The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside a stealth ‘persuasion machine’ promising Republican victories in 2022

John Tillman, center, shakes hands with Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner outside the Supreme Court in 2018. Tillman is now chairman of the American Culture Project. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

A Facebook page shows a child scampering down a school corridor, alerting Ohio families to a scholarship program.

Chatter fills the same page with news ranging from a state anti-corruption bill to the vibrant local real estate market. “It’s a great time to be selling a home in Columbus,” one post celebrates.

Titled Arise Ohio, the Facebook page is the creation of the American Culture Project — a nonprofit whose website says its mission is to “empower Americans with the tools and information necessary to make their voices heard in their local communities, statehouses and beyond.”

Undisclosed on the Facebook page is the nonprofit’s partisan goal. Arise Ohio and similar sites aimed at other politically pivotal states are part of a novel strategy by a little-known, Republican-aligned group to make today’s GOP more palatable to moderate voters ahead of the 2022 midterms by reshaping the “cultural narrative” on hot-button issues.

That goal, laid out in a private fundraising appeal sent last month to a Republican donor and reviewed by The Washington Post, relies on building new online communities that can be tapped at election time, with a focus on winning back Congress in 2022.

“We’ve created a persuasion machine that allows conservatives to reach, engage and move people to action like never before,” the solicitation states. “Now is the time to expand and capitalize on this machine, setting the political playing field in advance of the 2022 election.”

After condemning President Donald Trump’s actions around the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, multiple GOP lawmakers have since thrown their support behind him. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Titled “Reclaiming the Public Narrative,” the solicitation argues that the left, because of its clout within cultural institutions, has more access to centrist voters while the right is stuck “within its own echo chamber.” It says the group will collect personal data gathered from petitions and other online tools to target voters using “language consumed by those in the persuadable middle.”

The solicitation was sent to Warren Stephens, a billionaire banker based in Arkansas who backed President Donald Trump’s reelection effort. It was also inadvertently directed to someone who shared the communications with The Post. The documents provide an unusual glimpse into the inner workings of a group whose activities are ordinarily veiled and illustrate how the Republican Party, still largely defined by Trump, is straining to connect with the country’s political center.

Stephens, through a spokesman, declined to say whether he had made a contribution to the project.

Read the fundraising pitch outlining the American Culture Project’s objectives

The American Culture Project is set up as a social welfare organization exempt from disclosing its donors or paying federal income taxes but, in exchange, barred from making politics its primary focus. The project is led by an Illinois-based conservative activist, John Tillman, who also oversees a libertarian think tank and a news foundation that recently received grant money to highlight opposition to public health restrictions. Tillman, who declined to be interviewed for this story, wrote in an email that the American Culture Project’s objectives are “issue education and advocacy (not electioneering).”

“We focus on reaching millions of Americans who can no longer rely on traditional media to become fully informed on a diversity of views on the issues of the day,” he wrote. “By reaching millions of Americans with a broader, more wide ranging set of issues and ideas, we think that voters will make decisions that will elect people, whether Democrat or Republican, that believe in America’s founding principles, and particularly the Bill of Rights.”

While data collection and digital ad targeting have become commonplace in political campaigns, what’s unusual about the American Culture Project, experts said, is how it presents its aims as news dissemination and community building. It touts transparency and civic engagement using an online network whose donors remain private — part of a bid to shape public opinion as local news outlets crater and social networks replace traditional forums for political deliberation.

The arrangement “puts the lie to the public presentation of these nonprofits as public welfare organizations that might happen to do a little politics,” said Noah Bookbinder, president of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “It shows the system is being abused in ways we knew were happening but you usually don’t see quite so blatantly.”

Building a persuasion machine

The American Culture Project makes little about its activities publicly known. Its website is bare of an employee roster. A tax filing identifies the mission of the nonprofit, launched in 2019, as the “promotion of free market solutions to complex national problems.”

But the problem made paramount in the fundraising documents is the left’s cultural dominance, which animates charges of “cancel culture” and “woke supremacy.”

“The left competes well, not simply in elections, but in the battle for cultural control,” the March solicitation states. “The outcome of the 2020 election and the Georgia run-off Senate races demonstrate that Americans are voting in response to cultural cues. Those who control the narrative of what is and is not acceptable in mainstream society steer the direction of the country, and as a result, control which politicians are elected, and which public policies are passed into law. Narrative matters and is often decisive.”

The Facebook pages, through organic content and paid posts, cultivate new ways of engaging with voters by sharing practical information about everything from education to voting while also seeking to gin up anger over claims of government malfeasance. In addition to Arise Ohio, other pages pumping out content include Stand Up Florida and Mighty Michigan. One Facebook ad created by Stand Up Florida simply promises: “Our followers get updates about Florida government when it matters most.” Another bashes the state for imposing limitations on craft breweries.

According to the fundraising documents, the project is already active in five states: Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Virginia. It is seeking to expand to six more: Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.

In each place, the intention is to build an audience that includes at least a quarter of the state’s voters, the March solicitation explains, giving the project political sway in the places that matter most to control of Washington.

“This means your support of our outreach can be the difference between the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate staying under control of the Democrats or shifting back to pro-freedom Republican majorities,” the fundraising appeal asserts.

The expansion envisioned by the American Culture Project involves raising $24 million this year, according to a budget breakdown. That sum would cover marketing talent, original research, digital promotion, in-state liaisons, polling and other efforts. Most costly is “earned audience acquisition” — spending money, via advertising on Facebook and other platforms, to build a database of persuadable voters.

The arrangement illustrates why politically aligned nonprofits have proliferated, and why they pose such a challenge to the Internal Revenue Service, said David Pozen, a professor of constitutional law and an expert in nonprofit law at Columbia University.

Intensifying partisanship, Pozen said, has all but eliminated the distinction between issue advocacy and campaign activity. “In a world of intense ideological polarization where the two main parties have almost no overlap on any significant policy issue, issue advocacy will necessarily be a kind of partisan activity,” he said. “There is no daylight.”

Driving engagement

Communications from pages sponsored by the American Culture Project inspire intense partisan reactions.

Mighty Michigan recently highlighted a debate over restrictions on commercial activity in the state. “Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the federal government’s chief medical advisor, Anthony Fauci, are bumping heads,” blared a post. The issue touched a nerve for one of the page’s followers, who wrote: “Both belong in prison, one for killing the elderly the other for crimes against humanity.”

Among the most popular of the American Culture Project’s pages, Mighty Michigan has gained about 30,000 followers since it was created in the fall of 2019. Accompanying the Facebook page is a private group called We Are Mighty. The group’s description suggests its purpose is to train local influencers. “Members commit to partnering with us to lead circles of influence and communicate with elected officials,” it states.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) on Jan. 7 said President Trump was "complicit" in the violent riots that took place at the Capitol a day earlier. (Video: The Washington Post)

The group’s administrators also manage similar units in other states, including Florida and Ohio, with such names as Upstanders and Ohio Grit. The connections among the various pages and groups, which appear specific to each state, are not disclosed. The state brands are also present on Instagram, but these accounts have not yet posted content.

The connection to the American Culture Project is made clear on a linked website. “Mighty Michigan is sponsored by the nonprofit American Culture Project, a national leader in research and civic engagement in the Midwest and throughout the country,” the website states. It describes the American Culture Project as a “nonpartisan organization.”

“We do not focus on candidates or elections at any level,” the site maintains.

The message delivered privately to potential donors is different. “We are building assets to shape and frame the political field in advance of the 2022 election and beyond,” the solicitation promises.

Tillman’s assets extend well beyond a handful of Facebook pages focused on battleground states. In addition to the American Culture Project and the Illinois Policy Institute, tax filings identify him as chairman of the Franklin News Foundation, a nonprofit media company that draws revenue from DonorsTrust, a donor-advised fund that backs conservative causes and allows its contributors to remain anonymous.

The news foundation recently received a $50,000 grant from DonorsTrust for a coronavirus-related news project. “This program will offer an alternate perspective to legacy media’s unfair coverage of individuals who disagree with state shutdowns as radical or heartless and will be republished around the country in state and local newspapers, which are starved for local covid-19 news content,” states the announcement from DonorsTrust, which did not respond to a request for comment.

The news network, which publishes articles on a website called the Center Square, concentrates its coverage on 36 states, with a particular focus on some of the Midwestern states where the American Culture Project is seeking an online foothold. Arise Ohio and other pages in Tillman’s network often post stories produced by the Center Square.

The news site, which is among a growing number of journalistic initiatives undertaken by operatives from both parties, received more than 300,000 average monthly visits last year, according to analysis completed by the website analytics firm SimilarWeb. Tillman, in an email, said he has “no involvement at all in the editorial decisions made at the Franklin News Foundation.”

Though it declares no partisan affiliation, the news foundation has been led by people tied to Republican politics. Recent tax filings identify its director as Kristina Rasmussen, who was chief of staff to Republican Bruce Rauner when he was governor of Illinois, though she wrote in an email that she stepped down from the role as director several years ago.

Rasmussen is now a leader of the American Culture Project. In the March 1 email to Stephens, Rasmussen was identified as the project’s executive director. She declined to comment on the project.

“It’s Potemkin politics,” said Tom Wheeler, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. “It raises deception to an art form, and it aids in the de-democratization of media and of public life.”