Turning Point USA tried influencing elections at K-State. SGA just allocated them $3,000 to host speakers on campus

A section of the Campus Victory Project document from Turning Point USA, showing Kansas State University and former student body president Jack Ayres as a "win" for the organization. (Courtesy Photo)

As the debate over the Student Governing Association’s decision to allocate $3,000 to a local chapter of Turning Point USA continues, a Collegian investigation has revealed that the conservative, non-profit organization previously included Kansas State University in its plan to influence student governments across the country, and the group has made offers to current SGA leadership to attend their leadership conference.

In a document obtained by the Collegian labeled the “Campus Victory Project,” Turning Point’s national leadership outlined its three-phase plan to identify, recruit and promote student government candidates and leaders at the nation’s top NCAA Division I schools by 2020.

The document, which appears to be a couple years old, lists former student body president Jack Ayres and K-State itself as a “win” in its list of student leaders across the nation who “have direct oversight and influence over more than $500 million in university tuition and student fee appropriations.”

Representatives for Turning Point’s local chapter denied having any knowledge of the Campus Victory Project.

Ayres, now graduated, categorically denied taking any money from the group, saying that, while he had been contacted by Turning Point, he never accepted any money.

In November 2016, months before he had even announced his candidacy, Ayres was contacted by a group called the Campus Leadership Project, which offered to connect him with resources for student leaders at a leadership summit.

Ayres said the seemingly non-partisan offer looked innocuous enough, so he traveled to the summit in Florida during that winter break, but was dismayed with the material presented at the summit.

A website calling itself the Campus Leadership Project offered scant details on its purpose or sponsorship, but claimed to have been attended by student body presidents across the so-called Power Five conferences, including the Big 12 Conference.

Read Turning Point USA’s Campus Victory Project document in the viewer below:

Click to access tpusa_campus_victory_project.pdf

“The conference was all national politics stuff,” said Ayres, now a rural health care leadership fellow at Kearny County Hospital. “Obviously, I’ve worked in politics and have an interest in politics, but it had nothing to do with student government. Student body president shouldn’t be partisan.”

At the summit, Ayres was presented with a $700 check to cover the full SGA limit on campaign contributions ($300) as well as his travel expenses, but Ayres said he declined it. He said he was aware he was included in the list of “wins” on the brochure, but that Turning Point will claim anyone they contact as a “win.”

“Candidly, I think that one of the benefits to [K-State’s] elections code is that it doesn’t allow outside groups like Turning Point or others to have influence,” Ayres said. “In schools where Turning Point has been involved in elections, candidates are allowed to take large amounts of money from outside organizations. At K-State, that limit would be $300.”

Undisclosed financial contributions to student government campaigns by outside entities or organizations are not illegal as they might be in a federal or state election, but such contributions could run afoul of K-State election regulations if they exceeded that $300 limit on personal and non-student funding per primary and general election campaigns. However, any consequences would only apply to candidates and not the donors of any such funds.

SGA elections commissioner and sophomore in political science Kristen Schau said the main purpose of the $300 cap was to limit the influence any external organization could have on SGA elections. That has never been an issue before, Schau said.

Although they were contacted after their respective elections and offered trips to Turning Point’s annual leadership summits, student body president Jordan Kiehl and student body president-elect Jansen Penny said they had turned down the TPUSA offers.

Penny said he notified an SGA adviser, and that he had “elected not to participate or collaborate with [TPUSA] in any capacity.” When presented with the document listing Ayres and K-State as a “win” for the organization, Kiehl said she had seen a different version where K-State was listed as a “win” without Ayres, and that she and the university contacted Turning Point, leading to K-State’s removal.

During a brief debate at last Thursday’s student senate meeting to decide on the $3,000 allocation to the local chapter to host speakers on April 4, neither Kiehl — former chief of staff under Ayres’ presidency — nor Penny mentioned that they had been contacted by Turning Point.

“Other speakers had already brought up traits of the organization from both perspectives,” Kiehl, senior in industrial engineering, said.

“The discussion was to evaluate the merits of funding their on-campus event,” Penny, junior in industrial engineering, said.

There is no indication that any current or former K-State student government representative has ever taken funds from Turning Point, although it was not immediately clear how many students have been contacted by the organization.

The true success of Turning Point’s Campus Victory Project has been murky at best — some of the candidates it claims to have supported deny ever being contacted by Turning Point — but when its influence has been revealed, student bodies have taken action against its tactics.

In recent years, the organization has come under fire for its aggressive recruitment strategies at colleges across the nation, especially at the top levels of student government. Barely a few weeks into the fall semester at Texas State University, student body president Brooklyn Boreing abruptly resigned after allegations emerged accusing Boreing’s presidential campaign of accepting an undocumented $2,800 and 25 iPads from Turning Point.

In 2017 at the University of Maryland, an entire party ticket on a student ballot withdrew after the university’s student newspaper The Diamondback reported the campaigns had not disclosed the donation of design services from Turning Point.

In any case, Turning Point’s claim of helping more than 50 conservative-friendly student leaders be elected appears to be exaggerated. In Ayres’ case, he said he knew of student leaders at other Big 12 institutions who have had similar experiences with the organization.

Jaden McNeil, president of K-State’s Turning Point chapter and freshman in political science, said the organization had given the chapter a separate $1,500 to help pay for hotel, flight and other costs. Had SGA declined to allocate the other $3,000 last Thursday, the chapter would have been expected to fundraise that amount.

With the close time frame between the senate vote and the date of the speakers’ lecture, Turning Point did not front any of the $3,000 in funds. Instead, McNeil said he personally reached out to the speakers, who have not yet been paid, to explain the situation. He said that’s why the SGA funding was crucial for the chapter.

Per Turning Point’s rules, the chapter is not officially allowed to support student candidates in any way, including endorsements, McNeil said. One candidate, who McNeil did not identify, approached the chapter for an endorsement, but was turned away.

When asked about Turning Point’s contacts and offers to SGA members, McNeil said no one in the chapter was aware of those incidents. The chapter’s membership more or less turned over at the beginning of the year, he said, and the local chapter has focused on events such as tabling on campus, a free speech ball — in which the chapter brought a large beach ball and had students write whatever they wanted on it — and hosting Turning Point speakers Brandon Tatum and Anna Paulina in November to talk about liberal bias on college campuses.

McNeil said the club did not apply for SGA funding for the speakers last November because the speakers are direct Turning Point employees and all funds were provided.

Malia Shirley, a field representative for Turning Point who covers the states of Nebraska and Kansas, said the organization’s field branch — which handles chapter creation and management of operations such as tabling and hosting events — is separate from the Campus Victory Project branch.

Shirley also said the field branch operates as a non-profit organization, which, under tax-exemption legislation, means it is not allowed to endorse parties, candidates, campaigns or legislation.

“Turning Point USA provides a variety of activism grants to chapters across the country, both to TPUSA chapters and other Campus Freedom Alliance groups,” Shirley said via email. “Chapters have to apply online for funding, and HQ evaluates their request and gets back to them. TPUSA did provide Kansas State with funds to assist in hosting this event.”

Shirley referred questions on the Campus Victory Project to that branch of the organization, but she did not provide any specific contact information.

Turning Point’s website does not mention the Campus Victory Project, although an external search of the website yielded documents advertising open positions for victory directors and representatives. Responsibilities of those positions include “contacting candidates, building a strong recruitment pipeline, holding meetings and strategizing with candidates to run for positions of influence in many different organizations on campus.”

A request for comment sent to Turning Point’s media email went unanswered.

A look at Turning Point USA

Not even a decade old, Turning Point has grown rapidly since it was founded in 2012 by Charlie Kirk, who remains the organization’s executive director. The organization claims it has a presence at more than 1,300 schools in the country, although its chapter directory lists a more modest 451 registered chapters at high schools and colleges, including eight in Kansas.

Among its goals, Turning Point says its mission is to “educate students about the importance of fiscal responsibility, limited government and free markets” on college campuses across the nation and to identify and support students who advocate for those causes. The group has included the freedom of speech and fighting discrimination against conservative students in its causes.

Turning Point’s tactics have garnered controversy and protests.

The nonprofit maintains a website database called the Professor Watchlist that lists college professors deemed “leftist” and “radical” by the organization. The website says its mission is “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” It relies on reports of incidents to add professors to the list.

Critics of the website have called it defamatory and said it could lead to harassment of professors, including sabotaging them from gaining new jobs or promotions. The database currently lists three professors from Kansas: two University of Kansas professors — David Guth and Subini Annamma — and Washburn University professor Chris Hamilton. At the time of publication, no K-State professors were on the list.

In Turning Point’s chapter manual, it suggests that chapters hold “affirmative action bake sales” to demonstrate what the organization calls the “unfairness and inadvertent racism of affirmative action.”

As part of that event, chapter members are recommended to have a typical bake sale on campus, but with different prices for different demographics: white students would pay $2 for a cookie, while minority students would pay prices such as “$1.50 for Asian students, $1 for Latino students, $0.50 for black students and free for Native American students.” The manual also suggests adding a 25-cent discount for women.

Kirk, who is in his mid-20s himself, has led Turning Point to expand its reach among young people at college campuses. He has pointed to student governments’ control over eight-figure budgets as a reason for tapping into the minds of student leaders, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported.

“It might seem like kind of a silly thing to try to take over student government associations,” the Chronicle quoted Kirk as saying to a conservative group in 2015. “We’re not going to change the professor’s mind. You’re not going to get teachers fired. But the only vulnerability there is, the only little opening, is student government association races and elections, and we’re investing a lot of time and energy and money in it.”

Part of those efforts include the Campus Victory Project. In a document reviewed by the Collegian that appears to be written for Turning Point donors, the organization details the project, laying out its plans to “commandeer the top office of student body president at each of the most recognizable and influential American universities” and to “ultimately win back every Division I NCAA school in the United States, over 300 of the most recognizable schools encompassing the student populations of the majority of four-year college graduates.”

The following is an excerpt from the document:

“With sights set high, Turning Point USA is on a mission to win the outright majority of all of these schools in year one by building a strong pipeline to continue toward competing and winning beyond an 80 percent threshold in the first three years. …

“As the keystone to this project, we have identified key organizations on campus that have the ability to influence and control the majority of votes on campus. In addition, the robust relationships and presence that Turning Point USA already has allows us to put heavy emphasis on encouraging reliable activists to participate in a full leadership development plan that would place them in the most influential organizations and key leadership positions on campus to prepare them to run for student body president.

“This also includes strategies to identify, recruit and fill positions other than president, including vice president, the positions within the student legislature or senate and other auxiliary organizations including residential, judicial, Greek oversight boards and recruitment positions with each Greek house.

“We have designed a fully scalable plan to deliver victory to every Division I university in the nation. … This will allow Turning Point USA to train, educate and channel proper messaging to make the biggest strategic impact at our nation’s largest institutions.”

The document also lists six core policies it would seek to implement at campuses, including a “forensic audit of all student tuition and fees budgets and online transparency of student fees, tuition and spending” to promote “more free market solutions and accountability,” defunding student associations that “receive automatic dues funding through tuition and fees,” implementing a “national strategy for free speech policy at all campuses across the U.S.,” starting “pro-America, pro-Israel and free market weeklong events on campus,” cutting spending on “frivolous items” by “demanding opt-outs for student services and student fees” and developing a Turning Point “national speaker’s circuit” to spread “American exceptionalism and free market ideals on campus.”

In the plan, Turning Point calls for $2.2 million in financing for the second phase of its Campus Victory Project, including $671,000 in campaign funding and travel expenses.

The group’s 2016 tax filing, the latest year for which its return is available, lists $8.2 million in outside contributions, gifts and grants, but Kirk says 20,000 different donors gave even more ($9.8 million) in 2017, Politico reported.

Turning Point’s sponsors include the Heritage Foundation, the Heartland Institute, the National Rifle Association and the Reason Foundation, which is dedicated to “developing, applying and promoting libertarian principles, including individual liberty, free markets and the rule of law.”

Two years after his reported comments on investing in student government elections, Kirk spoke with the Chronicle and denied that there was “some sort of secret plan” to covertly support students in student government elections.

Student governments are vulnerable to outside influence from groups like Turning Point, Andy MacCracken, the executive director of the National Campus Leadership Council, told the New Yorker in 2017.

“I can totally imagine they’re thinking that if we can win this on campuses, they will be the thought leaders down the road,” MacCracken told the New Yorker. “This is a way to win it efficiently at the start. The challenge, though, is that so much of this is in the dark.”

A campus controversy

During the weekly student senate meeting last Thursday, the on-campus allocations committee introduced a bill recommending Turning Point be allotted $3,000 for their on-campus event “Fighting for the First.”

After 45 minutes of debate, the bill passed 24 to 16. Many students opposed to the bill walked out after the vote in an attempt to break quorum and make the vote null.

Bill Harlan, SGA adviser and graduate student in data analytics, said the allocations committee is tasked with ensuring that organizations receiving funds are registered and eligible, as well as ensuring that the event will be educational. The bill left committee with a 3 to 2 to 1 vote.

“They aren’t able to make those decisions based on the ideology of the groups requesting,” Harlan said. “If funding decisions were made based on the ideology, decisions would vary greatly from year to year and event to event.”

The “Fighting for the First” panel will feature online personalities Austen “Fleccas” Fletcher, DC Draino and Elijah “Slightly Offens*ve” Schaffer. They will discuss the importance of protecting the First Amendment.

“Turning Point USA has worked with these speakers before,” Shirley said. “Multiple chapters across the country have brought these people out to speak on their campuses, and we’ve hosted Fleccas at a regional conference as well. They are chosen based upon student demand and what kind of value they can bring to the conversation.”

Some student senators expressed concern Thursday that the three speakers chosen will reflect badly on the K-State community.

Riley George, president of the Young Democrats at K-State and junior in political science, said Turning Point is an organization that spreads hateful rhetoric toward marginalized communities and, while the Young Democrats celebrate diversity of thought, this is not what the campus needs.

“Aside from that, they’ve also shown unethical financial behavior when it comes to student government elections, and have claimed K-State on its ‘victory list’ for having successfully influenced our campus elections,” George said. “That raises some flags for us, considering SGA is who voted on approving the funding being given to their speakers to come on campus.”

The Young Democrats will co-sponsor a protest in Bosco Plaza with the Sexuality and Gender Alliance during the “Fighting for the First” event.

“TPUSA peddles derogatory rhetoric for attention,” said Seth Peery, Vice President of SAGA and senior in biochemistry. “They insult and degrade marginalized communities for notoriety and ad revenue. Their claim that they want a debate is disingenuous and untrue; their only objective is to dog-whistle to bigots. The speakers funded by SGA do not uphold K-State’s Principles of Community and they will bring nothing of value to campus.”

During senate’s Thursday debate, Tel Wittmer, student senator and sophomore in education, stood up for the bill providing funding for Turning Point’s speakers. He spoke about being an inclusive campus and urged students to think about creating a dialogue between groups around campus.

“I just want you to think critically about this moment and think about what message we will be sending as a government and [as] leaders,” Wittmer said. “We talk so much about diversity and what it means to be a campus. From that standpoint, ask yourself: ‘Are we being diverse when it comes to thoughts and opinions on our campus?’ That is where progress comes from.”

I'm Rafael Garcia, and I'm a 2019 K-State graduate in journalism and former editor-in-chief of the K-State Collegian. I believe that much of the world's problems come from a lack of understanding of other people, but by telling other people's stories and finding the good in the world, I think we can increase our understanding and appreciation of each other. Questions, comments, concerns, news tips? Email the Collegian team at news@kstatecollegian.com.