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ABC News
ABC News
1 Jul 2023
ABC News

PHILADELPHIA — They call themselves joyful warriors -- but this group of conservative moms are mad.

They’re mad at their teachers, their principals, their president. And now they’re fighting back through school boards, local elections and -- if they get their way -- their next president.

This weekend’s Moms for Liberty conference showcases how local issues like education can have tremendous, galvanizing national influence, as Gov. Ron DeSantis, former President Donald Trump, and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley tried to woo nearly 700 attendees of the over 150,000-member group Friday.

Several key breakout sessions at the center of the group’s mission, such as “Protecting Kids from Gender Ideology” and “Getting Flipped School Boards To Take Action” were kept behind closed doors, with media access barred. But still, the enthusiasm at open events was palpable, nearly bouncing off the ballroom walls.

PHOTO: Moms for Liberty founders Tiffany Justice, right, and Tina Descovich speak at the Moms for Liberty meeting in Philadelphia, on June 30, 2023.
Moms for Liberty founders Tiffany Justice, right, and Tina Descovich speak at the Moms for Liberty meeting in Philadelphia, on June 30, 2023.
Matt Rourke/AP

Nearly all attendees jumped to their feet in raucous cheer as DeSantis decried puberty blockers while touting the various policies he’s enacted to empower Sunshine State parents.

“I think what we've seen across this country in recent years has awakened the most powerful political force in this country: mama bears and they're ready to roll,” DeSantis told the crowd in the ballroom of the Philadelphia Marriott.

While the group was founded by three Florida women, one of whom is married to the chair of the Florida GOP, and might seem fertile ground for parents’ rights warrior DeSantis, the crowd seems to be Trump’s to lose.

One Florida mother told ABC News that she wished that he’d remain in the Florida Governor’s Mansion and feels slightly betrayed that her governor is spending much of his time on the campaign trail.

Moms for Liberty remains untethered to a particular candidate, and the group is unsure about its plans to endorse in 2024. Even still, signs of MAGA are everywhere, from bedazzled “TRUMP” lanyard pins to the classic red and white chapeau. Lines to hear the former president's keynote address snaked around the mezzanine floor up the escalator.

Before he began speaking, mixed chants of “LET'S GO BRANDON” and “WE LOVE TRUMP” echoed across the hall for the sole candidate of the day to receive a multi-minute standing ovation before his address.

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks during the Moms for Liberty Joyful Warriors national summit at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, on June 30, 2023, in Philadelphia.
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks during the Moms for Liberty Joyful Warriors national summit at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, on June 30, 2023, in Philadelphia.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

The love is mutual.

After the civil rights watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) recently labeled the group an anti-government group, saying they spread "hateful imagery and rhetoric against the LGBTQ community” which Moms for Liberty leaders previously decried to ABC News as “nonsense,” Trump hit back at the characterization.

“The Radical Left is even slandering Moms for Liberty as a so-called ‘hate group’ ... but Moms for Liberty is no ‘hate group.’ You are joyful warriors and fierce patriots,” Trump said to applause.

“You’re not the threat to America; you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to America. Joe Biden and the Democrat Communists are the threat to America. And together, we are going to throw them out of office on Election Day 2024,” he continued.

Republicans will need this group to make up any lost ground from last cycle’s midterms.

“Moms are the key political force for this 2024 cycle—we have an opportunity to harness all the energy, all the concern,” said DeSantis.

And that power is borne out in the data, according to FiveThirtyEight senior elections analyst Geoffrey Skelley.

“Different groups of women voters -- and women as a whole -- were pretty pivotal to Biden’s win. Women make up a solid majority of the Democratic Party’s voter base -- around 58% of Biden’s voters, per the exit poll -- and the party would struggle to win elections if only men voted,” Skelley explained.

“Had Trump done even a tad better among suburban women, it’s easy to imagine him having carried some of the very tight races in states like Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin,” Skelley contends.

Becky Mccarron, a mother and grandmother from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, finds herself as a small part of a much larger movement, fearful yet ready to fight.

“If you don’t stand up for your kids and who else is going to do that for you?” she told ABC News. “I’m really worried for my grandchildren. And it seems to me like there’s more of an ideology [in schools] and parents don’t have the say over what their kids are being taught anymore.”

And Mccarron, a two-time Trump voter, is still all-in for the former president despite not being completely sold on his disposition. She attributes his bravado to his roots: “New Yorkers are a different breed,” she added.

Chris Birde, a mother from Brevard County, Florida, where the organization began, was taken with Moms for Liberty from the jump, attending last year’s summit in Tampa and vowing to not miss another meeting going forward. She brought her daughter, Reagan, and her daughter’s friend, Ryleigh Seibel, both juniors in high school, along for the ride, and to build to the mission’s ranks.

She sees education at the “forefront” of this cycle and thinks the mom vote will be make or break come next November.

“They know that moms hold the power. In most elections, women are the ones that influence,” said Birde.

When it comes to her Election Day choices, Birde would prefer him to prefer DeSantis to stay in Florida and is bullish for another Trump term, saying she sees the former president as the “fighter” she, and the country, needs.

Florida GOP Chair Christian Ziegler of Sarasota, Florida -- whose wife Bridget was a co-founder of the Moms for Liberty group before stepping away to focus on her duties as a Sarasota school board member -- told ABC News that the group’s groundswell over the past two and a half years is reflective of how the issue is playing out politically. This conference in Philadelphia is “probably doubled” in size from the group’s gathering last year in Tampa.

“Frankly, it's one of the top issues if not the top issue in the country,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler added that parental rights, in addition to lax COVID-19 restrictions, were leading factors for his party to bring in decisive victories in Florida, a perennially purple state that trended overwhelmingly red during the 2022 midterm cycle.

“I don’t think you have to look farther than Florida. We have proof,” Ziegler said.

The Democratic National Committee slammed the group and participating Republicans Friday morning ahead of the remarks.

“Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy are celebrating the Fourth of July weekend with one of the nation’s most notorious anti-freedom, history-erasing, book-banning groups,” the DNC said. “While President Biden and Vice President Harris are running to safeguard Americans’ rights and freedoms, MAGA Republicans are more concerned with catering to right-wing extremists than addressing the real issues that working families face.”

Katie Gorka, wife of controversial Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka, told ABC News that the presence of key Republican candidates is a testament to how powerful conversations around education will be next cycle and the growing influence of Moms for Liberty shows that the group “had touched a nerve” on the national pulse.

“Parental rights and education in general are going to be a key election factor, both this November in local elections as well as next November in the presidential election,” said Gorka.

ABC News’ Isabella Murray, Hannah Demissie and Abby Cruz contributed to this report.