Capture the Duggar base: Bobby Jindal's desperate home-school Hail Mary is 2016's strangest strategy

"Religious freedom" + home-schoolers. It seems like a tiny GOP sliver, but a strategist to watch thinks otherwise

Published June 8, 2015 6:35PM (EDT)

  (Jeff Malet,
(Jeff Malet,

On June 24, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the state’s most ambitious political personality since David Duke, is widely expected to announce his candidacy for the presidency. But, if conventional wisdom holds true, Jindal has just as much of a chance for the Republican nomination as Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, had when he ran in 1992.

With his approval hovering between the high 20s and lower 30s, Jindal now has the dubious distinction of being the least popular governor in Louisiana history. Despite the fact that he’s spent nearly half of the last two years hanging out in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Washington, D.C., his prospective presidential campaign has yet to gain any traction. When pollsters bother to include his name, Jindal has been consistently at the very bottom of an already-crowded field.

“Bobby Jindal. No one is more popular,” Stephen Colbert joked a few months ago. He meant it literally. “No one” polls higher than Jindal does.

As Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight recently pointed out, Jindal enjoys support from only 1 percent of evangelical, born-again Christians, which seems staggering. This, after all, is the same core constituency he has been aggressively courting since the day he took office.

One of the very first bills he signed into law, the Louisiana Science Education Act, was intended to promote the teaching of new earth creationism, under the rhetorical guise of “intelligent design,” in the public school science classroom. When 78 Nobel laureates and the world’s leading scientific organizations publicly urged Jindal to repeal the law, he instead doubled down. The law represented a major victory for the religious far-right, which had worked for more than three decades to find a way around the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Edwards v. Aguillard (a case that involved, perhaps not coincidentally, a Louisiana statute requiring the teaching of creationism).

This year, with the state facing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall, Jindal, in a speech to the Legislature, announced his support for only one specific piece of legislation, a bill that would have, among other things, allowed private businesses to refuse to serve anyone who supported marriage equality. Not a single legislator -- not even the bill’s own author -- applauded when Jindal waxed poetic about the existential threats to religious freedom. After the bill failed in committee by a 10-2 vote, Jindal immediately attempted to resurrect it via executive order, and a few minutes after issuing his order, he was on television talking about religious freedom.

In Iowa.

No one has worked harder than Bobby Jindal for the support of evangelical Christians. He even invented an award just so he could give it to Willie Robertson; and, in exchange, he became the subject of an entire episode of "Duck Dynasty." He organized a prayer rally on the campus of LSU, which was officially hosted by the American Family Association, a noted anti-gay hate group. He traded in his khakis and buttoned-up polos for belt buckles and cowboy boots. So far this year, he has already tweeted two different photos of himself holding a gun; his Christmas card was of him and his family, dressed in camouflage, posing in a golf cart on the grounds of the Governor’s Mansion as if they were somehow on a hunting expedition. On the increasingly rare Sunday mornings that he spends in state, he is usually in the backseat of his helicopter, shuffling between church services in North and Central Louisiana.

None of it seems to have made any difference. But it could, eventually. He intends on defying conventional wisdom, and he has a plan.

Over the last three years, Bobby Jindal has published more opinion columns in national publications than any other politician in the country, most recently a crude and meandering explanation in The New York Times about his opposition to marriage equality. When Time magazine asked one of Jindal’s chief political strategists, Curt Anderson, about the governor’s prolific output, he made a frank on-the-record admission: Bobby Jindal didn’t actually write many of the national columns published under his name; he just signed off on them.

“The guy is a one-man think tank,” Anderson said, belying the fact that all told, the Jindal campaign has paid OnMessage, Anderson’s D.C.-based political consultancy, more than $3.8 million. Last year, Jindal forked out nearly $600,000 to Anderson’s company.

Even in an election year in Louisiana, this would be a staggering amount of money to pay a single firm, but it is made more remarkable when one considers that Jindal is term-limited from running again for governor. That’s important, because it is illegal for a federal candidate to spend money raised from a state campaign fund. Jindal, of course, hasn’t quite yet become a federal candidate, but suffice it to say, he is likely paying OnMessage for much more than its ghostwriting services.

This may seem like money wasted by a man who is currently polling worse in his deep-red home state than Barack Obama, keeping in mind that Louisiana currently does not have a single Democrat in a statewide office. But Bobby Jindal, the Ivy League educated Rhodes Scholar who once pilloried his fellow Republicans by demanding they no longer be the “stupid party,” may also have a trick up his sleeve, a legitimate reason to think that he could, at the very least, quickly but quietly build a competitive campaign.

* * *

That reason's name is Timmy Teepell, and he is almost certain to be the man behind the curtain of Jindal’s anticipated presidential campaign.

Teepell met Jindal in 2003, when he interviewed to become the manager of the politician's first campaign for governor. Teepell lost out on the job, and Jindal lost the election. The next year though, Jindal decided to hire Teepell to run his campaign for Congress, and since then, the two have won four consecutive elections in landslides.

“On election night Saturday,” The Advocate in Baton Rouge reported in 2011, “the governor told supporters that after his wife, Supriya, Teepell is his best friend.”

Timmy Teepell is nothing like James Carville, Louisiana’s most famous political consultant, whose brash and outsized personality helped elect Bill Clinton in 1992; and he’s nothing like Karl Rove, the “architect” behind George W. Bush’s campaigns, or David Axelrod, the Chicago academic who served as Barack Obama’s chief political strategist. For one thing, Teepell never went to college, and he doesn’t have a high school diploma.

His lack of a formal education actually makes him unqualified for the vast majority of top-level civil service jobs in Louisiana state and local government. But after Jindal was elected governor in 2007, Teepell was hired as his chief of staff, which, at the time, was arguably the second most powerful position in the administration.

Teepell, 40, is easy to like and disarmingly self-deprecating. When I tell him that he is sometimes called the most powerful unelected official in Louisiana, he doesn’t miss a beat. “I’m not even the most powerful person in my own house,” he jokes. A few years ago, Taylor Huckaby, a young new-media director Teepell had recruited to the Jindal campaign, stood in the Teepell family kitchen and revealed that he was gay. At the time, it was something he’d told only to his closest friends. Teepell and his wife, both evangelical Christians, went to bat against other, less charitable staff members and fought for Huckaby's inclusion and dignity.

“Timmy is someone I still respect,” said Huckaby, 26, who publicly defected from Team Jindal and is now a Democrat living in the San Francisco Bay Area. “At a time when I felt accepted by very few people, Timmy and Sarah [Teepell’s wife] were supportive insofar as they did not outright fire me or blackball me from politics. They, of course, drew a line between tolerance and support of my so-called ‘lifestyle,’ but that was expected. We still tweet and text now and again, though things have soured considerably since their political strategy has pivoted toward a more stridently anti-gay position.”

By the age of 32, Timmy and Sarah already had six children. He officially stepped down as chief of staff in July of 2011 in order to run Jindal’s reelection campaign. (He’d also taken a brief hiatus from the job in 2010 to help the Republican Governor’s Association with fundraising.)

“While I was running his reelection campaign, I made the decision that I would not return as chief of staff if Gov. Jindal won reelection,” Teepell tells me. “The nonstop grind of the job limited my ability to invest time and energy into my family. My kids were growing up, and I wanted to be a larger part of their life. I did not think it was possible to be a good chief of staff and a good father for another four years. So I made the decision to not return. After I made the decision to not return as chief of staff, I received a number of offers, including an offer from OnMessage to join the firm as a partner.”

A few weeks after Jindal won reelection, Teepell publicly announced his new position at Curt Anderson’s OnMessage, and Jindal announced he was hiring Teepell’s younger brother, Taylor, and Matt Parker, their brother-in-law.

Although he claims his decision was based on a desire to spend more time with his family, it is difficult to ignore that Timmy Teepell’s battered silver Jeep is still a fixture in the parking lot outside of the Capitol in Baton Rouge, especially during the legislative session. And more importantly, right now, Bobby Jindal, through his state campaign, is paying Teepell $30,000 a month, nearly three times what he made as a state employee.

“Just about everyone at the state Capitol knows that Teepell is still very much the brains and brawn of Jindal's political and official operations,” says Robert Mann, professor of communications at LSU and an ex-aide to former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and former Democratic U.S. Sens. John Breaux and Russell Long. If Teepell were a public employee, he’d be the highest-paid person at the Capitol.

Teepell volunteered to send me a copy of his contract. The agreement, signed between Timmy Teepell, acting in his capacity as a partner in OnMessage, and a representative of Jindal’s state campaign fund, spelled out some specific tasks. Teepell, henceforth, would be responsible for providing Jindal with advice on state policy, the state budget, and, perhaps most curiously, personnel. For a time, his job description and his omnipresence in the state Capitol implied, to some, that he’d never actually left his old job, that he’d merely found a way for campaign donors to pay hundreds of thousands more for him to keep the same job under a different title.

“There are questions that need to be asked,” says James Carville, the reigning dean of Louisiana politics. “It’d be interesting to note which state laws apply to a situation like this.” Teepell, for his part, adamantly asserts that he has done nothing improper. When I press him about the nature of his work at the Capitol, he refers back to his contract.

The Jindal administration provides me with about 85 pages of emails, spanning nearly four years, between Teepell’s private address and other public employees and then denies my request for email correspondence to and from the governor. Teepell’s emails are almost entirely concerned with media inquiries. They contain absolutely no information or advice about policy or the budget, and the only discussion about personnel is related to a series of redundant invitations Teepell receives for a meeting about the appointment of assistant district attorneys.

The Jindal administration’s meticulously curated response to my public records requests raise even more questions about the nature and purpose of Teepell’s job, and I spend more than a month seeking out the opinions of experienced attorneys, academics and law professors.

“First we have contract soldiers, now we have contract government officials,” Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard Law professor and author of the book "Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress and a Plan to Stop It," tells me. “It’s a beautiful way to evade the law — and increasingly common.” To be sure, as Lessig implies, evading the law is not the same as breaking the law.

In Teepell’s case, there is some ambiguity over the legal definitions of a public employee and a governmental function. According to three other legal experts who specialize in Louisiana ethics law, the statutory definitions are absurdly broad and, because of that, would likely never be applied exactly as they are written. If they were, anyone who ever gave the governor advice, on any issue, could potentially be considered a public employee.

Regardless, though, Teepell’s value to Bobby Jindal isn’t really about policy; it’s about politics. And there is a good reason why Teepell, more than any other single figure, has been so instrumental in Jindal’s electoral success.

* * *

Timmy Teepell was homeschooled during his final years of high school, and today, he and his wife homeschool all of their six young children. Instead of going to college, he moved from his hometown of Baton Rouge to Washington D.C. to work for Michael Farris, one of the nation’s most influential lobbyists and advocates for homeschooling. Farris is a controversial and divisive figure; his work on homeschooling often seems to have more to do with advancing Christian dominionism than promoting parental empowerment. He is the founder of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association and Patrick Henry College, a small evangelical school in Virginia primarily known for its debate and moot court teams and its aggressive recruitment of homeschool students.

A few months after he arrived in D.C., Teepell was hired to run Madison Project, a political action committee launched by Farris that bundled donations for right-wing evangelical candidates. He may have only been a teenager, but he proved himself to be a loyal foot soldier and an enormously talented fundraiser.

Once Bobby Jindal had plucked Teepell from the Madison Project and asked him to become the campaign manager for his congressional election in 2004, Teepell went straight to work, recruiting members of Alan Keyes’s RenewAmerica political organization and other related groups, like Generation Joshua, a youth-oriented social advocacy organization and a division of Farris’s HSLDA. It is, of course, very difficult to determine how much of an actual effect they had on these elections, though they suggest their impact may have been more critical than anyone has ever previously reported.

RenewAmerica boasted about the work it had done in electing Jindal to Congress. “During his congressional race of three years ago (in 2004), Jindal engaged the assistance of grassroots Christian and conservative youth organizations such as Student Project and Generation Joshua,” they reported. “Ignoring fears of their ‘polarizing’ effect on his campaign, he won handily, upholding their Judeo-Christian values as a hallmark of his terms in office.”

That year, in its own post-game analysis of the gubernatorial campaign, the HSLDA championed the staggering results of its direct voter contact work. “Generation Joshua Student Action Teams were an integral part of gubernatorial candidate Bobby Jindal’s victory in Louisiana in October 2007,” it wrote in a press release, specifically claiming:

In the days leading up to Louisiana’s election, close to 100 homeschooled students and their parents worked in three locations (New Orleans/Metairie, Shreveport, and Lake Charles) on behalf of Bobby Jindal for Governor. Altogether, the teams made over 250,000 voter contacts, knocking on over 100,000 doors and making thousands of phone calls. On election night, October 20, Bobby Jindal netted nearly 54% of the vote.

Of course, this is absurdly implausible. According to these numbers, each homeschool student would have had to knock on 1,000 different doors in only a few days. All told, Jindal received slightly fewer than 700,000 votes, which means Generation Joshua believes it contacted the equivalent of 35 percent of Jindal’s entire electorate. Still, despite the hyperbole, and despite that only 3 percent of students are homeschooled, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, it would be unwise to dismiss how important the homeschool movement is for Bobby Jindal.

Last November, Jindal was a guest on Farris’s "Home School Heartbeat" podcast, which is notable both because the show is obscure to anyone unfamiliar with homeschool advocacy and because Jindal granted Michael Farris more time than he has to any single Louisiana journalist or reporter in the last four years. “I’ve been very, very blessed and fortunate to see homeschoolers come volunteer in my campaigns, as well as other campaigns, and they’re a tremendous asset and they do a phenomenal job,” Jindal tells Farris. When asked about his specific connection to the homeschool movement, Jindal gushes:

One of the first formative experiences for me—one of my closest friends, he’s served in a number of capacities for me, both as chief of staff, as a campaign manager, but more importantly, just a close friend—has been Timmy Teepell. So as Timmy got more involved with my campaigns and my different administrations, whether it was in Congress or here at the state level, I got to know him well. His younger brother Taylor has also worked for me and with me; we’ve spent quite a bit of time. And through his family, as well as through Sarah’s family, we’ve come to meet and know a lot of homeschool children. Many of them have volunteered on our campaigns. Many of them come to work in our administration.

We’ve got several that work at many different levels. We’ve had homeschooled children come and work in our communications shop, in our policy shop, in all different offices here in state government as well as when I was in DC.

It then becomes clear why Timmy Teepell has become so important to Bobby Jindal: Jindal believes Teepell delivers the homeschool movement’s voters, financial support, public relations apparatus, campaign volunteers, and staffers -- a tremendous marshaling of human resources, one that has provided the backbone of his political success to date and one that, thus far, has remained completely under the radar.

* * *

Like Timmy Teepell, Nicholas Ducote was also homeschooled as a kid in Louisiana. “I was raised in a religious cult,” Ducote tells me.

His parents were members of the Advanced Training Institute, an evangelical organization led by Bill Gothard. Last year, 34 women accused Gothard of sexual harassment and four others claimed that he had sexually abused them when they were teenagers. Gothard was forced to resign, publicly acknowledging that his actions “crossed the lines of discretion and were wrong.” Gothard reemerged in the spotlight last month after the revelation that Josh Duggar, a director of the Family Research Council and one of the stars of the hit reality show "19 and Counting," had sexually molested at least five different girls, including his own sisters.

The Duggar family are also members of the Advanced Training Institute and use Gothard’s curricula to homeschool all of their children.

“As a part of the larger Christian homeschooling movement in Louisiana, we were being trained to become culture warriors,” Ducote says. “I didn’t get a ‘real’ high school education. I spent most of my time prepping for debate tournaments.”

Bobby Jindal spoke at his homeschool graduation ceremony, during the annual Christian Home Educators of Louisiana (CHEF-LA) convention that included about 15 other homeschool kids and their families. “It was bizarre Jindal was giving a commencement at such a small event. I remember Timmy introducing him and speaking the praises of homeschooling and its influence on his current job with then-Congressman Jindal,” Ducote adds.

After interning with a Christian organization that taught speech and debate, Ducote volunteered to work at Jindal’s congressional office in suburban New Orleans in February 2007. During his seven months with the Jindal campaign, Ducote claims that his direct supervisor often “spoke about how homeschoolers had been instrumental in winning Jindal’s congressional race through the Generation Joshua program. In fact, it was part of why they were eager to have me intern.”

Ducote eventually earned a bachelor's and master's degree in American history, and today, he coordinates one of the nation’s largest homeschooling alumni advocacy groups. “I’m not inherently opposed to homeschooling, and I know that it really works for some families,” he says. “But most people don’t understand that the movement itself is dominated by religious extremists who believe their primary mission is to transform the country ‘back’ into an evangelical Christian theocracy. Right now, it is all about opposing marriage equality, deregulating homeschooling and expanding so-called religious freedom laws.”

(Michael Farris, it’s worth noting, also claims to have been instrumental in writing the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.)

"If you want to know what Bobby Jindal's next move is, then all you need to do is take a page from Timmy and follow Michael Farris on Facebook," Nicholas Ducote says, only half seriously. "Two weeks before Jindal's column in The New York Times, Farris basically wrote the same thing.” Bobby Jindal’s recent public posturing and policymaking seem designed specifically to cater to the homeschool movement, to signal to them that he favors the Christian dominionism at the root of Farris’s philosophy.

It’s those signals he believes will continue to get homeschool advocates and their allies in the larger evangelical movement to turn out to vote for him, and based on his results in Louisiana gubernatorial elections, it’s hard to say he’s completely crazy to think so.

* * *

Fairly or not, Timmy Teepell has been described as Bobby Jindal’s “alter ego,” in the same way Karl Rove was once called “Bush’s brain.” Teepell, for his part, prefers to downplay his own influence. After I tell him that lobbyists claim he has the ability to pass legislation just by being in the room, he points to his recent support of a failed effort to open up the sale of raw milk, an inconsequential footnote in a session dominated by the fallout over the state’s $1.6 billion budget shortfall. His influence among state lawmakers may be waning, but he is more important now than he ever has been to Team Jindal.

All of that said, no, there’s no real possibility that Bobby Jindal will ever become the Republican nominee, but unlike the last two Louisiana politicians who campaigned for the presidency- David Duke and Buddy Roemer- Bobby Jindal, at 44, has no intention of fading into obscurity or irrelevance. He’s quietly, furtively spending millions of dollars to co-opt a political machine that his best friend spent two decades helping to construct. It won’t earn him the nomination, but if all goes as planned and he defies expectations (which, right now, are absurdly low), it may earn him back all of the political capital he squandered during his two terms as governor of Louisiana.

By Lamar White

Lamar White, Jr. is a native of Alexandria, Louisiana, and has been writing about Louisiana politics for nearly a decade on his website, CenLamar. He has a juris doctor from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, a bachelors from Rice University in Houston, and is currently a doctoral candidate in political communication at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

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