If you watch cable news, you’ve seen someone from an outfit called the “Independent Women’s Forum” promoting a conservative take on the women’s issue of the day. It’s no secret that the group leans right; it grew out of “Women for Judge Thomas,” which formed during Anita Hill’s testimony about Clarence Thomas at his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearing, and was formally launched in 1992 by the late Barbara Olson and Rosalie “Ricky” Silberman, along with a cadre of powerful conservative women that included former second lady Lynne Cheney. Still, it’s always billed itself as “non-partisan” and “independent.” In its early years, it promoted IWF-affiliated author Christina Hoff Sommers’s brand of “equity feminism” and opposed the “radical feminism” of the ’90s women’s movement, which it argued was pushing myths about sexual harassment, pay inequities, and discrimination in the workplace and widespread abuse on college campuses. For years it played no formal role in electoral politics.
But an analysis by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), provided exclusively to The Nation, reveals that since 2010, IWF and its political arm, Independent Women’s Voice, have become aggressive players in Republican politics, embedded in the network of organizations backed by Charles and David Koch, advocating for the Koch brothers’ myriad concerns, and playing on their “independent” label to elect GOP candidates. If this country is to elect its first woman president, Hillary Clinton will have to face down this powerful conservative women’s group to get there.
Increasingly, IWF and IWV are playing a bigger and more open role in Republican politics—while boasting about the way their “independent” label gives them access to voters that groups “branded” as Republican can’t reach. As IWV president Heather Higgins told a convening at the David Horowitz Freedom Center late last year (captured in this video): “Our value here, and what is needed in the Republican conservative arsenal, is a group that can talk to those cohorts [non-Republican women] that would not otherwise listen, but can do it in a way that is taking a conservative message and packaging it in a way that will be acceptable and will get a hearing.”
And at a recent gathering of the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), IWF Executive Director Sabrina Schaeffer similarly bragged about her group’s success bringing an “independent” message on issues like paid family leave to even “progressive” women. Once IWF provided (highly debatable) information about how such legislation hurts women, “we were able to drop support by a double-digit spread,” Schaeffer told the group, according to notes taken at the event obtained by CMD.
Using their “independent” label to help Republicans isn’t the groups’ only misrepresentation. Although it claims to be neutral on abortion—“The IWF has never taken a stance on abortion,” Sabrina Schaeffer told the pro-choice website Rewire last year—since 2012, all but one of the GOP congressional candidates backed by IWV have had a zero rating from NARAL Pro Choice America, or were newcomers who support strict limits on abortion (the exception was Massachusetts GOP Senator Scott Brown). And while an IWF editor blasted Donald Trump as “Todd Akin on steroids” earlier this year, IWV even spent money to help Akin’s disastrous Senate campaign in 2012.
Despite many conservative leaders’ uneasiness with Trump, Heather Higgins is now an enthusiastic supporter of the man her colleague labeled “Todd Akin on steroids.” Though she once mocked Trump as “the Kardashian of politics,” she’s done a full Kanye West and now supports him—passionately.
“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good,” she told a panel titled “Will Conservatives Support Trump?” at the GOP convention in Cleveland last month, according to audio taken there. “Your choice is Hillary Clinton who will be wrong on all issues.… Trump will surround himself with principled, savvy advisers who will lead us to the best possible outcomes on a wide range of [issues] and his judicial picks.” Though conservatives may be balking now, she said, by November, Trump will win in a “landslide.” To that end, Higgins has turned her Twitter feed into a running defense of Trump, praising his call to “Second Amendment people” to “do something” about Hillary Clinton as “brilliant,” defending his claim that calling President Obama the “founder” of ISIS was sarcasm, and attacking Trump’s detractors. Remarkably, Trump just made IWF board member Kellyanne Conway his campaign manager.
“It’s clear that IWF and IWV are in the business of saying one thing, but doing another,” said CMD Executive Director Lisa Graves, who co-authored the report, “The Not-So-Independent Women’s Forum/Voice.” “They call themselves ‘independent,’ while IWF backs policies that echo the corporate lobbying agenda and IWV tells donors it’s a crucial part of the ‘Republican conservative arsenal.’”
The Nation sent three e-mails and made two phone calls to IWF/V asking for comment. One of the e-mails wrongly stated that the group had only helped Republicans. In fact, according to CMD research, it once aided a Libertarian. Communications Director Victoria Coley sent this reply:
It’s tough to respond to the CMD report that we haven’t yet seen, especially when one of the only things we know about it—its claim that IWV spends money politically “exclusively on behalf of Republicans”—is demonstrably false. If they can’t even get that right—especially when it’s so easy to check—we can’t help but wonder what else the report asserts that just is not so?
I told Coley that was my mistake, not CMD’s, and sent a list of questions, but heard nothing more.
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In the 1990s, IWF was a plucky organization devoted to debunking “radical” feminism, promoting the work of IWF author Christina Hoff Summers—remember “Who Stole Feminism?” and “The War Against Boys”?—and railing against new laws prohibiting sex discrimination and sexual harassment, showing (with questionable data) how they would actually hurt women. IWF lobbied against the 1994 “Violence Against Women Act,” claiming “wives instigate violence, including severe violence, against husbands more often than husbands do against wives.” It opposed the gender integration of the Virginia Military Institute and joined with men’s sports organizations to attack Title IX education regulations that protected funding for female sports teams as unfair to men.
But with the arrival of Koch Industries lobbyist Nancy Pfotenhauer in 2001, the group began to affiliate itself more with the issues on the Kochs’ agenda, as well as with groups that the brothers fund. Since then there’s been a steady connection of IWF/V staffers and board members with various Koch affiliates. Pfotenhauer even took over as president of the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity in 2003, running it jointly with IWF from the same office into 2005.
Today, the IWF website looks like it still shares content with Americans for Prosperity, with posts devoted to lowering corporate tax rates and ending the “death tax,” criticizing food stamps, promoting gun rights and fracking—alongside screeds against Hillary Clinton and on how Title IX hurts boys. On its website, IWV says its five core issues areas are “healthcare, responsible government, workplace regulation, energy and economic literacy,” which are all core concerns of the Kochs and their allies. “Economic literacy,” for instance, is defined as the Kochs do: by adherence to free-market principles and opposition to public-employee unions. More than half of IWF’s current board members have either received funding from Koch-affiliated groups or worked for one of them, CMD says, as have roughly half of the IWF staff.
Still, with the hiring of attorney Michelle Bernard as president in 2006, IWF made an attempt to craft a new, genuinely “independent” middle stance, at least on a few issues, to try to bring together women of more diverse points of view. Bernard, who is African-American, expanded outreach to women of different races and classes and succeeded in reaching even some liberal women with her emphasis on education reform and school choice, a cause that in those years began to attract some neoliberal Democrats and frustrated African Americans. A grant from the State Department to work on human-rights issues with Muslim women in Iraq and elsewhere also took the group beyond its normal issues. In 2008, Bernard proved her own independence by backing Obama for president.
But the election of Obama along with the elevation of pharmaceutical heiress and former investment adviser Heather Higgins to chair the IWF board and lead Independent Women’s Voice changed the group’s approach. Pfotenhauer had founded IWV, the group’s 501(c)(4), in 2004, but IWV took a back seat to the more prominent activities of IWF. But the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling unleashed a tide of dark money, and IWV became a conduit, raising and spending money, and sometimes passing it along to affiliated conservative groups.
Under Higgins, IWF and IWV joined the cadre of right-wing players devoted to blocking Obama’s agenda, particularly the Affordable Care Act. IWF produced and ran an ad charging that the ACA would hurt women with breast cancer, for instance. That ad was called “really faulty” by the American Cancer Society and drew a “false” rating from Factcheck.org. Bernard left the group in October 2010. Soon the IWV, under Higgins, would out-raise and outspend IWF, the sister group, according to CMD.
Some of IWV’s moves would even seem to undermine IWF’s stated principles. The group has, controversially among conservatives, stayed away from the issue of abortion. “It…sets us apart from other organizations, because we don’t talk about abortion and gay marriage and some of those social issues that are in many ways are very alienating to women,” IWF director Schaeffer told Glamour magazine in 2013. “So many people are so discouraged when you have people on the fringe saying comments that are obviously offensive, saying things about ‘legitimate rape.’ I don’t know what inspires anybody to say words like that.”
But, in fact, CMD found that IWV spent $850,000 in 2014 supporting GOP Senate candidates who had a zero rating from NARAL, except for Scott Brown. And though Schaeffer specifically criticized Missouri GOP Representative Todd Akin’s “obviously offensive” remarks about “legitimate rape” to Glamour in 2013, the previous year IWV spent $67,000 to help Akin in his unsuccessful fight to unseat Senator Claire McCaskill. IWV invested another $177,000 in Indiana Representative Richard Mourdock’s Senate race, even after he said rape “is something God intended to happen,” which was also judged by many to be obviously offensive and likely cost Mourdock the election.
“Our investigation showed that Higgins uses IWV’s independent brand name to reach independent or Democratic voters and spends money to help anti-choice extremists,” CMD’s Lisa Graves notes, “while IWF claims it is not anti-abortion and there is no GOP ‘war on women.’”
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Indeed, at the David Horowitz event where Higgins bragged about her group’s role in the “Republican conservative arsenal,” she explained that IWV has success “with audiences that normally don’t tend to like to hear from Republicans and conservatives” because “branding matters…. We have worked hard to create a branded organization that does not carry partisan baggage. It’s called ‘Independent Women’s Voice.’ Being branded as neutral, but having the people who know, know that you’re actually conservative, puts us in a unique position.”
Higgins took credit for turning around Scott Brown’s 2010 Senate campaign in Massachusetts (by figuring out that the most important issue to voters was giving Republicans “the 41st vote” against the ACA) and for helping Kentucky GOP Governor Matt Bevin squeak by last year mainly by targeting “Democrats, liberals, and independents,” she said. “Having this branding, you can go places where, if you’re the [Republican National Committee] or the [Republican Governors Association]…they can’t get access that we can.”
Spending for both IWF and IWV grew by more than 400 percent from 2011 to 2012, according to CMD, reflecting the new investment in electioneering. The two groups have raised $16 million since 2010. Since the Citizens United decision that year, groups like IWF and IWV don’t have to disclose many of their donors, so it’s hard to know who’s behind the funding explosion. Higgins’s Randolph Foundation is a big donor, directing $3.78 million to IWF since 1998. The Koch-allied anti-Obamacare Center to Protect Patient Rights gave IWV $250,000 in 2009 to fund its push against the ACA, according to CMD, and the National Right to Work Committee has also funded the group in 2012 and 2013. Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, which secretly direct the funding of wealthy conservatives, including the Kochs, gave the groups $5.3 million between 2002 and 2014, the most recent year for which they have filed data. Although IWV boasts of accepting “no Koch money,” IWF received more than $8oo,000 from Koch-controlled family foundations between 2001 and 2012, CMD says.
In 2016, IWF and IWV have turned to the threat of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, as well as the pro-family agenda she and her allies are pushing with her campaign. The groups are uniquely placed to try to fight the gender gap that may doom Donald Trump and cost the GOP the Senate. As IWF’s Schaeffer told ALEC in July, “The war on women narrative has shifted from a focus entirely on reproductive rights to a focus on making the workplace fair for women. And I don’t need to tell you issues of pay equity, childcare subsidies, paid leave mandates, flexibility, overtime regulation, licensing, retirement—these are all now sort of the new front in the war on women, and we are doing our best to push back on that.”
Unfortunately for Republicans, Schaeffer noted, IWF polling shows that “people are overwhelmingly supportive of laws like the Healthy Families Act [which would mandate paid sick leave], and that includes conservatives, and so we have to do a much better job of talking about them.” When IWF told women in focus groups that paid family leave actually hurts rather than helps the working poor—Schaeffer offered no evidence for that claim—support dropped, she told the ALEC meeting. Even among “progressive women,” Schaeffer said, a message that paid leave both hurts the working poor, and limits their own work flexibility—again, she shared no evidence—reduced support by double digits.
The popularity of Democrats’ family-support legislation led IWF to put together its own “limited government” family-support package, named “Working for Women,” consisting of programs accomplished through the tax codes, like “personal care accounts” that would let a woman save for a family leave tax-free, as well as pushing for comp time rather than overtime, plus deregulating child care to make it more affordable. Schaeffer offered to help ALEC members find ways to push these “limited government” alternatives, rather than have nothing to counter the popular family-support proposals put forward by Democrats.
“In my opinion that’s deceptive, although unfortunately it is not usual for Koch-connected groups to behave like front groups that use appealing names that cloak their real agendas, especially to try to win elections,” CMD’s Lisa Graves said.
Meanwhile, Heather Higgins keeps up her Twitter advocacy of Donald Trump.
They don’t get sarcasm. Or irony. Or honest answers. But the rest of us do, and it’s a powerful differentiator @IWV https://t.co/IQ6A6yR5Er
— Heather R. Higgins (@TheHRH) August 12, 2016
Higgins may want to ask herself whether she’s providing “honest answers” when she boasts of using her independent “brand” to hype Republicans.