The ugly news broke during the last week of November: A Florida woman alleged that the chair of the state Republican Party had raped her at her home. The assault had occurred after he and his wife had planned, according to police, to meet her for a three-way sexual rendezvous, as they had previously.
These were stunning claims given the power couple involved: The GOP chair, Christian Ziegler, who has denied the assault and said the encounter was consensual, is a prominent state political consultant. His Republican-activist wife, Bridget Ziegler, is a founder of Moms for Liberty, the conservative political organization whose members have made school-board meetings partisan battlegrounds across America for the past two years.
The allegations have sparked a fusillade of condemnations, complaints of hypocrisy, and “Moms for Libertines” jokes. But the situation has also provided a window into the machinations of the movement that helped make the Zieglers so significant in Republican politics—thanks especially to the rapid rise of Moms for Liberty as a national organization.
Bridget Ziegler started Moms for Liberty with Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice in January 2021, but she was soon wooed away. Within months, she was hired to help run school-board-campaign trainings at the Leadership Institute, an obscure but influential nonprofit.
The institute was founded in 1979 by Morton Blackwell, a longtime GOP activist—so longtime that in 1964, he was the youngest elected delegate for Barry Goldwater in his run for the Republican nomination. Blackwell’s participation in the emerging New Right made him a crucial figure in the Reagan Revolution, Richard Meagher, a political-science professor at Randolph-Macon College, told me. Now 84, Blackwell still serves as president of the Leadership Institute, and is the Virginia GOP’s national committeeman.
The mission of Blackwell’s institute is to recruit and train conservative activists for positions of influence in politics and the media. Its website lists dozens of classes about get-out-the-vote strategies, digital campaigning, and fundraising tips, but its true value, Meagher told me, lies in its connections. “The Leadership Institute trains people and then plugs them into various networks, whether it’s think tanks or in Congress, in nonprofit groups or advocacy groups,” he said.
The institute claims to have tutored more than a quarter of a million conservative operatives over the past five decades, including Karl Rove, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and former Vice President Mike Pence. Newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson has also credited Blackwell for his career in Congress. And few people in Florida were as plugged-in as the Zieglers. But many institute alums are relatively unheralded political players, experts told me. These activists might be the technologists behind campaigns and nonprofits, the staffers for senators, or the drafters of policy.
When the coronavirus pandemic prompted school administrators to keep kids at home, the institute developed new programs for training suburban women to wage school-board campaigns to keep schools open and masks off—a development that led to the recruitment of Bridget Ziegler, the tall, blond face of this new public arena of conservative activism. (Ziegler did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
The Leadership Institute exists alongside dozens of similar but better-known groups, such as the Heritage Foundation, a think tank; Turning Point USA, a youth organization; and the Family Research Council, a social-conservative group. Many of these organizations and their leaders are members of a conservative umbrella organization called the Council for National Policy, of which Blackwell was a founding member. The CNP is a secretive, invitation-only group that gathers conservative activists to coordinate political strategy, Anne Nelson, the author of Shadow Network, told me. Think the Conservative Political Action Conference, but less performative.
The CNP’s purpose is to “bring fellow travelers together” to coordinate strategy and messaging, Meagher said. Hillary Clinton popularized the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy,” but “it’s not a conspiracy—it’s all out in the open,” Meagher said. “They are very well connected, and there’s lots of crossover between different institutions.” The Democratic Party, of course, has similar resources for training progressive candidates and furthering policy goals. But, Meagher said, the Democratic-aligned constellation is not nearly as ideologically coherent or disciplined as the groups that make up the CNP: “There is no analogy to that on the left.”
This interlocking structure of funding, training, and schmoozing is key to understanding the quick success of Moms for Liberty in American politics.
According to Ziegler and her colleagues, the organization was initially launched to address concerns that parents had about school closures and mask policies during the pandemic. But Moms for Liberty was quickly absorbed into the conservative movement’s broader network. Within days of its creation, Moms for Liberty was featured on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. By June 2021, the group was hosting the political commentator Megyn Kelly for a “fireside chat” at Cape Canaveral, Florida. This early success and financial capability suggest that the group “had a lot of resources available that just are not available to other grassroots groups,” Maurice T. Cunningham, the chair of the political-science department at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, told me.
Now, after only two years in existence, the group has become a mandatory campaign stop for Republican political candidates. At Moms for Liberty’s summit this year in Philadelphia—only its second-ever national gathering—every major presidential-primary candidate stopped by to speak to the crowd, including Donald Trump.
“It might’ve been for five minutes that the moms were selling T-shirts and having bake sales,” Joshua Cowen, an education-policy professor at Michigan State University, told me. “But it was very quickly, within months, that they scaled up to the right-wing avatar they are today.” Recently, the group’s focus has shifted toward advocating against the teaching of gender, sexuality, and race in school curricula, and banning from school libraries certain books that mention those themes. This new front in the group’s campaigning has placed the allegations of sexual impropriety against the Zieglers in sharp relief. (“Never, ever apologize,” Christian Ziegler said during a presentation on dealing with the media at this year’s Mom’s for Liberty summit. “Apologizing makes you look weak.“)
The Leadership Institute has been an integral sponsor of both of Moms for Liberty’s annual summits—donating at least $50,000 in 2022 and serving again as a lead sponsor of the event in 2023—and it has provided training sessions to members. In short, Cunningham told me, “if there’s no Leadership Institute, there’s no Moms for Liberty.” Every year, the group awards a “liberty sword” for parents’-rights advocacy; this year in Philadelphia, Blackwell got the sword.
That recognition now appears unreciprocated. In the past three weeks, Bridget Ziegler seems to have been scrubbed, Soviet-style, from the Leadership Institute; her name has disappeared from the online staff directory. (As of Friday morning, the Leadership Institute had not responded to a request for comment.) Ziegler has also been asked to resign from the Sarasota School Board.
There’s no question that her reputation in conservative politics has taken a hit. Even Moms for Liberty’s influence may have peaked for now, given some recent failures in school-board elections. But “what isn’t waning,” Cowen said, “is the influence of the groups behind them.”