Updated: May 4, 2022
Congratulations to Mr. Cowger for his contributions to this community and our state!
News Release - Charleston Gazette-Mail
April 30, 2022
"From Feb. 10, 2020, to May 11, 2021, Republican candidates and committees across West Virginia paid Cowger’s ad agency $31,289.89, according to campaign finance filings."
CHARLESTON - Behind the graphic online depiction of a lawmaker with his hands bloodied churns a political machine revving at full bore with a primary election looming.
A conservative group’s Facebook posts target political enemies, taking aim at a trio of Republican candidates for the state Senate. An online site purporting to be “West Virginia’s Source for State and Local News” showcases hit pieces with a familiar theme, a Republican tilting left, particularly regarding gays.
One headline declares a candidate sponsored a bill to “let men in girls’ restrooms” and falsely claims the Charleston Gazette-Mail “colluded with” that candidate to remove from the newspaper’s website a “controversial” response to a questionnaire. The story was authored by Caiden Cowger, 23, of Buckhannon, who leads both the conservative group and the so-called news site.
From Feb. 10, 2020, to May 11, 2021, Republican candidates and committees across West Virginia paid Cowger’s ad agency $31,289.89, according to campaign finance filings.
His leading political clients included the West Virginia Republican Senate Committee, which paid Cowger Creative $6,300 last year, mostly for “web based services.” No records of payments to Cowger this year had appeared in state filings at the time of this writing. The GOP group, a state political party or caucus campaign committee, describes itself online as “committed to moving our state in the right direction by adopting conservative policies that promote job creation and family values.”
Candidates deemed as aligned with that approach get the committee’s “seal of approval.” Primary opponents of two candidates targeted in the Family Policy Council’s Facebook posts — Mick Bates of Beckley and Joshua Higginbotham of Kanawha County — got the Republican committee’s backing.
Posts targeting Higginbotham along with links to stories from Cowger’s so-called news site appear on the Facebook page of the Family Policy Council of West Virginia, which bills itself as the “Mountain State’s leading conservative policy group championing social issues.” Cowger is the group’s president.
A crudely constructed graphic posted April 16 shows a candidate with his face cupped in one bloody hand while clutching surgical scissors in the other. A headline declares in all capitals that he “voted to make abortion a constitutional right.” The graphic features a reminder of the primary date, May 10.
Designated for tax purposes as a nonprofit civil rights, social action and advocacy group, the council describes itself in tax records as “a servant organization that advocates for policies that embrace the sanctity of human life, enrich marriages, and the safeguard of religious freedom.”
How the council goes about its advocacy is a point of contention among the group’s political foes.
Other graphics on the council’s Facebook page separately feature Higginbotham and Bates against the backdrop of a boy smearing lipstick on his face, accompanied by an all-caps headline citing their sponsorship of the Fairness Act, a bill to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public places. Versions of the bill have been introduced, but never passed, in the Legislature every year since 1993.
Jack Jarvis, a spokesman for Fairness West Virginia, which advocates for the legislation, called the council’s depictions of the bill “complete misinformation.”
It’s a well-worn theme for Higginbotham, who last year became the first Republican in the Legislature to publicly announce he’s gay. The former delegate said he’s faced attacks from the council every year he’s campaigned, mostly over his support of the Fairness Act.
“My response is that I wish them the best of luck,” Higginbotham said. “And they should keep trying.”
On the eve of Good Friday, the Family Policy Council of West Virginia was doing just that. A Facebook post trumpeted the group’s primary endorsements. Six of the council’s chosen candidates were clients of Cowger’s in 2020. Each of the 10 state Senate candidates the council endorsed also got the seal of approval from the Republican Senate committee, Cowger’s lone state political customer last year, according to campaign records.
More is at play than the intertwining of interests. Republicans hold a two-thirds majority in the Legislature, giving the party’s Senate committee rarified power and Cowger and his state council the potential to help shape policy in West Virginia for years to come.
It has not happened by accident.
Founded in 2005, the Family Policy Council of West Virginia is part of a vast network of political advocacy spread across the country under the umbrella of one of conservative Christianity’s most formidable forces, the Family Policy Alliance, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The alliance is a lobbying arm of Focus on the Family, the conservative Christian nonprofit organization founded in 1977 by James C. Dobson, a child psychologist and icon of America’s religious right. The Family Policy Council of West Virginia is one of more than 30 state groups like it that the alliance describes online as “allies.”
Although Dobson no longer helms Focus, the organization remains known for the radio show he started, offering grandfatherly advice on child-rearing along with a radio theater for children. Like Cowger’s advocacy, the ministry pays dividends, only on a scale far larger. Focus brings in roughly $100 million a year. Ten of its officers make more than $125,000 annually, led by President Jim Daly’s total yearly compensation of more than $285,000, according to the group’s latest tax filing. And Focus does more than preach the gospel. The group is a leader on the front lines of America’s culture wars.
Family policy councils like West Virginia’s are part of a vision of Dobson’s dating more than three decades ago, when he wrote to his supporters describing plans to promote “pro-family” groups in all 50 states, according to a 1989 story in the Los Angeles Times. A senior Focus on the Family executive described the initiative as “behind the scenes.”
“Once these coalitions are in place,” Dobson wrote to supporters, “our state legislators will discover that they can no longer write off the concerns of conservative Christian families.”
As part of his effort to unify Christian conservatives, Dobson in 1988 merged Focus on the Family with the Family Research Council, an evangelical activist organization designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. Under the merger, the Family Research Council became a division of Focus on the Family.
The Family Research Council lists on its website the Family Policy Council of West Virginia among 30 other groups that “accomplish at the state level what Family Research Council does at the national level — shape public debate and formulate public policy.” The state group and the Family Research Council have partnered on legislation in West Virginia.
Four years after the Times story appeared, Dobson was among some 30 leaders of the Christian right who founded the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, another conservative group. The logos of Focus on the Family and the Family Policy Alliance, Family Research Council and Alliance Defending Freedom each appear on the Family Policy Council of West Virginia’s website alongside a photograph of Cowger with a call to donate.
Contributions to the state group totaled $80,238 in 2019, according to its latest tax filing. That’s less than half the peak total contributions of $177,688 in 2014. Republicans won control of the state Senate the same year.
At any given time, there are about three dozen state affiliates of the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, said Frederick Clarkson, a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates who has been writing about the Christian right for about 40 years.
“So, you have the three groups kind of making efficient use of their national resources,” Clarkson said. “Any of the state policy groups can call on the national groups for assistance and guidance, and in turn, they sometimes provide model legislation that they’ll send to the various state policy groups for possible introduction in the legislature.”
Dobson retired from Focus in 2010. But his vision has flourished, even after Daly, Dobson’s successor, sought to strike a conciliatory tone toward gays.
Referring in 2011 to his group’s efforts to combat same-sex marriage, Daly told World, a Christian news magazine, “We’re losing on that one, especially among the 20- and 30-somethings: 65 to 70 percent of them favor same-sex marriage. I don’t know if that’s going to change with a little more age —demographers would say probably not. We’ve probably lost that.”
For some, the fight was only getting started.
A year after Daly acknowledged defeat on same-sex marriage, Cowger at age 14 recorded a viral video of his online radio show accusing then-President Barack Obama of “making kids gay.”
“It’s getting worse where I’m at,” Cowger declared. “I see younger people that [are] turning out to be homosexual. It’s equal — boy and girl both. All of them are starting to turn into homosexuals. We’ve got about 30 teenagers in this county that I’m at that are homosexuals.
“And it is sickening. It sickens me.”
Spreaker, the online recording service, pulled Cowger’s show, and YouTube suspended his account, but a conservative star was born. Newsmax, the right-wing website, rated Cowger at age 16 among the nation’s leading conservatives 30 or younger.
In January 2018, he began attending Liberty University, the school in Lynchburg, Virginia, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, famed leader of the Moral Majority. Cowger last was enrolled in December and did not graduate, according to the school registrar. The text beneath the education heading on Cowger’s LinkedIn page reads: “Liberty University: Bachelor of Science, Political Science, 2017-21.”
That page lists him as having been the self-employed creative director of Cowger Creative since 2016. State records show him licensing that business in 2020 along with Cowger Media, which publishes Mountaineer Journal, his online site. He later became president of the Family Policy Council. That was an unpaid position in 2019, the latest year for which tax records could be obtained and before Cowger took over leadership of the group.
His Cowger Creative Facebook page features a video produced for a sister group of the Heritage Foundation, the policy-shaping conservative think tank that hauls in more than $100 million in annual contributions.
How work with groups like that one as well as West Virginia Republicans might have affected Cowger’s circumstances is unclear. He did not respond to repeated requests to comment.
A reporter knocked on the door of the modest Buckhannon house where he was raised and which is listed in state records as the address for his various businesses. The man who answered said Cowger wasn’t home and, a short time later, directed the reporter to leave. Trips to the address listed for the council in Charleston did not turn up Cowger. Messages left for him went unanswered.
Meanwhile, the political machine hummed.
On April 7, two days after the reporter’s visit to Buckhannon, the West Virginia Republican Senate Committee filed its campaign finance report for the first quarter, reporting contributions of $78,500. The figure was the committee’s highest for that quarter in filings appearing online dating to late 2016.
The document listed three itemized expenses, none for Cowger.
Staff writers Lori Kersey, Lacie Pierson and Ryan Quinn contributed to this report for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Photo contributions by Mountainer News.