A group that fueled attacks on critical race theory during Virginia’s hotly contested gubernatorial race has ties to several of former President Donald Trump’s allies, including Newt Gingrich and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.
The group, 1776 Action, is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit “dark money” organization that isn’t required to publicly disclose its donors. Gingrich and Carson are not listed as leaders of the group, but people close to them, including former top aides, have leadership roles.
This group was previously known as the American Legacy Center. It targeted Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election and congressional Democrats during the 2018 midterms.
The organization raised over $2.3 million from 2014 through 2019, according to their public 990 forms reviewed by CNBC. Records for 2020 and 2021 are not yet available. 1776 Action did not respond to CNBC’s requests for comment before publication.
The organization, which says it is committed to stopping “anti-American indoctrination,” is positioned to continue pushing its message during next year’s midterms and then perhaps the 2024 race as conservative forces increasingly take aim at critical race theory. The group’s rebranding was done in response to the growing controversy over racism and race in schools.
Critical race theory is an academic approach to studying the impact of racism. It is taught at both the college and graduate level. Conservatives recently used the term to describe anti-racism discussions or any mentions of race in schools . Republicans are opposed to critical race theory and it was a key issue in the Virginia election.
1776 Action took its name from Trump’s own 1776 Commission, a White House initiative that called its work a “rebuttal of reckless ‘re-education’ attempts that seek to reframe American history around the idea that the United States is not an exceptional country but an evil one.”
Republican Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governor’s race after campaigning, in part, on pushing to ban the teaching of critical race theory in the commonwealth’s schools. Youngkin kept Trump at arms length, but the former president was vocal in his support for the candidate and for fighting critical-race theory education.
In September, 1776 Action’s logo was featured at a Virginia event called the “Rally to Save Our Schools.” Youngkin stated during the rally that he would ban teaching critical race theory if elected governor. Carson spoke at the event.
The banner featured logos from other similar groups such as Fight for Schools (a Virginia-based political organization that opposes critical race theory). Data from the Virginia Public Access Project shows that 1776 Action group contributed $10,000 this year to the PAC, one of their most recent top donors. Two other groups that are not affiliated with Trump also contributed to the Fight for Schools PAC.
1776 Action also published an over nine-minute video showing what the group says is Virginia parents pushing back on the teaching of critical race theory.
The American Legacy Center was established in 2014. Virginia state records show an original board including Adam Waldeck, who worked on Gingrich’s 2012 campaign for president. Waldeck is now the president of 1776 Action. Waldeck was American Legacy’s executive director from its inception through 2019. Stefan Passantino, who later became deputy White House counsel, is listed as the attorney who represented the group when it filed articles.
Waldeck recently discussed 1776 Action on Gingrich’s podcast. Gingrich was informed by Waldeck that Hannah Smith (who won a seat on the Texas school board and opposed critical race theory teaching), is now a member their board of advisors. The interview also sheds light upon a text messaging campaign that the group launched during Virginia’s election this year.
Mike Murray, who would serve as a senior advisor to Carson’s 2016 campaign for president, served on the American Legacy Center’s board from 2015 to 2017. Murray also worked on Trump’s 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns.
Murray, now CEO of TMA Direct is a data management firm that worked for Carson’s campaign as well as American Legacy PAC, a political-action committee affiliated with American Legacy Center. American Legacy PAC was reportedly co-founded by Gingrich. Murray is not listed as a leader on 1776 Action’s website.
Carson’s son Benjamin Carson Jr. joined the American Legacy’s board starting in 2016 and remained on it through 2019, according to the 990 forms. 1776 Action’s website lists Carson Jr. son as a member of its board of directors.
A disclosure from 2016 lists another board member, Vincent Haley, who would go on to work for the Trump administration. He resigned from the group in 2017 to join the White House. According to disclosure reports, Haley was a deputy assistant to President Trump, specifically as an “adviser to policy, strategy, and speechwriting.”
Haley also revealed his own connections to Gingrich in his first financial disclosure during Trump’s tenure. According to his filing, Haley was vice president at Gingrich Productions prior to joining the Trump campaign. He was also a producer for “Billy Graham Film Project LLC”. Graham was a massively influential Christian evangelist who died in 2018.
Haley is not listed as a 1776 Action board member.
Ryan Rhodes, a former member of Carson’s 2016 campaign, is on 1776 Action’s board and had also served on the board of the American Legacy Center.
Though American Legacy Center does not publicly list its donors, the operatives involved with it helped finance Republican campaigns, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Murray was the treasurer of the affiliated American Legacy PAC since it launched in 2010 through most of the 2016 election. Waldeck was briefly treasurer before the PAC closed in 2017.
The PAC contributed to Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012 and Trump’s effort in 2016, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. From 2012 through the 2018 midterms, the American Legacy PAC gave over $280,000 to Republican candidates.
The PAC raised more than $9 million from its creation until it shut down in 2017. Jennifer Pritzker, a member of Pritzker’s wealthy Pritzker family, and Murray, as well as other employees of TMA Direct, were the top donors over the years. Murray’s company received over $325,000 from the PAC before it closed.
While the American Legacy PAC is closed, its related organization, the American Legacy Center, persisted and took pro-Trump stances in the 2016 and 2018 election cycles.
During the 2016 campaign, the group took aim at Clinton’s handling of the 2012 attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, when she was secretary of State. Two ads were posted to their still active YouTube account by the group. They attack Clinton with commentary by Kristian “Tanto”, who was part the security team that defended against the attack. Those two spots were published in the summer of 2016, months before Trump defeated Clinton in the election.
A website sponsored at the time by the American Legacy Center lists Paronto, according to internet archive The Wayback Machine.
During the 2018 midterms, the same organization put up an ad featuring former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik, who was later pardoned by Trump for federal crimes. The ad encourages viewers to “put America First” and invokes one of Trump’s slogans. It also urges viewers to “force your Congressmen to do their jobs.” It ends by encouraging people go to a website called “Sovereignty Now.” Text of the archived site says “the 2018 midterm elections offer a clear choice between President Trump’s vision of strong borders and restored American sovereignty, and the radical Left’s vision of open borders and abolishing ICE. “