Charlie Kirk was just about to leave the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa when he spotted the multimillionaire investor Foster Friess in a stairwell. Kirk, who was 18 and fresh out of high school, had spent weeks memorizing the names and faces of the top 25 Republican political donors in case he found himself in just such a situation. He grabbed Friess into a handshake, took a nervous breath, and began his elevator pitch. Instead of going to college, he wanted to start a grass-roots organization to rival liberal groups such as MoveOn.org, which offer Democratic candidates a standing army of volunteer activists. All he needed, Kirk told Friess, was cash. Friess, who’d just blown $2.1 million on a failed quest to help Rick Santorum win the GOP presidential nomination, handed over his business card. Three weeks later, Kirk had a five-figure check. “He impressed me with his capacity to lead, intelligence, and love for America,” Friess says. “I instantly knew I wanted to support him.”
In the three years since, Kirk—who still sleeps in his childhood bedroom in Wheeling, Ill.—has built his organization, Turning Point USA, into the go-to group for reaching young conservatives. It has a presence on 800 college campuses, where fieldworkers hand out posters and collect e-mail addresses. At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February, the group hosted an event featuring Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, who have each since announced they’re running for president. On May 8, Paul was scheduled to speak at a Turning Point rally at Arizona State University, and Carly Fiorina is on deck to speak in June at a Turning Point conference for women in Chicago. Kirk says he’s met candidate Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who is considering a presidential run.