FreedomWorks, the hard-line conservative policy group that helped launch the tea party movement, is attempting a major makeover.
One of the most renowned political groups to have branched off from the Koch Brothers’ network has decided to transform itself into a more moderate group, one sounding traditionally libertarian notes while pursuing the types of ideological compromise it used to eschew.
In a presentation intended for donors, lawmakers and others obtained by POLITICO, the group called for a “New FreedomWorks for a New World.” The presentation outlined the beliefs of independent voters who embrace such concepts as “climate realism” and “abortion options.”
In a letter to donors and staff, the group’s president Adam Brandon said conservatives no longer showed commitment to the philosophy of limited government and appealed for modesty on social policy.
At the heart of the attempted transformation is research conducted by FreedomWorks that shows suburban independent voters support “tolerance and choice,” Brandon wrote. He stressed that for the group to be successful, it must embrace those values and “become a beacon of sanity in turbulent times.”
“For this group of independents, gay marriage is a settled issue,” Brandon told donors and staff. “Concerning abortion, they believe the old adage that the issue should be safe, legal, and rare. What appeals to the partisan base does not appeal to this demographic. This demographic is rejecting the Democratic message, but they aren’t taking to the Republican message.”
The shift represents a step back from the MAGA-policy wars the group tried to fight during the Trump years. But it has also drawn skepticism from some former FreedomWorks staff who believe Brandon’s motivation stems from trying to keep the group afloat financially and not from any larger ideological conviction. One skeptic noted that FreedomWorks recently engaged in the same hot-button culture issues that Brandon now calls political toxins.
In an interview, Brandon called GOP politicians out of step with swing voters and said he feared Republicans would run on a social issues platform unpopular with the general electorate. He described the future of FreedomWorks as an entity that will forge bipartisan consensus on issues like immigration and entitlement reform, one that would exist just politically right of the centrist groups No Labels and Andrew Yang’s Forward Party.
In the presentation for donors, lawmakers and others, viewed by POLITICO, the group states that de-escalating the cultural wars is also part of its new policy agenda.
“One of the more common refrains I get is, we are in a kind of a subtle civil war in this country, and the two parties are like the mafia,” Brandon said in the interview, “and they give you protection, and you get out of those two parties, you’re in no man’s land, no one’s gonna protect you.”
In his letter to donors, Brandon said FreedomWorks intends to build a list of 500,000 independents in swing congressional districts and publish monthly polls of independent voters with the Bullfinch Group, a polling firm. It will also establish a candidate pledge with “a socially tolerant and fiscally responsible platform.”
“In a perfect world, like five years from now, you have this independent caucus. Are they Republicans? Are they Democrats? Are they independents? Who knows. But you’re able to build a structure,” he said.
A moderate-minded FreedomWorks would have been hard to imagine during the George W. Bush administration, when the group was part of a split more than 20 years ago from an organization funded by the Koch political network. It would have been utterly unfathomable during the Barack Obama years, when it helped lead the fight for deficit reduction and against health care reform.
But the grounds of the conservative movement have switched drastically since then. Now, the animating principles for Republicans are more centered on culture wars than long-term debt; and the Koch brothers are not a central force in the party, Donald Trump is.
Brandon, who joined FreedomWorks in 2005 as press secretary and rose through the ranks, emphasized that the rebrand effort wasn’t part of an anti-Trump project. But the transition was at least partially sparked by the former president’s actions. Brandon said he was left aghast by the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan 6. The moment was an impetus for FreedomWorks to change, although he had been thinking about some of the new themes for awhile.
Around summer of last year, FreedomWorks began its relationship with Junction AI, a platform that uses artificial intelligence to analyze data. The company specializes in retail but worked with FreedomWorks to study independents.
At the same time, the group hit some financial difficulty. A few years ago, corporate donations nearly plunged to zero, Brandon said.
But if the planned rebrand has been an attempt to win over donors, it has so far been a mixed bag. Paul Beckner, chair of the FreedomWorks Foundation board who also serves as a FreedomWorks board member, said there’s been some skepticism about the change from donors focused solely on Republican control of Congress.
FreedomWorks recently laid off 40 percent of its staff and Brandon himself says it would have been more lucrative to simply stay the course.
“The easiest thing for us to do is just to be knee-jerk conservative … If you do that, there’s a lot more money there,” he said.
Some people who worked for FreedomWorks said they viewed the rebrand cynically. One former staffer accused FreedomWorks of abandoning its founding principles during the Trump years. The group recently pushed election conspiracies and defended the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill in Florida. The former employee suggested Brandon would change direction again if Trump won back the presidency.
“[It is] hard to take that seriously when the guy who let the organization go from libertarian to hard right is still leading it,” the former FreedomWorks staffer, granted anonymity to speak freely, said about the institutional change. “What happens if Trump wins the nomination again, or the White House? I doubt Adam has grown a spine since Trump lost, so I’d imagine the same thing. He let a bunch of right-wing nutjobs turn FreedomWorks into a MAGA mouthpiece because there was money and eyeballs in it. If that becomes the case again, he’ll repeat history.”
When relayed the quote, Brandon laughed. He asked that he be judged by his own public statements and argued that it was “really hard to turn a ship.” Brandon said he was in the process of reckoning with FreedomWorks’ own contributions to the political entertainment that, he now says, is plaguing politics.
“People should be skeptical, and people don’t know who I am. You should always be skeptical of anyone in politics,” he said. “There is [an] amount of risk in this for me personally, for me professionally, and then there’s risk to the institution. There’s risk, but I’m looking at this risk as: Things change. Things evolve.”