Thousands of attack ads funded by dark money and using smear tactics once foreign to local Jackson and Teton County races were stuffed into U.S. Post Office boxes in the valley on Tuesday.
The advertisements were produced by an out-of-state conservative political action committee that was launched by Charlie Kirk, whose organization, Turning Point USA, got off the ground with seed money from deep-pocketed Jackson Hole businessman Foster Friess. Turning Point Action split off from Turning Point USA to get more directly involved in campaign politics.
The glossy mailers hitting Jackson Hole P.O. boxes featured an old mugshot of Town Council candidate and sitting Mayor Pete Muldoon. More typical in big city, statehouse, congressional and presidential races, such tactics had until now not entered town of Jackson or Teton County races.
A corresponding full-page mailer sent by the same PAC, Turning Point Action, endorsed three conservative-leaning council and mayoral candidates: Jim Rooks, Devon Viehman and Michael Kudar.
To varying degrees the same three candidates condemned Turning Point’s smear campaign on Tuesday.
Rooks, a former science teacher vying for the Town Council, rebuked the out-of-state group’s intrusion into the nonpartisan race for a seat on a board governing a town of 10,000 or so residents.
“They used my name and image without even letting me know,” Rooks told the News&Guide. “I was surprised and disappointed and a little bit pissed off.”
Rooks said he had turned down funds from Friess in the past, dating to when he was running a civic engagement team, We the People, at Jackson Hole High School. His last brush with Turning Point USA came a few months ago, when the group’s founder, Kirk, spoke at an event Friess had organized at Snow King.
“I would almost completely, totally disavow everything I heard that night,” Rooks said. “I’m not an expert on Turning Point, but I know that one part of what Charlie Kirk has done is basically criticize higher education in America as being overtly liberalized.”
The longtime, now-retired schoolteacher found Kirk’s comments to be “anti-intellectual” and “anti-academic.”
Friess, a 2018 gubernatorial candidate who organized that event, responded to the News&Guide’s request for an interview. But the 80-year-old responded in an email that contained no content. Subsequent attempts to reach him Tuesday failed.
Jackson Town Councilor Jonathan Schechter, who is not up for election, was able to successfully raise Friess over email to inquire whether he was involved. It was Turning Point Action ads touting Rooks’, Viehman’s and Kudar’s campaigns Schechter encountered on Politico.com and elsewhere online over the weekend that caught his attention. When Friess wrote him back, he claimed he didn’t know anything about it — and wasn’t going to ask.
Friess, a Jackson resident since 1992, has many connections to Turning Point USA, which is a nonprofit and the sibling organization of Turning Point Action, a 501(c)(4) group that was created last year to influence the 2020 elections.
Speaking at a pro-police rally in Jackson this August, Friess said he sent Turning Point founder Kirk his first $10,000 check. He encouraged attendees to check out the group, which has been accused by Facebook this year of creating fake accounts and running “troll farm”-style social media campaigns.
“Log on,” Friess told the crowd this summer. “Turning Point USA. Charlie Kirk.”
Turning Point founder Kirk did not respond to an interview request from the News&Guide, but he did forward a voicemail to a colleague. That employee, who asked not to be quoted, said that he was not aware of Turning Point Action’s involvement in Wyoming municipal politics and that the group more typically tries to influence larger, national political races.
Turning Point Action also made a splash in Jackson this summer, when some residents received automated robocalls and texts erroneously stating that the Town Council was discussing defunding the police department. Several dozen people took the misleading bait, including quite a few who are active with the Jackson Hole Tea Party, and they showed up outside the meeting in protest.
The remaining two candidates whose Town Council campaigns are being supported by Turning Point Action also criticized the organization’s unsolicited aid.
“I had never heard of Turning Point before the ads were brought to my attention,” Viehman said in a text message. “I would not have condoned their ads nor do I condone their subversive tactics. They have no business in our local race.”
Viehman, like Rooks, also said that she did not give Turning Point permission to use her image on the mailer, and was particularly disturbed that the organization had plastered a picture of her whole family on the back of the mailer without her approval.
Michael Kudar, who’s up against Councilor Hailey Morton Levinson in the Jackson mayoral race, said he also wasn’t aware of the smear ads being created to help his campaign and did not support their overall tone.
“If it’s negative I’m not going to condone that,” Kudar said. “I don’t consider this help. I consider this hurting both entities.”
At the same time, Kudar said he sees merit in some of Turning Point’s messaging, like blurbs equating Morton Levinson’s and Muldoon’s voting records.
“Is it true?” Kudar asked. “Is any of this false, or is this all true?”
Both Morton Levinson and Muldoon have defended their actions as town councilor and mayor, respectively, since the attack-ad mailers came to light, with Levinson decrying Turning Point Action's involvement in Jackson politics, no matter whom they support or — as in this case — attack and cut down.
"I'm disturbed that a national conservative Super PAC is trying to influence our local elections," Morton Levinson said. "I feel like that does not have a place here. And it makes me — we should all be worried about what that potentially means for future elections and just really think about that, as a community."
Muldoon, meanwhile, said any candidate with connections to Turning Point Action should be ashamed of themselves.
"There's a reason that organizations with ties to white supremacists not only don't offer me money, but are actively trying to destroy me. And that's because I've consistently opposed them in word and in deed," Muldoon said. "Canned responses about opposing white supremacy don't mean a whole lot to me when a candidate is willing to take their money."
As for the content of the Turning Point attack-ad mailer — which contained language and voting statistics extremely similar to that used by Kudar in his campaign materials on social media and his website — Morton Levinson scoffed.
"If you're looking at whatever the flier said, you know, that we [she and Muldoon] voted most of the time together, well, most of the council's votes are 5-0," she said. "And it's kind of silly to use that as a number when no one's going to vote against approving the minutes; no one's going to vote against approving the consent calendar unless [the council pulls and item and] we have a discussion and then we move on; or [nobody will vote against] reading ordinances in short title."
Of Turning Point, Kudar said he heard about them through Foster Friess.
“This is no big secret,” he said. “Everyone knows Foster has ties. He had them here speaking.”
The Teton County Democratic Party came out “strongly condemning” Turning Point’s involvement in the local, nonpartisan races.
“Though we may have policy disagreements, we believe that our local strength in Teton County comes from a shared belief in science, public health and facts across the political spectrum,” Pat Chadwick, the party’s secretary, said in a statement Tuesday. “Turning Point Action’s behavior threatens to undermine that strength, and we must be vigilant against their actions to maintain truly independent local elections.”
Jessica Sell Chambers, a council candidate, said a national PAC entering the local political arena and injecting its poisonous campaigning tactics did not surprise her, and she chalked Turning Point’s interest up to big money in Jackson Hole. The community, she said, faces a turning point of whether to embark down the road of hyperpartisan politics. Her prediction? It wouldn’t.
“We have enough people in Jackson who are so turned off by this kind of thing that they won’t succeed,” Chambers said. “In actuality, them doing this is going to make people not vote for those candidates.”
But some longtime observers of Wyoming and local politics fear that divisive, smear campaigns that have no regard for civility may be gaining a toehold. State Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton County, said he’s seen a shift this year in Cheyenne. Political action committees supporting candidates or an issue, he pointed out, are nothing new in Wyoming.
“But what’s new and what’s different in races in the Legislature and now in local races is this negative, hit-type advertising that’s been funded by outside interests,” Gierau said. “That’s something that I’ve never seen here before.”
“It’s their right to do it, but it’s sad,” he said. “Unfortunately, the reason why they keep doing it is because it works.”
This version of the article has been added to from the original, which went to print at 4:30 a.m. on Oct. 28. It now includes comments from Jackson Vice Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson and Mayor and Town Council candidate Pete Muldoon, both of whom were maligned in the ads created by Turning Point Action. — Eds.