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Ohio Republicans stake out maximalist positions at conservative conference in Florida




Ohio Republican nominee for US Senate J.D. Vance speaks at the Unite and Win Rally featuring Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, August 19, 2022, at the Metroplex Expo Center in Girard, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

The right-wing Turning Point Action held a two-day conference earlier this month in West Palm Beach Florida. Three Ohioans were among the leading figures in Republican politics who made their way to the sunshine state.

Republican U.S. Senator J.D. Vance, U.S. Senate hopeful Bernie Moreno, and presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy took turns throwing red meat to the crowd.

Turning Point

The conference organizer is a 501(c)(4) organization, a so-called dark money group. Because of its IRS designation, Turning Point Action can raise funds without disclosing its donors. The group can also lobby and spend on political campaigns so long as those expenditures are not its primary activity.

According to its most recent tax filing, campaign spending is a relatively small but noticeable portion of its work. In 2020, the group spent a little more than $1 million campaigning out of its $9.3 million in annual expenses. Meanwhile, the organization spent almost double that amount on conferences, and even more on contract workers and fundraising respectively.

The $2.2 million it put into raising money was apparently well spent. In 2020, Turning Point Action’s total annual revenue jumped from $2.5 million to $11.2 million.

The group’s president, Charlie Kirk, gave himself what amounts to a 120% raise. According to the filing, he collected $98,200 in 2020 for an average of 8 hours a week. That wasn’t his main source of income though. He also got a paycheck of more than $307,000 from the related 501(c)(3), Turning Point USA — a more modest increase of 8.5%.

Another perk that came along in 2020, Turning Point Action racked up nearly $124,000 in first class and charter travel expenses for its officers. Turning Point USA tacked on almost $200,000 more. Turning Point Action spent nothing on such travel in the previous year, but it’s 2020 filing stressed that there are policies determining when it’s “reasonable and customary or necessary for logistical reasons.”

Turning Point developed as a campus organization and its target audience remains young adults. Rather than emphasizing ads, the organizations focus on what they term “grassroots activism.” What that looks like in practice is a steady stream of flashy, highly produced events like the one in Florida. They’re billed as the place to see and be seen for young conservatives — a merging of Trump rally rhetoric and Instagram aesthetics.

Student tickets at the Florida conference were $250. Adults had to pay $400. But attendees who wanted reserved seating and lounge access could always spring for the VIP tickets which were $800 and $900 respectively.

Vivek Ramaswamy

Ohio’s only presidential hopeful took the stage on the first day. He was one of three presidential candidates listed among the event’s sponsors.

Ramaswamy is 37 and he’s had a run of success in the past decade and a half. He was a hedge fund partner, started a biopharmaceutical company, made a fortune, wrote a handful of books criticizing identity politics, and — with zero political experience — launched a bid for the presidency.

Recent polls put him (an admittedly distant) third in a crowded pack of Republican candidates.

Ramaswamy emerged on stage pumping his fist and flanked by columns of fog machine smoke. “We’re gonna speak the truth,” he told the crowd, before leaning into conspiracy theory.

He contends the country is in the midst of an “identity crisis,” and what he terms secular religions have seized on that confusion.

“The poison begins to fill the void,” he said. “Woke-ism, transgenderism, climate-ism, COVID-ism.” And then, without any elaboration, he added, “Depression, anxiety, fentanyl, suicide.”

Ramaswamy said there’s no healing without acknowledging the ‘truth’ about 2020.

“Now the truth is this. January 6 was the result of a pervasive culture of censorship across this country,” Ramaswamy argued. “And when you tell people they cannot speak, that is when they scream. And you tell people they cannot scream, that is when they tear things down.”

Ramaswamy added an appeal to vaccine skeptics. “You were told it takes 10 years,” he said, “and yet they develop a vaccine in less than a year they mandate that you take it?”

He also hinted darkly at a connection between funding for the war in Ukraine, supposed election interference tied to Hunter Biden’s laptop, and alleged bribes from the Ukrainian energy company Burisma where the president’s son was a board member.

Ramaswamy left the exact connections vague, but insisted President Biden is now “making good on that bribe,” by spending $200 billion to defend “somebody else’s border halfway around the world.”

Bernie Moreno

Westlake entrepreneur Bernie Moreno has amassed a personal fortune through several luxury car dealerships and other ventures. He described moving to the U.S. with his family when he was four. He joked about not speaking English and having to repeat kindergarten. In a clumsy jab he said President Biden “would fail kindergarten today.” The crowd ate it up.

Moreno moved to another story set up by his limited grasp of English, this time with a punchline of bootstrap self-sufficiency. After asking about a racial epithet for Hispanic people, his mother told him it was an acronym for “smart person in Colombia.” A college roommate eventually cleared things up for him, he said.

“The reality is my mom would never, ever have allowed of any of us to think of ourselves as victims,” Moreno said. “Because my mom taught us that if somebody looks at you differently because of something that is an immutable characteristic of you, that’s on them, not on you.”

Moreno later argued Biden is “lowering the standards to become a citizen and rewarding people crossing our border and breaking our laws.”

“I’m going to use a word I don’t like to use, but it’s true,” Moreno said, “It’s treason. It’s treason.”

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has faced sustained criticism from immigrant advocates for pursuing a hardline border strategy. In addition to extending for more than two years the previous administration’s use of Title 42 to quickly expel migrants, Biden imposed new restrictions that make it more difficult for many of those seeking asylum.

Moreno hasn’t always taken such an aggressive stance. In a 2016 interview unearthed by the Daily Beast, he took middle path. U.S. immigration policy should be more selective, but it should also focus its punishment on employers taking advantage of undocumented workers. He also argued those living here — especially children — should have a pathway to citizenship.

In addition, as recently as 2019 Moreno said that when it comes to politics, “we have great people who do that, but that’s not me.”

Moreno also tried on an idea J.D. Vance used in his 2022 Senate bid — designating cartels as terrorist organizations.

“That is the absolute number one national security imperative in this country,” he said. “is to wipe out these terrorist organizations. And we can do it by designating them as foreign terrorist organizations, using our military and wiping them off the face of the earth.”

One of Moreno’s opponents in the primary has staked out similar territory, but experts contend the move would likely be counterproductive.

J.D. Vance

Since early in his own 2022 primary race, U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-OH, has been a contrarian when it comes to the war in Ukraine. Few politicians have been as forceful in opposition to the U.S. offering support. At the Turning Point Action Conference, he doubled down.

“When I was thinking about what to say today, I thought to myself, what is the most important truth that I could come across in 15 minutes?” Vance said. “What is the truth that the media and the culture and the political elites in this country are obsessed with silencing?”

“And there’s an easy answer,” he said. “And that’s the Ukraine war is a disaster, and we need to get our country out of it once and for all.”

Vance acknowledged some are likely “sick” of hearing him say it but insisted “I’m here to defend America.” He criticized Ukraine for suspending presidential elections and the U.S. for sending them cluster bombs. He questioned the logic of supporting Ukraine to deter China from similar aggression against Taiwan.

He went on to make a kind of Christian nationalist or pan-Christian argument for isolationism. The U.S. is the largest majority christian nation in the world, he said.

“And every single time that we fought a war it has led to the decimation of the Christian population in the place we go and fight,” Vance said. “Did the Marines and soldiers sign up for that? Do they sign up to destroy the Christian population of Syria? of Lebanon? of Iraq? No, I don’t think so.”

Vance agued political leaders are backing Ukraine to distract from bad news at home.

“You know what the life expectancy is for a middle-class person in America compared to a middle-class person in Western Europe right now? 12 years lower,” Vance said.

Vance didn’t say where he found that stat. According to a Peterson & Kaiser Family Foundation tracker, at the end of 2022, the disparity was closer to six years. Deaths from COVID-19 dragged U.S. life expectancy lower.

“We have the best health care system in the world, at least we used to,” Vance continued, “and now we have people living 12 years longer in other countries than the United States of America. Why aren’t we focused on that?”

Similar arguments have been raised repeatedly by Democrats pushing for some form of universal health care coverage — whether that’s Medicare for all, a so-called ‘public option’ or some other national health plan. As the Commonwealth Fund noted in a January, the U.S. is the only “high income country” that doesn’t guarantee such coverage.

This story was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.

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