UNITED STATES NEWS

Trump and DeSantis court Moms for Liberty in a sign of the group’s rising influence over the GOP

Jun 29, 2023, 9:28 PM | Updated: Jun 30, 2023, 5:52 pm

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The two leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination courted conservative women at the Moms for Liberty conference in Philadelphia on Friday, elevating a group that has gained substantial influence within the GOP with its fierce opposition to instruction related to race and gender identity in the nation’s classrooms.

Both Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appeared eager to out-flank the other as they labeled gender-affirming care “mutilation” and talked up their efforts to eliminate critical race theory. DeSantis vowed to “fight the woke,” while Trump blasted what he called “the toxic poison of gender ideology” and “sick creed of woke communism.”

While the graphic rhetoric resonates with the most active part of the GOP base, as evidenced by the enthusiastic reception both received, it could turn off more moderate voters in a general election.

The group, which was founded in Florida in 2021 to fight local COVID school mask mandates and quarantine requirements, has quickly become a force in conservative politics. But it has also been accused of preaching hate, with the Southern Poverty Law Center recently labeling it an “extremist” organization for allegedly harassing community members, advancing scrub diverse and inclusive material from lesson plans.

The conference, being held at a downtown hotel, nonetheless drew a handful of leading Republican presidential candidates.

DeSantis praised the group for “coming under attack by the left,” saying it was “a sign that we are winning this fight.” He ran through his efforts in Florida to ban discussions of race and sexual identity in classrooms as well as certain books from school libraries. And he pledged to “fight the woke” as president.

“I think what we’ve seen across this country in recent years has awakened the most powerful political force in the country: Mama bears. And they’re ready to roll,” he said, predicting moms would be “the key political force for this 2024 cycle.”

“2024 is going to be the year when the parents across the country finally fight back,” he said.

Trump, too, accused the “radical left” of “slandering Moms for Liberty as a so-called hate group.”

“But Moms for Liberty is no hate group,” he said. “You are joyful warriors, you are fierce, fierce patriots. You’re not a threat to America.”

Trump told them that if he wins a second term he would sign an executive order to cut federal funding for any school “pushing critical race theory, transgender insanity, and other inappropriate racial, sexual, or political content on our children”.” He called for the direct election — and firing — of school principals by parents.

Like DeSantis, he was deeply critical of gender-affirming care. He vowed to sign an executive order instructing federal agencies “to cease the promotion of sex or gender transition at any age.” He said hospitals and health care providers who provide gender-affirming care for minors should be deemed in violation of federal health and safety standards and lose federal funding, and said he would call on Congress to ban it in all 50 states.

After his speech, Trump made a stop at Pat’s King of Steaks, a local Philadelphia institution, where he posed for photos and signed autographs for fans.

The high interest in the event among GOP hopefuls underscores the influence of Moms for Liberty, which has made connections with powerful GOP organizations, politicians and donors to become a major political player. The group has said it doesn’t plan to endorse any presidential candidate in the primary election.

The group has transformed from three Florida moms opposing COVID-19 mandates in 2021 to claiming 285 chapters across 45 states. Along the way, it has found a close ally in DeSantis, who was presented with a “liberty sword” at the group’s first annual meeting last year and has signed multiple bills that Moms for Liberty supported.

Beyond remarks from the candidates and other speakers, the summit features strategy sessions on such topics as “protecting kids from gender ideology” and “comprehensive sex education: sex ed or sexualization.”

Summit attendees said they liked what they were hearing so far.

“I love Moms for Liberty,” said Debbie McGinley, who is running for the school board in Methacton School District outside Philadelphia. As a parent of three kids who lost her business as a hairdresser during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said she appreciated that the group is “fighting for our kids.”

Lucy Reyna, a treasurer for a Moms for Liberty chapter in Indiana, said she traveled to the conference to learn more about the national organization.

“What am I a part of? I need to know those things,” Reyna said, adding that if the group leaned too partisan in one direction, it would make her reconsider her participation.

Outside, roughly 100 parent activists and LGBTQ+ advocates gathered to protest, citing the Southern Poverty Law Center’s designation of the group as an “anti-government extremist” organization. They chanted, “Not in our city” and “Let’s say gay” while holding signs that read, “Hate is not patriotic” and “Philly is the LGBTQest city.”

Some protesters said specific incidents prompted their activism, including an Indiana Moms for Liberty chapter Ruby Bridges.

“I think they stand for fear. And that turns into hate very quickly,” said Molly Roses, a Philadelphia resident who joined the protest.

In the days before the conference, several historical associations, state senators, activists and employees at Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution had pleaded unsuccessfully with the museum to cancel a welcome event for the conference Thursday night. The event went on as planned.

The museum told The Associated Press that “because fostering understanding within a democratic society is so central to our mission, rejecting visitors on the basis of ideology would in fact be antithetical to our purpose.”

In her remarks, Moms for Liberty National Director of Engagement Tia Bess rejected claims that the group is racist.

“Do I look like a racist to y’all?” Bess, who is Black, told the overwhelmingly white audience.

Tiffany Justice, one of the group’s co-founders, responded sarcastically to the SPLC’s “extremist” label onstage Friday, referring to herself as “the face of domestic terrorism, apparently.”

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, another GOP candidate who appeared Friday, said that, “When they mentioned that this was a terrorist organization … I said well then count me as a Mom for Liberty.”

Though Moms for Liberty says it is nonpartisan, it has overwhelmingly drawn conservative support. The group also has fought to elect conservative candidates to school boards around the country.

While the group’s status as a 501(c)4 nonprofit means it doesn’t have to disclose its funders, its public donors include conservative powerhouses such as the Heritage Foundation and the Leadership Institute, a national political training organization.

Patriot Mobile, a far-right Christian cellphone company paying to sponsor Trump’s remarks at the conference, has a political action committee that has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in an effort to take charge of Texas school boards.

Mom for Liberty’s Florida-based PAC also has received a $50,000 donation from Julie Fancelli, a Republican donor whose family owns Publix grocery stores and who helped fund Trump’s Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally, according to House Jan. 6 committee findings. Fancelli didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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Colvin reported from New York. Associated Press writer Nicholas Riccardi in Denver and video journalist David R. Martin in Philadelphia contributed reporting.

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The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to enhance its explanatory coverage of elections and democracy. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Trump and DeSantis court Moms for Liberty in a sign of the group’s rising influence over the GOP