. It can also limit everyday Americans’ ability to affect change at the ballot box. For example, vast anonymous donations have recently funded efforts to redraw state congressional maps that disenfranchise Democratic voters, especially communities of color.
After Florida’s August primary elections, dark money groups openly boasted about the right-wing candidates they helped elect. Moms for Liberty claimed it helped elect 43 candidates outright and advanced 14 to the general election. FreedomWorks, the spawn of Charles Koch’s Citizens for a Sound Economy, bragged that five of the candidates they trained won their seats, with six others advancing to the November election.
Despite their professed impact, 501(c) operations are forced to disclose pitifully little about the ultra-wealthy donors that fund their attacks and have clear sway on the direction of elections in our country. This is in large part a result of a decades-long assault on public disclosure laws by these same groups and individuals. The Citizens United decision issued by the Roberts Supreme Court over a decade ago exemplifies the effect of allowing dark money groups to play such an unchecked role in judicial appointments, too.
Dark money donors and the groups they fund also use their vast resources to find tax and disclosure loopholes. We saw this in August, when The New York Times and ProPublica reported that the Chicago-based industrialist Barre Seid used a loophole in tax laws to transfer $1.6 billion to the far right lawyer and Federalist Society fundraiser Leonard Leo, who is the architect of the right-wing court capture network set on turning back our rights, as with the reversal of Roe v. Wade.
In its 2021 IRS filings, Moms for Liberty disclosed it had registered 76 county-level chapters in addition to its national chapter, making it difficult to track funding and spending by location.
Despite this growth, it claimed to have raised less than $50,000 in 2021 per its IRS filings, so it is not clear how its national staff was compensated or if they acted as consultants whose pay did not pass through the organization or were paid by another entity.
Moms for Liberty certainly doesn’t seem to lack funding in 2022. Its lavish July summit, where Ron DeSantis and right-wing billionaire and former Trump Secretary of Education Betsy Devos spoke, was sponsored by a plethora of right-wing groups. The Leadership Institute, Heritage Foundation and Turning Point USA, all groups tied closely to billionaire Libertarian Charles Koch who has long worked to defund public education, were sponsors of the event to the tune of $50,000, $10,000 and $5,000 respectively.
How Anti-Education Groups Won Virginia for Youngkin
Right-wing groups have assailed public schools for decades, as with opposition to racial integration of schools in the decades following the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of 1954. (Plenty of Democratic elites, too, have pushed for school privatization.)
But the COVID-19 pandemic presented an opportunity for public school enemies to follow the “shock doctrine” as described by Naomi Klein, wherein “disaster capitalists” take advantage of disruptive climate or public health events to privatize public goods and redistribute wealth upwards.
Beginning in mid-2020, established school privatization groups and new ones –formed by experienced dark money operatives — took advantage of parents’ genuine concerns about their children’s well-being in a global pandemic to further attack public education.
When COVID precautions waned, these groups shifted their focus — from forcing schools to reopen and eliminating masking and other hygienic requirements that would keep students and school staff safe, to “culture war” issues.
In Virginia, Youngkin’s campaign benefited substantially from the outrage manufactured around schools by groups tied to the Koch network and Betsy DeVos.
The Koch and DeVos-funded sister groups called the “Independent Women’s Voice” (IWV) and “Independent Women’s Forum” (IWF) were heavily involved in propping up Youngkin during his campaign and attacking his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe. This included the inaccurate promotion of a last-minute scandal before the election about a sexual assault in a girl’s bathroom. The story blew up and right-wing media outlets peddled it as a cautionary tale about trans-inclusive policies, falsely alleging that the student who committed the assault was trans, even though it turned out the perpetrator was not transgender.
In the weeks before the election, IWV also spent big on Facebook advertisements and launched a pop-up website attacking McAuliffe called “ToxicSchools.org,” which used misleading text and graphics to claim that Virginia’s public schools were giving students access to pornographic materials. IWV also ran Facebook ads attacking McAuliffe by featuring a Washington Post headline that McAuliffe “vetoe[d] a bill permitting parents to block sexually explicit books in school.” But the content of that story, which IWV left out, explains that Virginia would have been the first state in the country to allow parents to censor books, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, because of a single sexual scene despite the book’s overall educational value.
IWV’s attacks centered on several elements of the dark money playbook we have seen amplified since the Virginia election: attacking books (especially about Black and queer histories and experiences), demonizing any depiction of sex as constituting “pornography,” and claiming GOP politicians stand for “parental rights.” Meanwhile, IWV and IWF have long opposed comprehensive federal programs that would support parents, like paid family and medical leave.
Asra Nomani, a Fairfax County-based parent who now works for IWV after a stint at another dark money organization called “Parents Defending Education” (PDE), took credit for Youngkin’s victory. Nomani helped launch a right-wing group at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology called “Coalition for TJ.” The group attacked the school’s new admission policy, which incorporated a more holistic evaluation process to increase racial diversity in the student body. After its formation in March 2021, PDE hired members of and helped platform Nomani’s coalition, as Youngkin later did.
Also aiding this dark money effort was a Virginia-based political action committee called “Fight for Schools” (FFS), a Trump and GOP-linked PAC purporting to support “common sense” candidates who oppose critical race theory in schools. FFS is run by Ian Prior, who has worked in Trump’s Department of Justice and as top communications official for the National Republican Congressional Committee. He is also senior counsel for Article III Project, a group launched with funding from Leonard Leo’s Judicial Crisis Network that attacks Democratic judicial nominees, and America First Legal, which was launched by former senior Trump White House aide Stephen Miller.
FFS rebranded as “Fight for Schools and Parents” with the Virginia State Board of Elections in June 2022, listing Staci Goede, longtime former CFO of the Republican State Leadership Committee, as treasurer. Goede used an email address from the Crosby-Ottenhoff Group, founded by former GOP administration employees who have run numerous super PACs for Republican candidates.
Leading up to the 2021 election, FFS spent over $46,000 on mailers and $7,000 on texting, and Prior appeared over a dozen times on Fox News, where he was presented not as a right-wing political operative, but merely as a “parent.” FFS also held a fundraiser and “rally” for Youngkin and, according to the Associated Press, was asked to help build crowds for Youngkin’s campaign events.
Because FFS is a 527 PAC that can campaign directly to urge people to vote for specific candidates, it is required to report its contributors. Those disclosures reveal that FFS raised more than $400,000 from April 2021 to June 2022, including $10,000 from Ben Carson’s 1776 Action, another group whitewashing American history.
What to Look for in 2022 and Beyond
Since November 2021, attacks of the kind directed toward schools in Virginia have only increased.
Members of Moms for Liberty and other groups have built on IWV’s attacks on books in Virginia by targeting books by Black and queer authors across the country. One Moms for Liberty chapter in New Hampshire even offered a “bounty” for tips about teachers who discussed systemic racism.
The Florida primary example is indicative of an increasing level of coordination between these dark money groups and GOP politicians with major fundraising capabilities that seems to be playing out across the country.
Beyond local and state-based PACs linked to Moms for Liberty, like those in Williamson County, Tennessee, and Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, new federal “concerned parents” PACs appear poised to pour money into campaigns for right-wing candidates.
Moms for Liberty also registered three federal PACs in late 2021 listing Chris Marston, general counsel for the Republican Party of Virginia, as treasurer. According to Axios, 1776 Project PAC, which is also focused on opposing anything it deems “critical race theory,” has promised to “[campaign] on behalf of school board candidates.” The PAC has spent $400,000 around the Florida races this year and will likely spend more during the midterms.
The GOP school board victories in Florida do not necessarily portend doom for Democrats in the midterms. In fact, Virginia and Florida may have been outliers, given the relative presence of these dark money actors and their networks in the wealthy Virginia suburbs of D.C. and in Florida, where Moms for Liberty and its founders are based.
Plus, a number of races so far have shown an increased number of women registering to vote after Leonard Leo’s donors got what they wanted in the reversal of constitutional protections for abortion.
But these examples shine light on the new front targeted by GOP operatives.
Along with the anti-democratic efforts of the Republican Party to limit Americans’ freedom to vote and have our votes counted, leading politicians in the party seem to be working closely with right-wing groups funded by secret (and likely ultra-wealthy) donors to try to capture offices from school boards to Congress in 2022 and beyond.
Note: True North Research Executive Director Lisa Graves, Senior Fellow Evan Vorpahl and Fellow Ansev Demirhan contributed to this report.