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Earlier this month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation barring trans girls from playing on girls sports teams in public schools. He didn’t sign it alone: Standing right by him was Terry Schilling, the president of the American Principles Project (APP), a group pushing what they call “pro family” issues across the country.
And if Schilling has his way, he’ll be standing next to a lot more elected officials signing similar legislation after the midterms.
“There are 130 million families in America,” Schilling told VICE News. “That’s a lot of people. I don’t need all 130 million; I need a million signed up and engaged. And if we can do that, we can have an impact on legislation, political races, campaigns and elections—you name it.”
The APP has emerged as the lead organization trying to rally suburban voters around the hot-button issues now animating the Republican Party, like how allowing the participation of trans girls in women’s sports and the teaching of concepts like critical race theory threatens their own children. And they're doing it using former President Donald Trump's playbook: Rather than rely on corporate donors, who tend to shy away from these issues, they're soliciting the $25 small donor.
The vision, he says, is to turn his organization into an “NRA for families,” spending eight figures in the midterms to back politicians who campaign on these issues and, more importantly, take down those politicians who don’t. The goal is to be not just a political action committee but a full-fledged membership organization that would invoke the same fear in politicians that the gun lobby has for a generation.
Schilling, a millennial Republican operative who cut his teeth in politics leading his father’s underdog congressional campaign to victory, has helped the organization undergo a massive shift over the last few years. The American Principles Project was once the type of Washington conservative think tank that sprawled across the policy spectrum.
The goal is not just to be a political action committee, but a full-fledged membership organization that would invoke the same fear in politicians that the gun lobby has for a generation.
It used to push issues as eclectic as immigration reform and returning to the gold standard, and was led by an older generation of conservative activists like legal scholar Robert George and Jeff Bell, a former Reagan aide best known for defeating a liberal incumbent in the 1978 Republican Senate primary in New Jersey. But they have rebranded: Since Trump’s election, the group has become far more focused on social issues.
“The family as the most important special interest group in the country, above Corporate America, above Big Tech, Big Oil, all of that, family should come first,” he said. For him, this meant “parents should be allowed to raise their children and instill in them the values that they want to instill and parents should be able to protect their children from outside cultural influences that are trying to influence them.”
Schilling’s politics have already impacted politics across the country: Eight states have already passed bills that prevent trans women from playing girls sports and Trump’s allies like Steve Bannon are touting the use of critical race theory in schools as the suburban wedge issue that could win Republicans as many as 50 new House seats in 2022.
Schilling’s work has already drawn scorn from LGBTQ rights groups. “What they are doing is taking advantage of conservatives living in a state of fear and perpetuating that fear with myths and misinformation,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “Their rhetoric is dangerous and hateful and looks to divide voters on the proposition that anti-LGBTQ, specifically anti-trans, messages are going to resonate with them.”
Still, the Republican donor and political class has embraced these issues as they have zoomed to the forefront of the national conversation. Schilling said he “went from being mocked, laughed at, ridiculed in private meetings,” when he brought up issues like trans people in sports, but has since felt vindicated. “It is a huge issue in the Republican Party, and everyone wants to be on board.”
But being comfortable to have this conversation was only the first step; the next was to instill fear in politicians.
For Schilling, this began in 2016. He cited the successful effort to defeat North Carolina Republican governor Pat McCrory after the state passed an anti-trans bathroom bill. McCrory, Schilling said, told him that after the bill was passed he met with a prominent LGBTQ rights supporter who told McCrory that they were going to take him down as a result.
In Schilling’s telling, the message McCrory was given was that “[LGBTQ rights groups] are going to come at you with everything we have. We are going to un-elect you, and we are going to use your scalp as an example for everyone else and make sure no other governor in the country passes another bathroom bill. It doesn't matter. You can try to repeal it tomorrow. It doesn't matter, we are still coming for you.”
Schilling said that after McCrory told him that story, the defeated Republican added, “I wish that guy was on our team.” Looking back on that, Schilling said, “I want to be that guy, I want APP to be that group.” Which is to say, Schilling wants socially liberal politicians to face serious electoral consequences for passing progressive legislation.
“I want to be that guy, I want APP to be that group.”
Sasha Issenberg, the acclaimed historian of the successful battle for same-sex marriage, told VICE News, this new model of organizing potentially represents a new political dynamic. “This was a threat religious conservative leaders could not have plausibly made even during the years when we talked about how key they were in politics,” he said. They could go on TV and radio to talk about these issues but often did not have PACs, volunteers who could deliver on an electoral threat like that.”
Schilling doesn’t just save his ire exclusively for the left. He noted that under Trump, the Republican Party was not “a political party that prioritized economic relief for families.” Instead, he bristled at the 2017 tax cut bill, which made corporate tax cuts permanent and made tax cuts for families temporary.
In his view, the party has retreated away from using the power of government to defend families, using libertarianism as an excuse for its failure. “For decades the GOP has been very hesitant and skeptical about using the political power that the American people and the voters were giving them,” said Schilling. “We always thought any government [was] bad government and that is something we’ve been having to overcome and we have been overcoming it.
The question is whether APP can. The group was active in 2019 in the Kentucky governor’s race, but Democrats won. In 2020, Trump lost, as did APP’s candidates in states like Michigan and Georgia were defeated as well. Still, Schilling insisted that his group’s data showed that they moved tens of thousands of voters in swing states and were only limited by the fact that the candidates they supported were not as outspoken on issues like banning trans girls from competing in women’s sports as they were.
Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, described their efforts in these races as abject failure and derided them as “simply grasping at straws.”
However, Schilling insisted his group had already won. It wasn’t just that his framing of the issue had united politicians from all wings of party from Donald Trump to Nikki Haley or that they had tallied successes in state legislatures across the country in states from Montana to Mississippi, but that they finally had “woke corporate America” on the run.
Schilling claims he’s helped change the relationship Republicans have to big business as well, and cited recent remarks from Ron DeSantis where the Florida Republican said “you can have, theoretically, a successful economy, but if the underpinnings of the culture are just being torn apart, I don’t think that’s a society that’s going to be very successful over the long term.” This is a contrast from the past where social conservative governors yielded to corporate pressure on these issues. Now, Schilling said, “no one is afraid of corporate America, they've lost all their steam.”
Schilling then put it more bluntly, in language that could likely not be described as pro-family. “Republicans across the country are telling these woke corporations to shove it up their ass,” he said.
And Schilling plans to help them.