By Gregory Krieg, CNN
(CNN) — Leading Republican presidential candidates are making their cases at the Moms for Liberty summit in Philadelphia on Friday and Saturday, a sign of the right-wing group’s growing influence in GOP national politics.
Former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy are slated to address the organization, conceived of during the school closures and mask mandate clashes of the Covid-19 pandemic, and which now advocates for what it describes as “parent power” in public education.
Wearing T-shirts with the slogan “We Don’t Co-Parent With The Government,” Moms for Liberty members have emerged as some of the most fervent evangelists for efforts to ban certain books from schools, outlaw the teaching and discussion of gender and sexuality by teachers, and crack down on educators’ embrace – however overstated or outright concocted – of “critical race theory.”
Organized opposition to those typically liberal priorities has accelerated during Joe Biden’s presidency as Republicans seek to claw back gains made by Democrats among suburban women, who broke sharply against Trump in 2020. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, another potential GOP presidential candidate, made “parents’ rights” a centerpiece of his winning campaign in 2021. But similar culture war messaging yielded mixed results a year later during the midterms, when Republicans struggled again with crucial suburban moderates.
But as the 2024 GOP presidential primary heats up, the candidates are almost uniformly pushing a similar set of issues – though often more vitriolic in tone – as they seek to win over conservative activists who remain largely aligned with Trump.
Haley tweeted that she was “looking forward to seeing all my fellow moms on a mission” at the summit Friday.
“Nothing will stop us from using the power of our voices to shake up Washington!” she tweeted.
Founded in 2021 by three former and current Florida school board members, the group has been among the most effective at channeling conservative anger over cultural issues into action on the ground – from supporting candidates in local races to encouraging what have effectively been vigilante campaigns against teachers, administrators and other political foes that defy new laws and guidance around issues such as the the teaching of CRT in the classroom.
“Just like with any successful organization or business or anyone that’s successful, if you fill the need that’s out there, people will be drawn to it,” group founder and leader Tina Descovich told CNN in 2021 as the number of chapters across the country and membership was taking off.
Moms for Liberty has since grown dramatically and now claims it has 285 chapters in 45 states with more than 120,000 members.
The group formed an early alliance with DeSantis, hailing him as “the Parents’ Governor” – praise that his office, in 2021, happily accepted and returned, commending Moms for Liberty “for speaking out and fighting for their right to be involved in their kids’ education.” (Despite those connections, including DeSantis’ appearance at the national gathering in 2022, the organization has said it will not endorse in the Republican presidential primary.)
Moms for Liberty is also seen as a rising force outside of conservative Republican circles. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights watchdog, in 2022 labeled the group a “far-right organization that engages in anti-student inclusion activities and self-identifies as part of the modern parental rights movement.”
Among the public comments flagged by the SPLC was a tweet last summer from the group’s account that called gender dysphoria “a mental health disorder that is being normalized by predators across the USA.”
The post was attacking a legislative proposal in California designed to expand access to gender-affirming care, which has been banned in a number of red states. The tweet claimed that “California kids are at extreme risk from predatory adults. Now they want to ‘liberate’ children all over the country. Does a double mastectomy on a preteen sound like progress?”
Twitter briefly suspended the group’s account, according to Tiffany Justice, one of the co-founders. More recent posts include a litany of grievances, most prominently accusations that its opponents are led by “communists.” Its Indiana chapter apologized last week after using a quote attributed to Adolf Hitler in a newsletter.
“He alone, who OWNS the youth, GAINS the future,” was the line, believed to have come from a speech by the Nazi leader in the 1930s, cited approvingly by the authors as a warning, frequently used on the far-right, about so-called liberal indoctrination of children.
Following an Indianapolis Star report on the newsletter, the chapter made an addendum, saying, “The quote from a horrific leader should put parents on alert. If the government has control over our children today, they control our country’s future. We The People must be vigilant and protect children from an overreaching government.”
They subsequently deleted that, too, and posted an apology.
Moms for Liberty did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Nonpartisan political observers have compared the structure of the organization, and its ambitions, to that of the Obama-era “tea party,” which fueled calls for fiscal conservatism with fever swamp-born conspiracy theories about the former president.
Capri Cafaro, a former Ohio Democratic state senator who is now an an executive in residence at American University School of Public Affairs, drew that comparison in an interview with CNN in 2021, saying the groups were “structured very similarly” and sought to be “seen as a grassroots movement with local chapters across the country.”
The political power of Moms for Liberty, Cafaro said, lay in the makeup of its base: “Women and mothers, particularly in an age demographic generically between like 25 to 35.”
And like the tea party, Moms for Liberty has, in addition to grassroots donations it says have largely come through sales of its T-shirts, grown with the help of big-dollar conservative donors and ample airtime from right-wing media outlets.
Though the organization’s finances are largely opaque because of its tax-exempt 501(c)(4) status under IRS guidelines, which means the group is not required to disclose its donors, Moms for Liberty’s political action committee was the beneficiary of a $50,000 donation from Julie Fancelli, the Publix Super Markets heiress.
Public records show that some of the money was subsequently passed along to school board candidates in Florida, many of them politically aligned with DeSantis.
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.
CNN’s Eric Bradner contributed to this report.