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Charlie Kirk’s right-wing empire loses a key asset: Students for Trump

The split shows how Turning Point USA and its affiliates are wrestling with their identity as parts of the GOP seek a Trump alternative

Charlie Kirk, who runs Turning Point USA, speaks at a rally in Chandler, Ariz., on Nov. 1. (Caitlin O’Hara for The Washington Post)
6 min

As the 2024 presidential election cycle gets underway, the political arm of Turning Point USA, the influential right-wing nonprofit run by Charlie Kirk, is losing a key asset: Students for Trump.

Students for Trump has leased its popular web domains and social media accounts to Kirk’s Turning Point Action since 2019, supporting the group’s move into more explicit campaign work and solidifying its identity for donors as the country’s premier conservative youth movement. With more than 1.3 million followers across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, Students for Trump has amplified Turning Point’s online megaphone, making its messaging go viral and rallying its activists around the former president.

Now, Students for Trump is clawing back control over those assets, according to contract documents and people familiar with the situation, raising questions about how closely Turning Point will be associated with Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign. The split, which has not been previously reported, shows how the Turning Point network, which gained prominence over the last seven years because of its proximity to Trump, is wrestling with its role and direction as parts of the GOP seek out an alternative standard-bearer.

The separation follows a failed effort by Kirk’s main deputy, Tyler Bowyer, to assert greater control over the Students for Trump accounts, said knowledgeable people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private dealings. The changes Bowyer floated would have included removing the Trump name and renaming the accounts as official Turning Point properties. He discussed leveraging the rebranded accounts as part of a new initiative using social media influencers to fundraise for political candidates, according to people who heard Bowyer’s pitch. But not all the money would go to the candidates, as influencers would get a cut of any fundraising they perform.

The idea fell flat with Students for Trump’s national chairman, Ryan Fournier, according to people familiar with the discussions. Fournier indicated that he wanted the identification with Trump to remain explicit and worried that the revenue plan proposed by Bowyer, the chief operating officer of Turning Point Action, the political arm of Turning Point USA, would leave too little money for candidates.

Andrew Kolvet, a Turning Point spokesman, said there was no intention to rename the social media accounts so long as Trump was in the race for president. He also said Turning Point leaders were “still allies of the Students for Trump project and support it wholeheartedly.” Fournier declined to comment.

The dynamic is a delicate one for Turning Point, which has long been able to pitch its pro-Trump tent large enough to fit other big-name GOP politicians who flock to the group’s conferences. A competitive presidential primary, however, may soon pit Trump against some of those politicians, testing the loyalty of groups like Turning Point.

Galas hosted by Turning Point at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida over the past two years have featured vehement debate among donors about whether nominating Trump again would harm the party’s prospects, according to people in attendance. “Probably the most common view is, ‘Please, God, let it be someone else,’” one person said, summarizing the comments.

One option favored by some of the group’s benefactors is Ron DeSantis, Florida’s popular Republican governor. “I think Ron DeSantis would be Donald Trump without all the baggage,” Doug Deason, a Dallas investor and member of Turning Point USA’s advisory council, told the Daily Mail.

Bowyer helped bring DeSantis to Phoenix, where Turning Point is based, several months before last year’s midterms. Kirk stumped with DeSantis in the Tampa Bay area on the Saturday before the midterms, days before DeSantis coasted to reelection, while many of Trump’s favored candidates stumbled.

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Last month, DeSantis sat for a one-on-one interview with Kirk in the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee and spoke favorably of the Kirk-endorsed candidate for chair of the Republican National Committee, Harmeet Dhillon, who mounted an unsuccessful challenge to Trump-backed Ronna McDaniel.

Kirk, on a different episode of his talk show, called Trump’s support for McDaniel “demoralizing,” though he reaffirmed that he was backing Trump in 2024 “enthusiastically, by the way.”

Turning Point as an organization, however, has been less clear about its plans. It has hardly spurned Trump, as have other high-profile activist groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, which is backed by billionaire Charles Koch. But it also resisted immediately endorsing Trump after his announcement last fall, unlike some groups focused on young conservatives, such as the New York Young Republican Club and the California College Republicans.

Turning Point’s more ambiguous stance reflects its latest effort to reinvent itself, as well as the growing pains of a group fueled by Trump-era culture wars. Founded in 2012 to promote support for free markets among young people, it soon became an appendage of Trump’s MAGA movement, raising more than $65 million annually, according to public filings by Turning Point and its affiliated groups, which are set up as nonprofits. With those resources, Turning Point grew into a conservative influence machine involving political jamborees, podcasts, biblical citizenship classes and K-12 curriculum.

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Over time, its efforts to transcend Trump’s movement put Turning Point at odds with Students for Trump, which has maintained an unswerving mission of building youth support for the MAGA movement. Fournier founded the initiative in 2015 while at college in North Carolina, first as a single Twitter account. Today, it boasts about 250,000 followers on Twitter. An Instagram account brings its 832,000 followers a stream of memes ridiculing Democrats and the left.

Turning Point Action’s own social media accounts, meanwhile, maintain more modest activities, with fewer than 10,000 followers on Twitter. The group’s 501(c)3 arm, Turning Point USA, has a larger following, but tax law limits its election-related work.

A 2019 news release announcing the acquisition of Students for Trump called it a “social media phenomenon” and said it would anchor the network’s campaign work in the 2020 cycle.

“Students for Trump will be the official chapter-based, pro-Trump student group on hundreds of college and high school campuses across America beginning this fall,” the release promised.

A profile of Kirk on the Turning Point site says Students for Trump in 2020 “activated hundreds of thousands of new college voters through its more than 350 chapters present on campuses in battleground states.”

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.