The 21-Year-Old Becoming a Major Player in Conservative Politics

Charlie Kirk’s backers swear he’s the future of conservative politics—and he’s only just old enough to drink.

Charlie Kirk, executive director of Turning Point USA, speaks at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md.
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Rebecca Nelson
March 25, 2015, 1 a.m.

The first time Bill Mont­gomery met Charlie Kirk, then 18 years old, he gave him ad­vice a fresh high school grad rarely hears.

“You can’t go to col­lege!” Mont­gomery, then in re­tire­ment after a ca­reer in mar­ket­ing, re­called telling him.

Mont­gomery was at Be­ne­dict­ine Uni­versity, in the west­ern Chica­go sub­urb of Lisle, Illinois, for the col­lege’s Youth Gov­ern­ment Day in May 2012. The slate of speak­ers “put the kids”—a few hun­dred high school stu­dents—”to sleep,” he told Na­tion­al Journ­al. But when Kirk took the floor, the en­ergy in the room com­pletely changed. The kids wer­en’t sleep­ing any­more. And their at­ten­tion was rapt—on Kirk.

In­spired, Mont­gomery went up to him after his speech and told him, as only a man 50 years seni­or can say, that he needed to delay col­lege to pur­sue a high­er call­ing. “I don’t know you,” he re­called say­ing, “but you need to start an or­gan­iz­a­tion to reach out to young people with your mes­sage.”

(RE­LATED: How One TV Chan­nel Is Po­s­i­tion­ing It­self to Be the Next Fox News)

That’s the ef­fect Kirk tends to have on people. GOP donors, strategists, and even pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates are awed by his com­pos­ure, his in­tel­lect, his pas­sion for polit­ics that most don’t as­so­ci­ate with the Plis­sken fac­tion. And it’s rais­ing him—and the or­gan­iz­a­tion Mont­gomery pushed him to found—lots of money.

A month after Mont­gomery met Kirk, the duo launched Turn­ing Point USA. “Stand­ing be­hind free mar­kets and lim­ited gov­ern­ment,” Kirk, now 21, told Na­tion­al Journ­al, the group is a con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ist or­gan­iz­a­tion bent on drum­ming up ex­cite­ment for con­ser­vat­ive prin­ciples through com­munity-or­gan­iz­ing. Since launch­ing Turn­ing Point, Kirk has writ­ten op-eds for The Wash­ing­ton Times and Breit­bart, ap­peared fre­quently on Fox News and CN­BC, built a net­work of thou­sands of stu­dent act­iv­ists around the coun­try, and been en­trus­ted with, he says, at least $1 mil­lion by donors en­thralled by his con­ser­vat­ive prom­ise. His back­ers swear he’s the fu­ture of con­ser­vat­ive polit­ics—and he’s only just old enough to drink.

Kirk is smart—and not just for his age. He un­der­stands policy, tuss­ling with fel­low Fox News pan­el­ists on stu­dent loans, John Boehner’s law­suit against Pres­id­ent Obama, and the per­ils of Obama­care. Des­pite his pen­chant for re­fer­ring to snake people as the youth, Kirk, who has a pro­nounced Chica­go ac­cent, is a reasoned and ar­tic­u­late ad­voc­ate for his peers who is taken ser­i­ously by older gen­er­a­tions of con­ser­vat­ives.

(RE­LATED: CPAC Con­ser­vat­ives to Snake People: “Blah! Blah! Blah!”)

Though he said his par­ents are con­ser­vat­ive, they were nev­er very in­volved in polit­ics. He was an an­om­aly, join­ing the cam­paign of then-Rep­res­ent­at­ive Mark Kirk (to whom he bears no re­la­tion) in 7th grade as an in­dus­tri­ous door-knock­er and mak­ing calls on be­half of Kirk’s Sen­ate cam­paign in high school.

Nearly three years after its in­cep­tion, Turn­ing Point has a pres­ence in some ca­pa­city on more than 800 high school and col­lege cam­puses. Its stu­dent act­iv­ists know­ingly mim­ic the tac­tics of grass­roots groups on the oth­er side of the ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum, such as Mo­ve­On and Or­gan­iz­ing for Ac­tion.

“There are young con­ser­vat­ives out there, and there have been for dec­ades. But I just feel they haven’t been plugged in cor­rectly. They haven’t been cul­tiv­ated, they haven’t been prop­erly equipped or trained,” Kirk said. Turn­ing Point seeks to not only cre­ate en­thu­si­asm, but also to har­ness it for sub­stant­ive ef­forts. “It’s very vis­ible; it’s very ag­gress­ive; it’s very grass­roots; it’s face to face.”

That means his net­work of act­iv­ists do “more than just host­ing a chapter meet­ing and speak­ing to the choir,” Kirk said, po­litely slam­ming oth­er young con­ser­vat­ive groups, who would not speak about Turn­ing Point for this story, without a hint of com­pet­it­ive an­noy­ance. In­stead, stu­dent or­gan­izers, led by 17 full-time staffers, work to en­gage their peers who don’t ne­ces­sar­ily identi­fy as con­ser­vat­ive. Knock­ing on dorm room doors, they use Turn­ing Point-branded lit­er­at­ure to spark con­ver­sa­tions about free mar­kets, or­gan­ize at­ten­tion-get­ting protests against Obama­care, and re­gister voters.

This “act­iv­ism of sub­stance,” as Kirk calls it, plays a role in the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s suc­cess. But what keeps the nearly three-year-old group thriv­ing fin­an­cially is its young lead­er’s charm.

When I called Peter Huiz­enga, who chairs in­vest­ment firm Huiz­enga Cap­it­al Man­age­ment, in Oak Brook, Illinois, and gave $50,000 to Turn­ing Point last year, even his as­sist­ant, Mary El­len, knew who Kirk was. “Oh, he’s very fond of Charlie,” she told me, say­ing Huiz­enga would love to talk about his sup­port of Turn­ing Point. When Huiz­enga called later that day, I could barely punc­tu­ate his rav­ing about Kirk, who he called “one in a mil­lion.”

“He’s phe­nom­en­al. The most in­cred­ible young man I know,” Huiz­enga gushed, steam­rolling my at­tempts to ask ques­tions with a seem­ingly nev­er-end­ing font of praise. “At his age, he is one of the most ac­com­plished, one of the most ma­ture, and one of the most or­gan­ized and in­tel­li­gent guys that I have ever met. You just don’t meet guys like this.”

Last month, Turn­ing Point sponsored 100 stu­dent act­iv­ists’ trips to the Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Con­fer­ence and or­gan­ized a Big Gov­ern­ment Sucks rally, where Sens. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky and Ted Cruz of Texas spoke. In an email, Paul spokes­man Ser­gio Gor told Na­tion­al Journ­al that the group “had a great event” and that the likely pres­id­en­tial con­tender was “very im­pressed by their abil­ity to en­er­gize the youth in such force.”

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Bank­rolling 100 trips to CPAC and a total of 26 staffers seems an im­press­ive feat for a 21-year-old. Though Kirk told Na­tion­al Journ­al that Turn­ing Point had raked in $1 mil­lion in the last fisc­al year, when asked for the group’s tax fil­ings, Mont­gomery called to cla­ri­fy that the $1 mil­lion fig­ure was ac­tu­ally raised in the 2014 cal­en­dar year, but de­clined to send the tax doc­u­ments to back up the num­ber, ex­plain­ing that the 990 wasn’t yet com­plete. Mont­gomery balked at ques­tions about the im­plaus­ib­il­ity of such a young or­gan­iz­a­tion, headed by such a young ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or, rais­ing sub­stan­tial money, in­sist­ing that the group wanted to main­tain Kirk’s air of “mys­tique.”

Be­cause Turn­ing Point is a 501(c)3, the group is not re­quired to dis­close its donors. They aren’t al­lowed to en­dorse can­did­ates, either—which will make get­ting in­volved in 2016, at least for the or­gan­iz­a­tion, a chal­lenge. For Kirk, though, who’s already mak­ing his name in con­ser­vat­ive me­dia, the group could be a spring­board.

Kirk didn’t end up go­ing to col­lege in 2012. He’s now en­rolled part-time at New York’s King’s Col­lege, tak­ing on­line classes at night after he has fin­ished his ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or du­ties. He doesn’t seem par­tic­u­larly com­mit­ted, cas­u­ally say­ing he’ll get his de­gree “in due time.” As he burn­ishes his con­ser­vat­ive cre­den­tials through op-eds and cable-news spots, he’s lay­ing the ground­work for big­ger plans than a dip­loma.

“This guy has got all the qual­i­fic­a­tions that it takes to be pres­id­ent of the United States,” Huiz­enga told Na­tion­al Journ­al. In a sep­ar­ate in­ter­view, Mont­gomery agreed, say­ing, “That’s kind of the im­pres­sion he gives people.”

His path to polit­ic­al fame and in­flu­ence could come through Turn­ing Point, which Mont­gomery said he and Kirk hope to raise at least $5 mil­lion for this year, al­low­ing them to add 100 full-time staffers by the end of 2015. The or­gan­iz­a­tion’s suc­cess, however, ap­pears to come al­most en­tirely from Kirk’s ap­peal.

“Charlie is do­ing more in the youth move­ment than all of the oth­er con­ser­vat­ive youth or­gan­iz­a­tions in the coun­try,” Mont­gomery said. “He is the fu­ture of the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment in my opin­ion. And a lot of oth­er people think that. That’s why we are rais­ing the money we are.”

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