‘Nonpartisan’ youth movement has deep GOP roots

Organization accused of being right-wing front group

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Screenshot from GenerationOpportunity.org

Generation Opportunity” bills itself as a fast-growing, nonpartisan organization that uses its website and popular Facebook pages to urge civic-minded young people to “take action” by doing things like registering to vote, organizing local events and writing letters to the editor.

But for a nonpartisan organization, its messages sound a lot like Republican Party talking points.

“Most young Americans would prefer to have elected officials in Washington get out of the way of job creators and let those who actually do it for a living drive the solutions,” reads a statement from organization president Paul T. Conway, regarding recent unemployment numbers.

And consider the results of this recent poll, also posted on the website: “Young Americans (18-29) Say Less Government, Not More, is Solution to Lack of Jobs.” And this one: “Message to Elected Officials: Cut Federal Spending, Stop Interfering With Business – in 2012, We Will Vote on Issues and Your Record.”

That apparent partisan slant is not surprising when considering the backgrounds of those connected to the organization:

  • Conway, a career Republican appointee who once worked for the conservative Heritage Foundation, is a former faculty member at an organization that “trains conservatives” and was chief of staff for former Bush Labor Secretary and current Heritage employee Elaine Chao.
  • Kellyanne Elizabeth Conway (no relation), a telegenic conservative consultant who conducts the group’s polls, has collected just under $400,000 in fees from Republican candidates and conservative organizations, including nearly $50,000 from a now-defunct Newt Gingrich nonprofit.
  • Matthew Faraci, the group’s spokesman, worked for Chao, was a spokesman for anti-abortion group Americans United for Life and also worked for former Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., as press secretary.

Generation Opportunity’s origins are a bit mysterious.

Its address is a post office box in Arlington. It claims to be a nonprofit, but does not list its board members or funders. Its website is registered to a company that keeps site operators’ identities’ secret.

The group’s purpose, according to its website, is to “educate and organize young Americans on the challenges facing our nation.”

It has more than 1.5 million fans of its two Facebook pages – “Being American” and “The Constitution” – and calls itself one of the “fastest growing and largest grassroots organizations in the nation” aimed at engaging young adults on economic issues “through a strategy based on social media and ground operations.”

Cheap marketing platform

Since President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, political consultants understand that social media, YouTube and e-mail are crucial tools in reaching out to the populace.

“Obama and his camp understood social media much more than did the (Sen. John) McCain campaign,” said Paul Levinson, a communications professor, social media expert and author at Fordham University. The McCain campaign was “barely computer literate.” The Tea Party used the Internet to great effect in 2010, and in 2012 the stakes will be much higher.

But Generation Opportunity appears to be a different sort of organizing tool – one that its critics say is masquerading as a popular “nonpartisan” movement when it is in fact an effort to attract young people to a conservative ideology.

Engaging youth is a priority for the GOP. Obama thumped McCain, his Republican opponent, by a 2-1 margin with the under-30 crowd in 2008.

One poster wrote on the “Being American” Facebook wall, “I liked this page because I thought it was about American patriotism; something I thought was bipartisan. I didn't know that, in reality, it's just a political organization trying to further a right-wing agenda.”

Another asked, “Is this site ‘I hate Obama’ or being american? (sic)”

Faraci, the organization’s spokesman, did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment about its partisan connections.

Online political campaigns can be effective, not to mention cheap. But they are only successful if they maintain credibility.

‘Conservative Astroturf front group’

Generation Opportunity’s was challenged in August, when liberal blogger Kevin Bondelli wrote that Generation Opportunity is a “conservative Astroturf front group being used to push a pro-conservative youth narrative using the false legitimacy of their misleading Facebook page.”

Conway’s background – accessible mostly through cached Web pages and government press releases – paints a portrait of a model Republican.

He trained at the Leadership Institute, as did James O'Keefe, the right-wing provocateur known for secretly recording and embarrassing political foes. Conway was also a faculty member at the institute, whose mission is to “increase the number and effectiveness of conservative activists and leaders in the public policy process.”

Conway was confidential assistant to conservative stalwart and Education Secretary William Bennett in 1988. He then joined the Heritage Foundation as the deputy director of the “citizenship project.” He joined the Office of Personnel Management and served its director Kay Coles James as chief of staff from 2001 to 2005. He became chief of staff for Chao in 2005.

According to Heritage Foundation tax records, Conway’s former boss, Chao, is a “distinguished fellow” and one of its highest-paid employees. James, who Conway also worked for, is a member of the foundation’s board of trustees.

iWatch News reached the Heritage Foundation and sent an email asking if it funded the organization, but did not receive a response.

Morton Blackwell, the president of the Leadership Institute, spoke highly of Conway, whom he had first met in the 1980s. He described him as a “very competent person” and valued staffer with both Chao and James.

Blackwell said it is possible for someone with a partisan background to lead a nonpartisan organization. “Just because you work for a nonpartisan organization doesn’t mean you lose your civil rights,” he said.

Polling for dollars

Kellyanne Elizabeth Conway is the founder and president of “the polling company, inc./WomanTrend.”

Conway has worked for former Republican senator and presidential candidate Fred Thompson of Tennessee; Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.; and American Solutions for Winning the Future, the now-defunct nonprofit run by current presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Ms. Conway’s company has also done work for the Heritage Foundation.

Not all polls are created equal in terms of reliability, according to Ken Winneg, managing director of the National Annenberg Election Survey. It is possible to influence a poll to say what you want it to say.

“It depends on the way you ask the questions,” he said.

To be sure a poll is fair, you need to see a copy of the survey itself, he said, which includes the text of the questions, the results and a description of the population sample. Generation Opportunity reports on the findings of the polls, but apparently does not release the full surveys.

Ms. Conway did not respond to a request for comment or emailed questions. Neither Conway nor Generation Opportunity responded to a request for a copy of the full poll results cited by the organization.

Generation Opportunity has been quoted in numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the National Journal, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and USA Today, among others. The Times noted Paul Conway’s former employment within the Bush administration.

The Journal described it as a “nonpartisan, nonprofit youth-outreach group” headed by a former Bush administration official. The Star-Telegram referred to a poll by the group but not its political connections.

USA Today quoted Conway in a story critical of the Democratic governor of North Carolina, Bev Perdue. The story described Generation Opportunity as a “group that encourages people under 30 to vote.” In another USA Today story, the group was described as “center-right.”

Top down or bottom up?

Online political movements at their best can be like effective grass-roots campaigns.

A true-grass roots campaign is spontaneous, passionate and characterized by an outpouring of support by common folk. For organizers, they can also be labor intensive – door knocking, demonstrating and letter writing require a lot of energy.

The Internet makes it a lot easier to connect people of like minds. Witness the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring movement in the Middle East.

But the problem with a “top down” grass roots campaign is that it tends not to catch fire, or “go viral” in the Internet vernacular. The most effective campaigns start small and grow.

At best, the organization may be attracting people who are already predisposed to its point of view, according to Levinson of Fordham.

“The only people that it convinces are people who are already in that political camp,” he said.

Josh Israel contributed to this report.