FreedomWorks is an influential conservative advocacy organization that has been a key backer of the Tea Party movement. Although the group has claimed on its website to have originally been created in 1984, the current manifestation of FreedomWorks appears to have emerged in 2004 as the result of a merger between Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE), a rightist pro-free market organization, and Empower America, a neoconservative-aligned pressure group founded in 1993 by William Bennett, secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan and a well known rightist pundit.
A champion of small government conservatism, FreedomWorks claims to drive "policy change by training and mobilizing grassroots Americans to engage their fellow citizens and encourage their political representatives to act in defense of individual freedom and economic opportunity."
With ample financial resources and considerable organizational muscle, FreedomWorks has been an influential and confrontational force pushing a Tea Party line within the Republican Party, often contrasting itself with "establishment Republicans." "People are not attracted to a political party for its strategy. They come for the ideals," wrote FreedomWorks blogger Loren Heal, suggesting that the party's "pragmatists" and reformists lacked the ideological rigor to lead the GOP. "As government grows without bound and dominates more and more of our lives, the voices standing against tyranny, and not seeming to accept it, will be most effective at bringing people in."
During the 2012 election cycle, FreedomWorks waged open war on the so-called GOP establishment, helping to topple longtime moderate Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) and propel Tea Party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to victory in contested primary races. In 2013, FreedomWorks helped push Republican members of Congress to shut down the federal government over the implementation of "Obamacare," much to the chagrin of party leaders, and broke with its own tradition of keeping mum on foreign policy matters by rallying its members against U.S. intervention in Syria. With FreedomWorks and other Tea Party groups rallying against an attack, even veteran neocons like Liz Cheney, a Republican Senate candidate in Wyoming, were compelled to walk back their past advocacy for war in pursuit of Tea Party votes.
Organizational Shake Up (2012-2013)
Internal tumult at the organization in late 2012 led to the widely noted ouster of then-FreedomWorks board chair Dick Armey, a right-wing former congressman from Texas known for his efforts—along with Newt Gingrich— in helping draft the GOP's 1994 "Contract with America." Armey had reportedly objected to Kibbe's alleged use of FreedomWorks resources to produce and promote a book from which Kibbe alone stood to profit, among other differences about the direction and conduct of the organization. At one point, Armey attempted to fire Kibbe and had an armed assistant escort him from the premises. Six days later, however, Kibbe was reinstated, and a wealthy FreedomWorks donor funded a 20-year, $8-million payout for Armey. A report in the Washington Post concluded that the incident illustrated "the growing role of wealthy donors in swaying the direction of FreedomWorks and other political groups, which increasingly rely on unlimited contributions from corporations and financiers for their financial livelihood."
An internal FreedomWorks investigation following the dispute resulted in further leaks and disclosures. In January 2013, Armey confirmed the authenticity of leaked documents showing that FreedomWorks had paid millions of dollars to conservative talk show hosts Glenn Beck and Rush Lumbaugh in exchange for favorable coverage. Armey also confirmed that the organization had actually charged supporters to attend FreedomWorks rallies, with one event in Dallas charging as much as $971 per visitor.
The following month, it was revealed that the Dallas event had been slated to feature a promotional video featuring, among other things, FreedomWorks interns simulating sex acts between Hillary Clinton and a panda. Organizers eventually decided not to air the video, in which high-ranking FreedomWorks staffers also appeared. The story was broken by Mother Jones, which quoted one former official wondering, "How was [forcing interns to simulate sex acts] not some form of sexual harassment? And there were going to be thousands of Christian conservatives at this thing. This was a terrible lack of judgment."
In a separate incident in February 2013, a FreedomWorks-affiliated organizer in Arizona made news by vowing to distribute Valentines featuring autocrats like Adolf Hitler ("Be Mein") and Fidel Castro ("Don't embargo my love") to legislators who opposed pending anti-union legislation in the state. The organizer eventually dropped the plans after he was criticized by his Twitter followers. "It was never something I was really, seriously going to do," he said. "It was probably bad judgment on my part to even joke about it."
2012 Election and Fallout
During the 2012 election cycle, FreedomWorks' "super PAC," FreedomWorks for America, spent millions of dollars boosting the campaigns of right-wing Republican candidates supported by Tea Party activists. One notable victory was the July 2012 Texas GOP primary election of Ted Cruz, who defeated David Dewhurst, an establishment Republican Party candidate backed by Gov. Rick Perry. On its website, the FreedomWorks for America PAC described Cruz as "truly a dynamic work-horse for freedom and limited government, who as "a poor Cuban immigrant … learned at a very early age the value of hard work and the importance of economic freedom in achieving the American dream." Cruz, however, was not himself a Cuban immigrant, but was born in Canada to a Cuban father.
After Cruz's victory, a FreedomWorks spokesperson warned GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney that he should take notice of the victory and start moving further to the right. "If we can elect a really conservative House and Senate that will force Romney to go along with our bold conservative agenda. He's going to have to really, really go to the right. He'll be working with guys in the House and Senate. He won't be able to get away with too many middle of the road policies, especially on things like the deficit."
Other observers echoed this assessment. Norman Ornstein of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute said that if Romney were to win the election, "It's not going to be a Romney driven presidency. It's going to be a Congressional, conservative, Republican driven presidency from Congress."
The super PAC also helped oust longstanding "mainstream" Republican Party officials, including Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN). After losing his primary bid to a Tea Party-backed candidate during the Indiana primary in May 2012, Lugar—who was well known for his bipartisan leadership on U.S. foreign policy matters during his several decades in the Senate—cited the influence of FreedomWorks in helping orchestrate his defeat, stating: "I knew that I would face an extremely strong anti-incumbent mood following a recession. I knew that my work with then-Senator Barack Obama would be used against me, even if our relationship were overhyped. I also knew from the races in 2010 that I was a likely target of Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and other Super Pacs dedicated to defeating at least one Republican as a purification exercise to enhance their influence over other Republican legislators."
However, despite the a few notable successes—like that of Ted Cruz in Texas—Tea Party-backed Senate candidates were most notable for their inability to win general elections in 2012, thereby guaranteeing the Democratic Party a continued majority. In an effort to combat this trend, Karl Rove and other Republican Party insiders launched a lobbying initiative in early 2013 called the Conservative Victory Project aimed at convincing donors not to back extremely right-wing Senate candidates. Responding to Rove's new "super PAC," FreedomWorks' Kibbe said in an interview with Glenn Beck that the "establishment" GOP is "going after us, and I think that … all of us should be a little bit proud that we have the establishment so freaked out that they've decided to just come after us straight up. That tells me that we are accomplishing something, we're shaking things up."
Tea Party and the Koch Brothers
Despite its grassroots claims, observers have argued that FreedomWorks is an establishment organization that has endeavored to co-opt grassroots movements. Shortly after the Tea Party began to emerge as a force in national politics, FreedomWorks was one of several establishment groups that stepped in to claim the leadership of the movement.
Wrote Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone, "Suddenly, tens of thousands of Republicans who had been conspicuously silent during George Bush's gargantuan spending on behalf of defense contractors and hedge-fund gazillionaires showed up at Tea Party rallies across the nation, declaring themselves fed up with wasteful government spending. From the outset, the events were organized and financed by the conservative wing of the Republican Party, which was quietly working to co-opt the new movement and deploy it to the GOP's advantage. Taking the lead was former House majority leader Dick Armey, who as chair of a group called FreedomWorks helped coordinate Tea Party rallies across the country."
FreedomWorks financial backers have included several conservative foundations—including the Bradley, Scaife, Castle Rock, Earhart, and Olin foundations—as well as the Koch brothers (David and Charles), who along with Rupert Murdoch have provided much of the financial backing for anti-Obama administration activism.
Commenting on the Koch brothers, the New York Times' Frank Rich wrote, "There's just one element missing from these snapshots of America's ostensibly spontaneous and leaderless populist uprising: the sugar daddies who are bankrolling it, and have been doing so since well before the 'death panel' warm-up acts of last summer. Three heavy hitters rule. You've heard of one of them, Rupert Murdoch. The other two, the brothers David and Charles Koch, are even richer, with a combined wealth exceeded only by that of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett among Americans. … Their self-interested and at times radical agendas, like Murdoch's, go well beyond, and sometimes counter to, the interests of those who serve as spear carriers in the political pageants hawked on Fox News. The country will be in for quite a ride should these potentates gain power, and given the recession-battered electorate's unchecked anger and the Obama White House's unfocused political strategy, they might."
American for Victory over Terrorism
After FreedomWorks was created in the run up to the 2004 presidential election, Bill Berkowitz wrote in MediaTransparency: "Stealing a page from MoveOn.org 's successful organizing playbook, the leaders of FreedomWorks--a merger of the conservative think-tanks Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE) and Empower America—hope to conduct massive get out the vote and political education campaigns in the swing states on behalf of President George W. Bush. The two groups decided to merge because there was 'an overlap in issues between the two organizations,' Shawn Small, the director of policy at Empower America, told me in a telephone interview. It was an opportunity to bring together Empower America, which Small characterized as a 'grasstops' organization driven by such inside the beltway 'superstars' as William Bennett, Vin Weber, and Jean Kirkpatrick, and CSE's 'grassroots' following."
Despite the claims of overlap, FreedomWorks has largely abandoned the get-tough foreign policy advocacy that characterized much of Empower America's work, especially in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Among Empower's more notable efforts during the early years of the "war on terror" was the creation of the Bill Bennett-led Americans for Victory over Terrorism (AVOT), an advocacy outfit closely aligned with pro-war neoconservative groups that helped push public opinion to support the invasion of Iraq. AVOT eventually merged with the conservative Claremont Institute.
On foreign policy, FreedomWorks has little to say aside from advocating free trade agreements and pushing through immigration reform, including border security. As of 2012, FreedomWorks' "Key Issues" web page failed to mention any foreign policy concerns. On "border security," the group wrote on its website, "Large-scale illegal border crossings—the vast majority for economic reasons—are compromising the security of America's borders. … By providing American employers and temporary guest workers a legal way to operate, we can eliminate the source of much of the current lawlessness at the border. Reducing the overall flow of illegal traffic at the border will allow law enforcement to focus on stopping criminal gangs and capturing terrorists."
Describing FreedomWorks' pre-Tea Party work, Rolling Stones' Taibbi writes, "Prior to the Tea Party phenomenon, FreedomWorks was basically just an AstroTurfing-lobbying outfit whose earlier work included taking money from Verizon to oppose telecommunications regulation. Now the organization's sights were set much higher: In the wake of a monstrous economic crash caused by grotesque abuses in unregulated areas of the financial-services industry, FreedomWorks—which took money from companies like mortgage lender MetLife—had the opportunity to persuade millions of ordinary Americans to take up arms against, among other things, Wall Street reform."
A 2007 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists listed FreedomWorks as an organization that received much money from "Big Oil" and promoted an agenda that did not recognize global warming: "CSE received $275,250 from ExxonMobil in 2001, an increase from $30,000 the year before. CSE merged with Empower America and became FreedomWorks in 2004. FreedomWorks maintains that the science of climate change is 'far from settled' and cites scientists such as Sallie Baliunas," an astrophysicist who has criticized theories of global warming.
FreedomWorks earned hundreds of thousands of dollars through a plan, designed by Citizens for a Sound Economy in 2000, in which people buying tax-free medical savings accounts sold by Medical Savings Insurance Co. were asked to become members of the advocacy group. The plan, which was the subject of a class-action lawsuit begun in 2005, was challenged on the basis that insurance holders were not made clearly aware that they were becoming members of the CSE when signing on. According to the lawsuit's motion for class-action status, "The certificates of insurance issued to class members, despite the clear language contained herein, did not disclose the identity of the Group Policyholder [CSE, and later FreedomWorks] of the group policy, despite the fact that each putative insured must 'join' and pay money to such group as a condition of obtaining insurance."