Update, 4/21: Last night, after posting an image comparing pandemic response orders to the Nazis who killed Anne Frank, Reopen Iowa For Business announced it was moving to a members-only group called Reopen Iowa in “an effort to limit the trolls and gain some momentum.” This article mentions three Dorr brothers — Aaron, Ben, and Chris — who have been involved in launching dubious gun-rights groups like Iowa Gun Owners in multiple states. The new Reopen Iowa group was initially moderated by a fourth brother, Matthew Dorr, who lives in the town of Ashton in northwestern Osceola County with his wife, Leah, who is also a moderator. Dorr’s sister, Julia Sents, moderates the new group, as well. (Altogether, there are six brothers and five sisters in the family.)
Kent Sorenson, the former state lawmaker whose pay-to-play endorsement of Ron Paul in the 2012 Iowa caucuses was negotiated by Iowa Gun Owners founder Aaron Dorr, was later added as a moderator of the members-only page, as was Aaron Dorr himself. On his personal Facebook account, which has several of the same memes and comments that appear on the public Reopen Iowa page, Sorenson posted a new comment Tuesday saying that he created Reopen Iowa.
As with Iowa Gun Owners and the Reopen Iowa effort, the Dorr brothers have launched similar coronavirus protest groups in other states that link to petitions on their other gun-rights websites. On Sunday, the Washington Post reported on Facebook pages that Aaron, Ben, and Chris Dorr created for New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. On Monday, after this article was published, NBC News expanded on the coverage, adding that Matthew Dorr was also involved. The brothers’ Facebook protest pages have “amassed more than 200,000 members collectively, including in states where they don’t reside, according to an NBC News analysis based on public records searches and Facebook group registrations.”
With Iowa remaining one of just eight states with no statewide stay-at-home order issued in an effort to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, it has yet to see the sort of right-wing, social distance-flouting protests that have recently taken place elsewhere across the country. But they may be brewing here, if a new Facebook page connected to a prominent gun-rights organization is any indication.
Even before Republican Governor Kim Reynolds issued her strictest order to date Thursday — limiting gatherings only to members of a person’s immediate residence in a northeastern 14-county region hit by deadly nursing home outbreaks — she faced criticism from the right over the impact that business shutdowns she ordered could have on the state’s economy.
The closest thing here resembling the spirit of recent protests in states like Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia may be a Facebook page called Reopen Iowa For Business that was created last Wednesday and had 747 followers at the time of this story’s publication. The page’s cover photo is an image of the state flag behind the words “Iowans Against Excessive Quarantines.” A Fox News article about the Michigan protest was posted to the page with the comment, “Maybe it is time to organize a similar event in Iowa to send a clear message that we are ready to go back to work!”
“This page is dedicated to reopening the state of Iowa for business following the COVID19 shutdown,” its About section reads. “Only join this page if you feel that we need to reopen the state of Iowa for Business and get people back to work.”
Reopen Iowa For Business is otherwise vague about the details of its group, with the exception of two posts that link to a form letter on the website of Iowa Gun Owners, which bills itself as the state’s “only No Compromise gun rights organization” and was founded in January 2009 to oppose gun permit laws it argued gave county sheriffs too much power.
“This page is going to be the CENTER of the resistance!” reads one of the posts linking to the form letter, which allows you to send it to the governor, state Representative John Landon, and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver — all Republicans. “Get involved by inviting your friends and emailing Governor Reynolds at www.REOPENIOWA.com!” The link redirects to the same Iowa Gun Owners page.
The form letter repeats common arguments against business shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders, warning that “our economy will be dealt a death blow” if the state continues on its present course. It then praises the pandemic response of South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a Republican, who “is proving to the world that we don’t need to sacrifice the future of our families, the working class, our retirements, and our young ones in order to keep our population safe.” Noem, like Reynolds, has not issued a stay-at-home order for her state, where a Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, just across the border from the northwestern corner of Iowa, recently suffered the largest coronavirus outbreak in the entire nation.
The page’s posts otherwise consist largely of links to news articles, with brief commentary added, and memes shared from the realm of conservative social media. Several of the posts present untrue or misleading information about the coronavirus pandemic. “Really went to zero overnight?” reads one, linking to a Daily Caller article that falsely suggests the state of New York reported no new COVID-19 cases on April 14 (it reported 7,177). “So overblown, Open the state now!”
Two other posts share lists of purported facts about the pandemic in the US that are full of paranoid misinformation. One attacks Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, whose foundation in 2007 launched the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that has been releasing widely cited — but also criticized — projections about the coronavirus. The post falsely claims that a performance artist named Marina Abramovic, who appeared in a Microsoft ad, is a Satanist, a conspiracy theory spread on Infowars by Alex Jones. It also appears to reference another conspiracy theory about Gates promoting vaccines in the interest of depopulating the planet.
The other list directly accuses Gates of exploiting the pandemic to push for mandatory vaccinations. “5G is rolling out as we speak (or sleep) and there are countless doctors on YouTube trying to warn us, countless cities and countries are fighting back and stopping 5G,” it adds, referring to a bizarre conspiracy theory alleging that the wireless technology is spreading COVID-19. (“Those that research & share are being ridiculed for being ‘conspiracy theorists’, when all we’re doing is simply looking for answers,” reads a complaint below it in the list.)
Already, Facebook users have added dozens of comments and reactions to posts on the Reopen Iowa For Business page. Many of them are critical of the group’s aims. But others, most curiously several from former state Senator Kent Sorenson; his wife, Shawnee; and one of his daughters, Makala, have been supportive.
Kent Sorenson has a unique history with one of the founders of Iowa Gun Owners, a controversial activist named Aaron Dorr. In October 2013, Sorenson resigned in disgrace from his Senate seat over an ethics investigation into campaign finance violations concerning his endorsement of Republican Congressman Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential bid. In late December 2011, Sorenson resigned as state chairman of far-right Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign to endorse Paul. Details later emerged that Sorenson, at the time a Tea Party darling, was given a $25,000 check and wired another $73,000 for the endorsement in violation of federal law. He was ultimately handed a 15-month prison sentence in January 2017.
Dorr was the main negotiator of the pay-to-play deal between Sorenson and the Ron Paul campaign, according to documents obtained by Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa. “It was Dorr who drafted a three-page memo outlining Sorenson’s financial demands to get him to jump ship from the Bachmann campaign,” Robinson reported in August 2013 for The Iowa Republican, the conservative news site he founded. “This memo not only discloses the financial compensation Sorenson sought to obtain, but also details his financial agreement with Bachmann.”
At the time, one of Dorr’s brothers, Chris Dorr, was a field staffer for the Bachmann campaign and a legislative clerk for Sorenson. Robinson described him as a “key Sorenson accomplice” who made a copy of a Bachmann campaign list of homeschooling voters that was offered to the Paul campaign. The brothers’ father, Paul Dorr — who worked as an adviser for Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign — was also included in emails discussing the proposed deal.
Aaron Dorr recently claimed that Iowa Gun Owners “paved the way for every advancement of Second Amendment freedom that Iowa has seen over the last decade, including passage of ‘Shall Issue’ legislation, Stand-Your-Ground law, and much more.” However, another gun-rights group, the Iowa Firearms Coalition, is widely considered at the state Capitol to be more effective at passing pro-gun legislation. In 2017, Matt Windschitl, a gunsmith and Republican state representative from Missouri Valley, called Dorr’s organization a “scam” for taking credit for gun bills he pushed through the Legislature.
There was something to Windschitl’s allegation. Chris Dorr is the director of Ohio Gun Owners and a third Dorr brother, Ben, runs an organization called Minnesota Gun Rights. The groups have all been accused of talking a big game but accomplishing little. Last August, Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer published an investigation into the brothers’ shady fundraising operations, which appeared to funnel money through a company registered in Iowa called Midwest Freedom Enterprises LLC. The brothers have founded affiliated nonprofits in several other states, the newspaper reported, but “the various Dorr groups for which tax filings are available report paying their employees zero compensation.” There’s a Facebook page called The Truth about IGO that claims Aaron Dorr now lives in New York, where he has an address in the small town of Bloomfield. Someone even launched a website titled “Exposing the Dorr Brother Scams.”
The administrator of the Reopen Iowa For Business Facebook page read but did not respond to a request for comment with a list of questions asking whether Aaron Dorr or someone else ran the page, about the group’s affiliation with Iowa Gun Owners, if it had plans to organize a protest, and if any of the Sorensons had an official role with the group.
In any event, the paranoid worldview presented on the Facebook page is broadly consistent with that of past and present members of Iowa Gun Owners. Another founder of the gun-rights group, Jimmy Schwiesow, served as sheriff of northwest Iowa’s Sioux County from 1977 to 2005.
Schwiesow was featured in a September 1999 article published in the Chicago Tribune with the headline “Apocalyptic fears push some to extremes.” Reporter Tom Ragan described how the sheriff contacted gun owners in Orange City, where he was from, to warn them about Y2K, a computer programming flaw that some feared would lead to profound global changes at the turn of the century. “Be not deceived, good friends. God will not be mocked. Whatever we sow we reap,” Schiesow wrote in a letter using county stationery. “I do believe the time is at hand. Any number of events … could precipitate a series of deep unrest, hardships and lawlessness of a magnitude unprecedented in our memory.”
Schwiesow died in December 2018 at the age of 80. On the Iowa Gun Owners website, he is still described as the chairman of the organization’s board. In records filed with the secretary of state’s office, he is listed as the group’s president. A post published on the website after Schwiesow’s death, attributed to the board but apparently written by Aaron Dorr, said that Dorr was switching positions from executive director in order to fill the late sheriff’s role.