Turning Point USA, a conservative nonprofit group with university chapters across the country, is set on putting money into Ohio State’s Undergraduate Student Government campaign.
Exactly which OSU campaign TPUSA is funding is being disputed by various parties involved, but leaked text-message exchanges and audio point to a nationwide effort to put conservative students into student governments at colleges across the U.S.
In leaked exchanges, made in late January, a representative from TPUSA said the organization has about $6,000 set aside to directly give to the campaign for Mary Honaker and Carla Gracia and the senators running on their slate. Another representative offered up to $3,000 on behalf of TPUSA to pay students to campaign for them.
After initially claiming not to know about the alleged financing, Michael Frank, the campaign manager for the Honaker and Gracia campaign, said TPUSA reached out to the campaign, but was rebuffed.
A similar statement from Kennedy Copeland, a student at Xavier University and a TPUSA leadership director, confirmed that TPUSA attempted to support Honaker and Gracia, and goes on to say TPUSA was rebuffed. Copeland initially denied knowledge of TPUSA funding student government campaigns, specifically the Honaker and Gracia campaign.
“Liberals consistently dominate campus student government and our goal is to secretly take them out without them knowing what’s coming.” — text message from Kennedy Copeland, Turning Point USA leadership director
Frank and Copeland’s statements say that TPUSA is in fact supporting another USG ticket, that of brothers Reagan and Reese Brooks, both third years in marketing. The Brooks brothers have denied that charge.
“That is utterly false and baseless,” said Devin Bilski, a fourth-year in marketing and political science and the campaign manager for the Brooks brothers. “I think the evidence speaks for itself where the money is coming.”
Regardless of whom TPUSA is supporting at OSU, TPUSA’s interest in OSU’s USG race is clear. Additionally, the leaked texts and audio point toward a larger, national goal by TPUSA.
“A huge part of what Turning Point does — that’s really important to donors — is student government races,” Alana Mastrangelo, TPUSA’s Heartland Regional Director, said in a phone call recorded by an OSU student who was recruited by TPUSA to run for OSU’s USG Senate as part of the Honaker and Gracia campaign. “It’s totally legal and everything, because it’s a student government campaign, it’s not like Congress or the president or anything.”
She goes on to ask the student to “keep it on the DL,” because of TPUSA’s reputation “for being really conservative. They’re starting to call us the alt-right.”
Mastrangelo declined to comment for this article. The national office of TPUSA did not immediately reply to a request for comment placed to its headquarters.
TPUSA is a 501(c)3 nonprofit which, according to its website, promotes limited government and fiscal restraint. It sells shirts with slogans such as “Socialism sucks,” or “Free Markets, Free People.” Though some members have backed Trump, there isn’t a consensus or total alignment within the group behind the president, who has split some Republican voters.
TPUSA also runs a website called “Professor Watchlist,” which, according to the site’s “About” section, seeks to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”
A Moritz College of Law professor is listed on the watchlist for having called presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s controversial “New York values” remark — made by Cruz during the 2016 presidential campaign — anti-Semitic.
Details of TPUSA’s fundraising strategy are laid out in a text-message exchange between Copeland and the OSU student who was recruited by TPUSA to run for a USG senate seat on Honaker and Gracia’s campaign.
“TP is funding the campaign but that’s hush hush,” Copeland said according to the text messages. “Liberals consistently dominate campus student government and our goal is to secretly take them out without them knowing what’s coming.”
Copeland also said she “will have people on the ground” during the OSU election, one text read.
Honaker’s and Gracia’s slate “gets $3,500 + all senators $75,” Copeland said in the text exchange. In a text message, she estimates that makes nearly $6,000 that TPUSA has set aside for the Honaker and Gracia campaign. The spending limit on OSU’s USG campaigns, when combining senators and the presidential campaign in one slate, is $4,000.
Honaker and Gracia, a third-year in international studies and a second-year in political science, respectively, have $3,985 listed in the campaign ledger on their website.
Kadin Llewellyn, the president of OSU’s TPUSA chapter and deputy campaign manager for the Brooks brothers, said he was introduced to Honaker and Gracia by Copeland over winter break at TPUSA’s conference in West Palm Beach, Florida. He said he was told by Honaker and Gracia that TPUSA would be supporting them financially, although he said he didn’t know an exact number. He said Honaker and Gracia told him there were ways to get around USG’s campaign-finance rules. Bilski, who is also the former president of OSU’s TPUSA chapter, said he was also at the meeting.
“I did not agree that Turning Point’s national views aligned with what (Honaker and Gracia) were supporting,” Llewellyn said. “(Honaker and Gracia) said (during the meeting) there are ways to get around the USG bylaws, such as providing things at a super low price.”
Both Llewellyn and Mastrangelo said the OSU TPUSA chapter and the national office had been at odds, with Mastrangelo calling the OSU chapter, who the Brooks brothers and their campaign are aligned with, “a problem child,” according to the recording.
Denial, disputed timeline
In her statement, Copeland said she approached Honaker with the idea of a campaign sponsorship, but Honaker “promptly denied” her. This runs counter to Llewellyn’s story, in which Honaker and Gracia briefed him on the TPUSA funding strategy in West Palm Beach. Frank called attempts to link TPUSA funding to the Honaker and Gracia campaign a smear campaign.
“We believe that this is a smear campaign, designed to point to us as the team funded by Turning Point, and draw attention away from the Brooks Brothers,” Frank said in a statement.
The Florida conference took place in December, according to TPUSA’s website. Copeland’s texts, in which she talks about TPUSA supporting the Honaker and Gracia campaign, are dated at the end of January. Frank did not respond to a request for comment asking when the Honaker and Gracia campaign says they rebuffed TPUSA’s offer.
Across the country
TPUSA isn’t just trying to influence races at OSU, however. As detailed in Copeland and Mastrangelo’s exchanges, the goal is to elect conservative students, and thus influence student governments, at universities across the country.
“Usually, we have a bunch of people — and I don’t think we can do it at your school — but we have like a bunch of people with tablets making people vote and everything. But I heard your guys’ school, it prevents that or something, or we’re not allowed to do that,” Mastrangelo said in the recording, referencing USG bylaws that aim to separate campaigning and voting. “They’ll put money into (campaigns), but their big thing is having people, and having a lot of people doing the campaigning, and they’ll pay those people too.”
Copeland said in the text exchange that she has been aiding Honaker’s and Gracia’s campaign as a “leadership director,” and has won campaigns across the country.
In the phone recording, Mastrangelo made an offer to the OSU student she’s recruiting to have TPUSA pay members of his student organization who agree to campaign for Honaker and Gracia’s campaign. She said she didn’t know an amount, but TPUSA has offered $20 to $50 a day, per person, in the past.
Specifically, she said she was told to get 60 people to campaign for the OSU effort, meaning TPUSA could be spending $1,200 to $3,000 in addition to the money slated for Honaker’s and Gracia’s campaign.
In texts, Copeland said that Honaker, who previously interned for Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi, is a “die hard conservative, loves trump (sic),” and Gracia, who other students have told The Lantern is a Democrat, is a “proIsrael, ‘never-trump’ republican (sic) who supports free speech on campus.”
Mastrangelo, in the recording, calls them “closet conservatives,” although she said TPUSA “knows for a fact that they’re hardcore conservatives.”
Honaker is listed as “liking” Copeland’s Facebook page, where there is a picture of Copeland and Donald Trump Jr., one of President Donald Trump’s sons. While Honaker has previously interned for a GOP congressman, Frank, the Honaker and Gracia campaign manager, denied claims that Gracia is a conservative, saying that the ticket has a bipartisan appeal, and Honaker knows Copeland personally.
In the phone call, Mastrangelo outlined TPUSA’s plan to get Gracia and Honaker elected.
“The first goal is to get them in, and then once the (liberal members of the slate) graduate, kind of like, the two conservative people start to get more conservative, and invite their friends on, and it grows from there,” Mastrangelo said in the recording. “The people in the department that run this thing, decided they didn’t want to run an extremely, like, right-wing, entire slate of people. A Trojan Horse is the best way to put it.”
Last week, OSU’s chapter of College Democrats invited three of the four USG presidential campaigns for a town-hall event. The group didn’t invite the fourth campaign, the Brooks brothers, because of their ties to the OSU TPUSA chapter, a representative from College Democrats told The Lantern at the time. In attendance, however, were Honaker and Gracia.