Millions of dollars in television advertisements blasting schools for teaching critical race theory and assailing corporations like BlackRock, Uber and American Airlines for catering to “woke politicians.”
A lawsuit pending before the Supreme Court to radically reshape how federal elections are conducted. Complaints against President Biden for violating election law and against school districts that allow information to be withheld from parents about children’s gender identities.
These initiatives were advanced in the past year or so by a handful of new or reconfigured conservative groups — each with their own leadership and mission.
Behind the scenes, though, these groups have something in common: They are part of an ambitious coalition developed in recent years by the conservative activist Leonard A. Leo, who until now has been best known for his role in pushing the appointments of conservative judges to the center of the Republican Party’s agenda.
Most of the initiatives were financially supported, or in some cases launched, by an opaque, sprawling network shaped by Mr. Leo and funded by wealthy patrons, usually through anonymous donations that critics call “dark money.”
An investigation by The New York Times of Mr. Leo’s activities reveals new details of how he has built that network, with relatively little public attention, into one of the best-funded and most sophisticated operations in American politics, giving him extraordinary influence as he pushes a broad array of hot-button conservative causes and seeks to counter what he sees as an increasing leftward tilt in society.
The network represents a dramatic expansion of tactics and focus for Mr. Leo, who spent nearly three decades working mostly behind the scenes to pull the judiciary to the right as an executive at the Federalist Society. His success in that effort, and expansion into other polarizing fights, is rapidly making him a leading target of criticism from the left.
His philosophy is defined by a belief that the federal government should play a smaller role in public life and religious values a larger one, and that institutions and individuals should be challenged for embracing what he sees as subversive liberal positions.
While his efforts to put conservatives on the courts found a powerful ally in President Donald J. Trump, Mr. Leo, an Ivy League-educated lawyer, has steered clear of the most virulent strains of Mr. Trump’s right-wing populism, as well as his baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, and he has navigated past most of the fissures in the Republican Party.
Among leading political figures, Mr. Leo is more aligned with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who as Republican leader in the Senate has worked with him closely on judicial nominations and shares an animus for laws restricting the flow of money into politics. [Continue reading…]