Few Republican organizations have risen as quickly as Turning Point USA.
Started in 2012 to energise young conservatives, the group has quickly grown to become a sort of quasi-party apparatus in its own right through organising, holding rallies with prominent conservatives, and, perhaps most importantly, closely aligning itself with former President Donald Trump and his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.
However, following the GOP’s underwhelming midterm performance, the past few months have been difficult for many groups on the right. Some Republicans are now questioning whether the group and its founder, Charlie Kirk, were overhyped, especially after top-of-the-ticket losses for candidates it backed in Arizona, where it is based and hopes to use as a testing ground.
A larger issue for Kirk and Turning Point is that they may be losing the trust of their most important supporter: Trump.
With the 2024 primary campaign heating up, multiple people close to Trump told NBC News that Kirk’s overtures to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have irritated him and those around him.
According to a close Trump adviser who spoke with the former president about the matter just last week, Trump has “been watching” Kirk’s relationship with DeSantis since Turning Point hosted rallies across the country last summer for high-profile GOP candidates, including the Florida governor.
According to the adviser, who was not authorised to speak publicly, Trump recently noticed Kirk allying himself with DeSantis in his effort to shake up the Republican National Committee. Kirk has been vocal in her desire to depose the current chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, who was appointed by Trump.
DeSantis, on the other hand, publicly praised her challenger Harmeet Dhillon — who was heavily backed by Kirk — during the RNC’s winter meeting last month. And he said that in an interview with Kirk.
“Trump feels like he’s made Charlie ungrateful, and [Trump] hasn’t been happy in a long time,” the adviser said. “‘You call him and tell him he’d be nothing without my son,’ he says.”
“I see [Kirk] trying to cover all of his bases,” the adviser added. “Trying to triangulate between Trump and DeSantis. And while Ron may not notice, Trump does.”
Trump Jr., a close Kirk ally, disputed the notion of discord.
“There have been few people in politics who have been a stronger or more loyal ally to both my father and our entire family than Charlie,” Trump Jr. said in a statement. “I know my father values Charlie’s early support, and we all value his friendship. No amount of nonsense quotes from anonymous sources with no idea what they’re talking about will ever change that.”
Other Kirk supporters, as well as a Trump spokesman, denied that the relationship had soured.
“Charlie endorsed President Trump’s candidature for President of the United States, and he and Turning Point have always been great allies of the president,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said in a statement.
Kirk, too, stated that everything was fine.
“I adore President Trump and fully support him for re-election in 2024,” he said in a statement. “Media drama is all noise.”
However, a second person in Trump’s political orbit who requested anonymity to speak openly on the subject was less optimistic: “The Trump world is acutely aware of what is emerging from Turning Point.”
“Charlie and Turning Point were very close to Trump from the start,” this source said. “However, the gap has grown since the beginning of 2022. Then, by the end of 2022, there will be a concerted effort by TPUSA to build that relationship with Ron. Why? Charlie wishes to be near the “new and shiny thing on the block.”
“Like so many others,” the person continued, “Charlie Kirk would not exist without Donald Trump.”
A schism between Trump and one of his most ardent supporters could have major ramifications in the 2024 Republican primary, which has already begun to heat up with the upcoming entry of Nikki Haley, former United States ambassador to the United Nations, and Trump’s escalation of his attacks on DeSantis.
Turning Point is expected to be a major player in the 2024 primaries. In recent years, the organisation has grown significantly as Kirk and its leadership sought to broaden its core mission and become a more powerful force in the political landscape. According to tax records, the group received a financial windfall during the pandemic, as NBC News reported last year.
Kirk’s campaign to unseat McDaniel culminated in the release of an interview with DeSantis just before the committee vote, which appeared to help Dhillon win. DeSantis said the RNC needed “new blood” in that on-camera interview, giving Kirk and the pro-Dhillon camp a potential last-minute boost. McDaniel eventually won by a vote of 111 to 51. Meanwhile, Kirk’s activism alarmed some RNC members, particularly after he sent an email to members in December threatening to replace them if they “so boldly reject listening to the grassroots.”
“If ignored, we will have the most stunted and muted Republican Party in conservative movement history, the likes of which we haven’t seen in generations,” he wrote.
According to a Turning Point official, Trump specifically avoided the RNC fight by not endorsing either candidate, opening the door to a larger outside effort to derail McDaniel. Kirk wanted to talk to DeSantis about his higher education platform, but the conversation naturally shifted to the RNC race due to its prominence in the news cycle.
“Charlie and Trump have a very close relationship,” said the source, who was not authorised to speak publicly. “I don’t think it’s fair for the president to invite people to fight it out, for Charlie to get involved, and for anyone’s feelings to be hurt as a result.”
The group sees itself primarily as a bridge organisation for conservatives who may lean more towards Trump or DeSantis. Candidates such as Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, R-Fla., who was backed by Turning Point’s political arm in a competitive primary and attended events with both Trump and DeSantis, are proof of the organization’s success.
However, as the party underperformed at the polls last fall, so did some of the prominent candidates Turning Point helped elevate within the party.
The organisation is already undergoing some changes. According to The Washington Post, Turning Point’s political arm is splitting with Students for Trump, a conservative social media powerhouse in its own right. Meanwhile, Kirk and Turning Point officials have emphasised the importance of cultivating early voting among Republican voters and replicating Democratic efforts to turn out voters after the large gains Republicans hoped for in the midterms did not materialise.
“Not only did he come out very early and publicly and endorse Trump’s 2024 campaign, but anyone who knows Charlie’s close relationship with the entire Trump family knows that he’s 100% on the team,” one operative close to Trump’s orbit told NBC News. “Primaries are getting nasty now. Obviously, Trump vs. DeSantis will be a heated primary battle. Nobody expects every endorser to get drenched.”
According to the Post, Turning Point and its network of affiliates worked extensively to remake the Republican Party in Arizona, its base of operations, backing candidates up and down the ballot to mixed success last cycle. Its primary goal was to remove center-right conservatives who supported GOP Sen. John McCain’s brand of politics and replace them with Republicans who supported Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement. In the process, it sought to establish itself as the state’s political kingmaker.
“The state party and Turning Point were joined at the hip,” said former Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon, who dropped out of the governor’s race last year. “They appeared to do everything together.”
Though the group’s aligned candidates were successful in defeating some candidates, including former state House Speaker Rusty Bowers in a GOP state Senate primary last summer, they were defeated at the top of the ticket. The most notable defection was that of gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who staffed her campaign with former Turning Point employees.
Turning Point is “kind of like Trump, very nihilistic,” according to Bowers, who added that the organisation will “want to be able to take credit” in the 2024 GOP presidential primary regardless of who wins.
“As a result, they’ll be kissing up with different messages for each campaign,” he explained. “And they have enough bandwidth in the social media context to come at it from different angles and say the same thing to each candidate, so that whoever wins, they can say ‘our guy won.'”
But, as the 2024 cycle heats up, Kirk and Turning Point may find themselves at a fork in the road.
“Trump will force them to choose,” a Republican operative predicted. “And that decision will be made by them sooner rather than later.”