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Inside Groundswell: Read the Memos of the New Right-Wing Strategy Group Planning a "30 Front War"

Ginni Thomas, Allen West, and a crew of conservative activists and journalists have formed a hush-hush coalition to battle progressives—and Karl Rove.

| Thu Jul. 25, 2013 11:53 AM EDT

From left: Frank Gaffney; Ginni Thomas; Allen West

Believing they are losing the messaging war with progressives, a group of prominent conservatives in Washington—including the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and journalists from Breitbart News and the Washington Examiner—has been meeting privately since early this year to concoct talking points, coordinate messaging, and hatch plans for "a 30 front war seeking to fundamentally transform the nation," according to documents obtained by Mother Jones

Dubbed Groundswell, this coalition convenes weekly in the offices of Judicial Watch, the conservative legal watchdog group. During these hush-hush sessions and through a Google group, the members of Groundswell—including aides to congressional Republicans—cook up battle plans for their ongoing fights against the Obama administration, congressional Democrats, progressive outfits, and the Republican establishment and "clueless" GOP congressional leaders. They devise strategies for killing immigration reform, hyping the Benghazi controversy, and countering the impression that the GOP exploits racism. And the Groundswell gang is mounting a behind-the-scenes organized effort to eradicate the outsize influence of GOP über-strategist/pundit Karl Rove within Republican and conservative ranks. (For more on Groundswell's "two front war" against Rove—a major clash on the right—click here.) 

One of the influential conservatives guiding the group is Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, a columnist for the Daily Caller and a tea party consultant and lobbyist. Other Groundswell members include John Bolton, the former UN ambassador; Frank Gaffney, the president of the Center for Security Policy; Ken Blackwell and Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council; Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch; Gayle Trotter, a fellow at the Independent Women's Forum; Catherine Engelbrecht and Anita MonCrief of True the Vote; Allen West, the former GOP House member; Sue Myrick, also a former House GOPer; Diana Banister of the influential Shirley and Banister PR firm; and Max Pappas, a top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). 

Among the conveners listed in an invitation to a May 8 meeting of Groundswell were Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News Network; Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent who resoundingly lost a Maryland Senate race last year (and is now running for a House seat); Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society; Sandy Rios, a Fox News contributor; Lori Roman, a former executive director of the American Legislative Exchange Council; and Austin Ruse, the head of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. Conservative journalists and commentators participating in Groundswell have included Breitbart News reporters Matthew Boyle and Mike Flynn, Washington Examiner executive editor Mark Tapscott, and National Review contributor Michael James Barton.

Meet the participants in Groundswell

 

Groundswell has collaborated with conservative GOPers on Capitol Hill, including Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Cruz and Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a leading tea partier. At its weekly meetings, the group aims to strengthen the right's messaging by crafting Twitter hashtags; plotting strategy on in-the-headlines issues such as voter ID, immigration reform, and the sequester; promoting politically useful scandals; and developing "action items."

A certain amount of secrecy cloaks Groundswell's efforts. Though members have been encouraged to zap out tweets with a #GSW hashtag, a message circulated to members of its Google group noted that the role of certain advocates should be kept "off of the Google group for OPSEC [operational security] reasons." This "will avoid any potential for bad press for someone if a communication item is leaked," the message explained. (The Groundswell documents were provided to Mother Jones by a source who had access to its Google group page and who has asked not to be identified.)

"We want to protect the strategic collaboration occurring at Groundswell and build on it. Please be careful about bringing guests and clear them ahead of time."

Washington is full of coalitions that meet to coordinate messaging and strategy. For two decades, conservative strategist Grover Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform, has held his now-famous Wednesday morning meetings for a broad spectrum of Republicans, including conservatives opposed to gay rights and abortion rights and those who favor them, as well as GOPers on different sides of the immigration reform debate. Groundswell, which meets at the same time as Norquist's group, appears to be a more ideologically pure version of the Norquist confab, and its emergence—given the prominent role of Ginni Thomas and the participation of journalists—prompts several intriguing questions. 

Critics have contended that Thomas' work as a lobbyist opposing Obamacare posed a conflict of interest for her husband, who would rule on the constitutionality of the health care reform initiative. (Clarence Thomas joined the Supreme Court minority that favored striking down the law.) And Common Cause has maintained that Justice Thomas had a conflict of interest when he participated in the Citizens United case because his wife at the time was running a conservative nonprofit fighting the "tyranny" of President Barack Obama that would benefit from removing limits on such groups' spending and fundraising. With her involvement in Groundswell—which zeroes in on contentious issues that come before the high court, including voting rights, abortion, and gay marriage—Ginni Thomas continues to be intricately associated with matters on which her husband may have to render a decision. Ginni Thomas did not respond to requests for comment.

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The participation of journalists in coordinating messaging with ideological advocates and political partisans raises another set of issues. Conservatives expressed outrage when news broke in 2009 about Journolist, a private email list where several hundred progressive-minded reporters, commentators, and academics exchanged ideas and sometimes bickered. (I was on Journolist, mainly as a lurker.) The late Andrew Breitbart once offered $100,000 for the full Journolist archives and denounced it as "the epitome of progressive and liberal collusion that conservatives, Tea Partiers, moderates and many independents have long suspected and feared exists at the heart of contemporary American political journalism." The Groundswell documents show conservative journalists, including several with Breitbart News, colluding on high-level messaging with leading partisans of the conservative movement.  
 

How Groundswellers Win "Brownie Points"
Notes prepared after a Groundswell meeting held on March 27 detailed the group's mission and origins:

Groundswell evolved out of conversations among conservative leaders after the November elections. This is the eighth meeting. Now others are asking to be included. Growth needs to be strategic; it should be made up of senior level people willing to collaborate. It is important to keep a balance of social conservatives, national security conservatives, and constitutional conservatives. Outreach has occurred to incorporate groups with extensive reach: Heritage, Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, AFP [Americans for Prosperity], FRC [Family Research Council] and the NRA, among others…Our country is in peril. This is a critical moment needing critical leadership. We want to protect the strategic collaboration occurring at Groundswell and build on it. Please be careful about bringing guests and clear them ahead of time.

The memo declared that the goal was not to merely ponder, but to be proactive:

What Groundswell is not is a room of note takers. The goal of Groundswell is to sync messages and develop action from reports and information exchanged. Going forward there should be an action item accompanying each report.

At the March 27 meeting, Groundswell participants discussed one multipurpose theme they had been deploying for weeks to bash the president on a variety of fronts, including immigration reform and the sequester: Obama places "politics over public safety." In a display of Groundswell's message-syncing, members of the group repeatedly flogged this phrase in public. Frank Gaffney penned a Washington Times op-ed titled "Putting Politics Over Public Safety." Tom Fitton headlined a Judicial Watch weekly update "Politics over Public Safety: More Illegal Alien Criminals Released by Obama Administration." Peter List, editor of LaborUnionReport.com, authored a RedState.com post called "Obama's Machiavellian Sequestration Pain Game: Putting Politics Over Public Safety." Matthew Boyle used the phrase in an immigration-related article for Breitbart. And Dan Bongino promoted Boyle's story on Twitter by tweeting, "Politics over public safety?" In a message to Groundswellers, Ginni Thomas awarded "brownie points" to Fitton, Gaffney, and other members for promoting the "politics over public safety" riff. 

"If we lose on immigration, we lose on every other issue. They key to defeating this bill is Sen. Rubio."

There was much more on the agenda for the March 27 meeting than a single talking point. The group routinely addresses an ambitious to-do list for its campaign against the left. At that session, Groundswellers discussed several immigration-related "action items." These included attempting to link the pending reform bill to Obamacare and collecting health care reform horror stories to provide to Cruz, a leading opponent of the Senate immigration reform bill. (Cruz has repeatedly compared the legislation to the health care reform law.)

Groundswell members saw immigration as a life-or-death issue. "If we lose on immigration," the post-meeting memo noted, "we lose on every other issue. The key to defeating this bill is Sen. Rubio. He can gracefully remove himself from the 'gang of 8' and still save face…The messaging on this issue has to be 'we can't trust Obama' to enforce immigration laws after the amnesty." 

The group also reviewed how best to oppose the confirmation of Tom Perez, Obama's nominee for labor secretary. Groundswellers claimed that Perez, then a senior Justice Department official, supported "Muslim Brotherhood organizations and Shariah." (One Groundswell memo maintained that Perez "is extremely antagonistic toward whites.") A third agenda item that Wednesday morning was beating back the effort to end the Boy Scouts of America's ban on gay Scouts. And there was yet another issue for the Groundswell members to stoke: "John Kerry has family ties to Iran that opens the doors to blackmail and other national security risks. Kerry's son in law is an Iranian American with extensive family still in Iran." The post-meeting memo suggested Twitter hashtags to push: #CantTrustObama, #PoliticsOverPublicSafety, #SequesterLies.

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