In the immediate aftermath of Republican Glenn Youngkin’s Virginia governorship victory last week, many pundits credited an uprising against critical race theory as the key to the former Carlyle Group executive’s electoral success. But hardly anyone is talking about how critical race theory has largely been an “astroturf” issue created by GOP operatives with a backlash funded by billionaire donors.
The anti-CRT movement has descended with a vengeance this year into suburban school board meetings and Fox News programming. And while the movement may present itself with a local face, many of its most effective advocacy groups are propped up by wealthy, well-connected backers—right down to its connections to the billionaire Koch family.
The Daily Beast has identified eight recently created anti-CRT groups which operate at local levels across the country but bear ties to ideological right-wing aristocrats and political operatives. Their backers include former officials in Donald Trump’s administration, an executive at a notorious D.C. lobbying firm, as well as Koch entities and The Federalist Society.
In Virginia, one of the key leaders against critical race theory is Ian Prior. If Prior’s name sounds familiar, that’s because you may have been one of the tens of thousands of Americans to receive emails from Prior in one of his many different former roles: press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee, Justice Department official during the Trump administration, communications director for the Karl Rove super PAC American Crossroads, and now, a GOP operative behind two organizations that have inflamed attacks on so-called critical race theory in Virginia’s public schools.
Prior runs Fight for Schools, a state-level PAC which emerged this year to challenge educational decisions in Loudoun County and mobilize behind Youngkin. The candidate turned to Prior’s group for fundraising and voter outreach efforts, and state election disclosures show that the organization raised hundreds of thousands of dollars during the campaign.
Over the last several months, Prior—whose children attend Loudoun County schools—has appeared on Fox News at least 15 times to discuss critical race theory, according to a Media Matters analysis. He has been introduced on those shows as a “Loudoun County parent” and a “father” who went “from concerned parent, like many of you, to legal activist,” Media Matters reported. In one such appearance last month, Prior was identified by the host as a “parent,” while the graphic on the screen labeled him “vice president at Mercury Public Affairs”—a D.C. lobbying firm with a history of representing controversial foreign clients.
Fight for Schools—which this spring launched an effort to recall half a dozen Loudoun County school board members—also reported significant financial backing from 1776 Action, a “dark money” nonprofit led by former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Dr. Ben Carson. The group also coordinated local events in Virginia with The Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank with connections to the Koch empire and Tea Party organizing efforts. And while Prior denies being present for the most controversial of those Loudoun County events—a June 22 protest that turned violent and ended with the arrests of two parents—that event was organized by another one of his groups, Parents Against Critical Theory.
PACT’s incorporation documents with the state of Virginia show Prior as its signatory, via his Parents Against Critical Theory LLC. However, he does not appear on the group’s website, which claims its founder is Scott Mineo, another Loudoun County parent who spoke at the June 22 protest. (Mineo has also reportedly posted anti-Black and anti-Muslim remarks on Facebook.) And, like Fight For Schools, PACT also received significant financial backing from Carson’s 1776 Action, and has coordinated events with the Heritage Foundation.
A separate group that recently launched a seven-figure anti-CRT ad campaign appears to be an arm of another conservative dark-money juggernaut.
According to Virginia state incorporation records, the group—the Free to Learn Coalition—appears connected to the Concord Fund, aka the Judicial Crisis Network, a nonprofit which has poured millions of dollars into efforts to stack the Supreme Court with conservatives. JCN is effectively controlled by Leonard Leo, a wealthy conservative activist and Federalist Society executive.
And another prominent new anti-CRT organization, the 1776 Project, was founded by right-wing operative Ryan Girduksy. Girdusky, who once co-wrote a book with current Matt Gaetz spokesperson Harlan Hill, has implied support for the Great Replacement Theory—a casus belli for white nationalists.
The 1776 Project has hauled in nearly half a million dollars since its inception this spring.
National groups now appear poised to exploit CRT as a wedge issue for suburban conservative voters.
In June, Politico reported that Jessica Anderson, executive director of Heritage Action—the advocacy group affiliated with the Heritage Foundation—called critical race theory one of “the top two issues” her group is focused on, along with enacting stricter voting laws. Anderson worked in Trump’s Office of Management and Budget, as did Russ Vought, the former head of the OMB under Trump who recently created a group called Citizens for Renewing America, which in June published a parents’ toolkit titled “An A to Z Guide on How to Stop Critical Race Theory and Reclaim Your Local School Board.”
One of Heritage’s local collaborators, “No Left Turn,” also has ties to controversial right-wing extremists. Its founder, Elana Fishbein—who appeared on Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham’s Fox News shows earlier this year—has said schools are “indoctrinating” kids with CRT, “literally making them your brownshirt.”
And a Koch network alum, Nicole Neily, has started a group called Parents Defending Education, which aims to fight CRT through legal action. Although the group has said it is a “grassroots” effort, Neily has worked at a number of Koch operations, Popular Information’s Judd Legum reported. Her previous employers include the Independent Women’s Forum and the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which in 2013 was identified as “the Kochs’ leading media investment to date” by the Columbia Journalism Review.
Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at University of Massachusetts at Boston and the author of Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization, told The Daily Beast that “white backlash groups” such as PDE trade on “a long inglorious but successful history in this country.”
Kyle Herrig, president of left-leaning watchdog Accountable.US, said the well-funded movement has turned students into “political props.”
“Extremist groups spreading lies about accurate and inclusive education aren’t backed by educators or the facts—they’re backed by billionaires and Republican political operatives. Students are in school to learn, not to be political props for wealthy special interests playing partisan games,” Herrig told The Daily Beast.
But Cunningham noted a difference from the Tea Party movement.
“The Tea Party was actually more spontaneous,” he said. “Back then, very quickly you had grassroots groups like the Tea Party Patriots and Tea Party Express pop up, whereas this movement is very much from the beginning a top-down operation—-a conscious, well researched, plotted-out effort where you have these smaller groups as offshoots of a very well-planned strategy.”
Cunningham singled out Parents Defending Education, pointing to what he estimated was a million-dollar payroll and connections to a law firm who has represented Trump in the past.
“You can’t tell for sure where the money is coming from, but there’s a lot of it,” he said.
To Cunningham, the anti-CRT crusade appears to have combined two conservative movements in one—a racially-charged incarnation of the broader anti-education movement that has been simmering in conservative circles over the last several years, gaining traction through “free speech” campus initiatives spearheaded by right-wing youth groups like Turning Point USA.
“I immediately thought this looks like the orchestrated attacks on college professors over the last few years, national groups amplifying these false talking points out of context, and suddenly the threats came in,” Cunningham said.
Surveys suggest that such a two-pronged strategy has potential to motivate conservative voters.
After all, Trump rode racial resentment to victory in 2016, and also polls highest among white voters without a college degree. In 2017, a Pew Research survey found that Republican support for higher education fell more than 20 points in just two years. Brandon Busteed, who also observed the trend while serving as director of education and workforce development at Gallup, called it the most pronounced partisan-linked shift in Gallup’s history.
Phil Hackney, an expert in nonprofits at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said the strategy is “as old as politics.”
“With respect to education, I’ve been watching this since at least the early 2000s, when many groups in the charter school movement were getting money from the same folks. They would look for individuals who represent common citizens, in order to create distance between the money and the voices,” Hackney told The Daily Beast. “It’s a very common strategy, as old as politics: Distort the moneyed interests people might distrust, and separate them from the ‘common-man’ voice of the movement.”
Cunningham opened the scope even further.
“The folks who fund this also oppose public education, the distribution of public goods, and the power of collective action. It ties up in a nice package with a big bow: To undermine democracy,” Cunningham said, pointing to Turning Point chartering dozens of buses to the Jan. 6 Stop the Steal rally.
“Scratch the surface of these groups, and you just find it’s the same damn people,” he said.