The Power Network Behind Florida’s Power Couple

THE bad news has fallen in the last week of November: A Florida woman claimed the state Republican Party chairman raped her in his home. The attack occurred after he and his wife had planned, according to the policeto meet her for a three-way sex date, like they had done before.

The claims were surprising given the power couple involved: Republican Party Chairman Christian Ziegler, who has denied the assault and said the encounter was consensual, is a prominent state political consultant. His wife, Bridget Ziegler, a Republican activist, is a founder of Moms for Liberty, the conservative political organization whose members have turned school board meetings into partisan battlegrounds across America for the past two years.

The allegations sparked a barrage of condemnations, complaints of hypocrisy and “Moms for Libertines” jokes. But the situation also opened a window into the machinations of the movement that helped give Zieglers such prominence in Republican politics — thanks in part to the rapid rise of Moms for Liberty as a national organization.

Bridget Ziegler launched Moms for Liberty with Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice in January 2021, but she was quickly courted. Within months, she was hired to help organize school board campaign trainings at the Leadership Institute, an obscure but influential nonprofit.

The institute was founded in 1979 by Morton Blackwell, a longtime Republican activist, so long that in 1964 he was Barry Goldwater's youngest elected delegate in his run for the Republican nomination. Blackwell's participation in the emerging New Right made him a crucial figure in the Reagan revolution, Richard Meagher, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College, told me. Now 84, Blackwell still serves as president of the Leadership Institute and is the national representative for the Virginia GOP. committee member.

The mission of the Blackwell Institute is to recruit and train conservative activists for positions of influence in politics and the media. Its website lists dozens of courses on get-out-the-vote strategies, digital campaigns and fundraising tips, but its real value, Meagher told me, is in its connections. “The Leadership Institute trains people and then connects them to various networks, whether it's think tanks or Congress or nonprofit groups or advocacy groups,” he said.

The Institute complaints having mentored more than a quarter of a million conservatives over the past five decades, including Karl Rove, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and former Vice President Mike Pence. Mike Johnson, newly elected Speaker of the House also credited Blackwell for his career in Congress. And few people in Florida were as hip as the Zieglers. But many of the institute's alumni are relatively unknown political players, experts told me. These activists can be the technologists behind campaigns and nonprofits, senators' staffers, or policy writers.

When the coronavirus pandemic prompted school administrators to keep children at home, the institute developed new programs to train suburban women to lead school board campaigns to keep schools open and wear masks — a development that led to the recruitment of Bridget Ziegler, the tall, blond face of this new public scene of conservative activism. (Ziegler did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

The Leadership Institute exists alongside dozens of similar but better-known groups, such as the Heritage Foundation, a think tank; Turning Point USA, a youth organization; and the Family Research Council, a social conservative group. Many of these organizations and their leaders are members of a conservative umbrella organization called the Council for National Policy, of which Blackwell was a founding member. The CNP is a secretive, invitation-only group that brings together conservative activists to coordinate political strategy, Anne Nelson, author of Shadow network, said. Think of the Conservative Political Action Conference, but less performative.

The CNP's goal is to “bring other travelers together” to coordinate strategy and messaging, Meagher said. Hillary Clinton popularized the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy,” but “it's not a conspiracy, it's all out in the open,” Meagher said. “They are very well connected and there is a lot of crossover between the different institutions. » The Democratic Party, of course, has similar resources for training progressive candidates and promoting its policy goals. But, Meagher said, the Democratic-aligned constellation isn't as ideologically coherent or disciplined as the groups that make up the CNP: “There's no analogy to that on the left.” »

This interlocking structure of funding, training, and chatter is key to understanding Moms for Liberty's rapid success in American politics.

According to Ziegler and colleagues, the organization was initially launched to address parents' concerns about school closures and mask policies during the pandemic. But Moms for Liberty was quickly absorbed into the broader network of the conservative movement. A few days after its creation, Moms for Liberty was Featured on Rush Limbaugh's radio show. In June 2021, the group was accommodation political commentator Megyn Kelly for a “fireside chat” in Cape Canaveral, Florida. This early success and financial capacity suggest that the group “had a lot of resources that are simply not available to other grassroots groups,” said Maurice T. Cunningham, chair of the University's political science department. from Massachusetts to Boston. Me.

Today, after only two years of existence, the group has become a mandatory campaign event for Republican political candidates. At this year's Moms for Liberty summit in Philadelphia — only its second national gathering — every major candidate in the presidential primary stopped to speak to the crowd, including Donald Trump.

“It was maybe five minutes of moms selling T-shirts and selling baked goods,” Joshua Cowen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, told me. “But it was very quickly, in a few months, that they became the right-wing avatar that they are today. » Recently, the group's focus has shifted to advocating against the teaching of gender, sexuality and race in school curricula, and to banning certain books from school libraries that mention these themes. This new front in the group's campaign has highlighted allegations of sexual impropriety against the Zieglers. (“Never, ever apologize,” Christian Ziegler said during a presentation on media management at this year's Mom's for Liberty Summit. “Apologizing makes you look weak.”)

The Leadership Institute is a full sponsor of the two annual Moms for Liberty summits, donating at least $50,000 in 2022 and was the main sponsor of the event again in 2023, and offered educational sessions to members. In short, Cunningham told me, “If there is no Leadership Institute, there is no Moms for Liberty.” Each year, the group awards a “Sword of Liberty” for defending parents’ rights; this year in Philadelphia, Blackwell I have the sword.

This recognition now seems without reciprocity. Over the past three weeks, Bridget Ziegler appears to have been rubbed, Soviet style, from the Leadership Institute; his name has disappeared from the online staff directory. (As of Friday morning, the Leadership Institute had not responded to a request for comment.) Ziegler was also request to resign from the Sarasota school board.

There is no doubt that his reputation in conservative politics has taken a hit. Even the influence of Moms for Liberty may have reached a peak for now, given some recent failures in school elections. But “what doesn’t diminish,” Cowen said, “is the influence of the groups that support them.”

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