An ultra-conservative group representing one of the nation’s largest Tea Party coalitions left exposed dozens of internal documents and call lists containing the names and phone numbers of some 527,000 supporters. Discovered online by security researchers late last month, the cache of files contain a broad range of internal strategic documents, call scripts, and other files that chronicle the group’s efforts to mobile U.S. voters.
Among the records exposed are several political guides designed to rally American teenagers around the cause of gun rights, including playbooks intended for students that provide detailed instructions for carrying out pro-gun protests at public schools nationwide. One 33-page guide circulated ahead of the May 2, 2018, “Stand for the Second” pro-gun student walkout, for example, includes flyers and posters meant to be disseminated on school grounds, as well as a bevy of pre-written material for students to adopt as their own, including tweets, protest signs, letters to local newspaper editors, and press releases, which students are advised to publish “close to word for word.”
The documents were discovered late last month by researchers at UpGuard, a California-based “cyber resiliency” firm renowned for locating confidential records inadvertently exposed online. In a detailed blog describing its find, UpGuard identified the Tea Party Patriots as the owner of an Amazon S3 storage bucket containing the roughly 2GB-worth of records—none of which were protected by a password. While some of the files were dated 2018, a majority of the records, UpGuard said, dealt with the group’s 2016 campaign operations, including the leak of its over half-million voter call list.
A Tea Party Patriots spokesperson acknowledged the breach in an email to Gizmodo last week, saying, “We take security of our information very seriously. We have already begun to take active steps to ensure our files are completely secure so that such an incident won’t happen again.”
The handful of documents related to the (supposedly) student-led “Stand for the Second” walkout offer a rare glimpse into the machinations of a well-funded conservative group feverishly working to counter calls for stricter gun control laws by students such as Emma González and David Hogg, survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre.
Although attendance at the May 2 anti-gun control rallies was ultimately dwarfed by surrounding events urging tighter gun control, from a logistical standpoint, the Tea Party Patriots’s plan to stage a national “student-led” protest was a major success: A majority of news outlets that reported on the walkouts—including Huffpo, Vox, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times, among others—failed to mention the involvement of a group of veteran political operators, which was already then public information.
Aside from CNN and handful of local reports, the media solely attributed the planning of the pro-gun protests to a New Mexico high school senior: Will Riley, the author of a newspaper op-ed titled, Parkland Students Don’t Speak for Me or My Generation.
The “Stand for the Second” school walkouts were staged specifically as a response to the “March for Our Lives” demonstrations attended on March 24 by more than a million protesters nationwide. Save for the National Review, top conservative outlets mostly credited Riley alone with planning and carrying out the event. The Daily Caller, for example, did not identify the Tea Party Patriots as organizers in its May 2nd coverage, even though the group’s chairman, Jenny Beth Martin, had already penned an op-ed for the website taking credit. The Tea Party outfit, Martin wrote, was “naturally drawn to the effort of helping these students fine-tune their event-organizing skills, and also develop a deeper understanding of why the Second Amendment was so important to our nation’s founders…”
A batch of leaked PDFs reviewed by Gizmodo, however, reveal the Tea Party Patriots went beyond a “fine-tune,” steering the students’ messaging from start to finish. Several times the group directed the would-be protesters to simply parrot pre-written talking points, many drafted by “our friends” at The Heritage Foundation, the Twitter account of which students were also advised to follow. Students were also directed towards YouTube channels of right-wing think tank and non-university Prager U, as well as Arthur voice actor-turned-milquetoast pundit-turned-meme Stephen Crowder. Many of the photos of the event online show students holding signs with simplistic slogans pre-written by the Tea Party group, such as, “Gun control only stops good guys from getting guns,” and “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”—a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin that was written to argue the finer points of a tax dispute.
Other pre-written materials in the group’s “toolkit”—an abridged version of which circulated publicly in May—include a letter to school administrators, an 84-word message students were asked to include with Facebook and Instagram posts, and a dozen tweets with blank spaces such as: “<insert school name>.” A speech was also written by the Tea Party Patriots for students to read aloud during the walkout. It included calls to expand campus surveillance and allow “properly trained” teachers carry to firearms on school property.
Students were advised repeatedly: “REMEMBER TAKE PHOTOS AND VIDEO,” including “Lots of selfies,” and to use the event to gather students’ contact information, which may be used to set up text alerts down the line.
While the guide was clearly crafted by seasoned activists, some parts appear written in the narrative voice of a high school student. One section, for example, describes the event as a “movement by students, for students,” adding: “We know that our silence won’t cut it anymore.” It continues: “We have not ignored the huge movement of our peers against these fundamental human rights and liberties, but the American people must know not all of our generation shares in the short-sighted destruction of our Constitution.”
It even plays on typical high school social fears, advising would-be protesters that, “If they were really your friends and they also believe in the 2nd, they would support you and stand with you. Even if your friends didn’t stand with you, there’s plenty of other people in the silent majority that would.”
Founded in 2009, the Tea Party Patriots stated principal objective was bringing about a fiscally responsible, limited government that eschewed taxes and embraced free-market forces. (The group received its tax-exempt status in 2014, according to Guidestar.) In the era of Donald Trump, the group’s founding dreams of fiscal discipline have largely taken a back seat as it seeks to maintain relevance under a unified Republican government that has catapulted the budget deficit to 2012 stimulus-package levels—a $113 billion jump since last year—and overseen a $2 trillion hike in federal debt since 2016 thanks to a spending spree in Congress and massive tax cuts chiefly benefiting the wealthy.
A significant amount of the Tea Party Patriots’ funding comes from Richard Uihlein, a GOP mega-donor currently ranked third nationally in donations to outside spending groups like super PACs. A Midwestern shipping magnate—Richard and his wife, Liz, founded the shipping company Uline in 1980—Mr. Uihlein has contributed close to $1 million to the Tea Party Patriots this year so far. In 2017, he contributed over that amount. A June profile of the Uihleins in the New York Times noted Mr. Uihlein’s financial contributions to campaigns that defend “broad access” to assault weapons.
GOP strategists have recently accused the Uihleins of recklessly throwing millions of dollars at Republican primary challengers, many of whom have turned out to be losers. Notably, the sexual misconduct allegations brought by nine women against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore last year did not dissuade the billionaire from contributing an additional $50,000 to a conservative PAC supporting Moore’s embattled (and ultimately losing) campaign.
You can find more details about the Tea Party Patriots’ exposure in UpGuard’s blog.