Americans for Prosperity Is Just Getting Started

AFP is not just interested in this year’s Senate elections. It has much bigger ambitions.

Americans for Prosperity Foundation President Tim Phillips, left, and Chairman David Koch laugh during the Defending the American Dream Summit in Orlando, Fla., Friday, Aug. 30, 2013.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
June 12, 2014, 5 p.m.

Demo­crats entered the fall of 2013 look­ing like a slight fa­vor­ite to re­tain the Sen­ate. They left the winter of 2014 look­ing like an un­dis­puted un­der­dog. What happened? The botched rol­lout of the Af­ford­able Care Act hurt Demo­crats badly. But the dam­age from that de­bacle would have been a lot less po­tent if not for the ef­forts of one con­ser­vat­ive group in par­tic­u­lar. Since Oc­to­ber, Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity has spent the kind of money on TV that nobody has ever seen be­fore in the early months of a midterm elec­tion — more than $40 mil­lion. Just about all of it has tar­geted a hand­ful of vul­ner­able Sen­ate Demo­crats. And just about all of it has ticked off a list of ar­gu­ments for why Obama­care has ruined health care.

Most of the polit­ic­al world knows the ba­sics about AFP: It’s fun­ded in part by bil­lion­aire in­dus­tri­al­ists (and fa­vor­ite Demo­crat­ic vil­lains) Charles and Dav­id Koch. Un­like a lot of con­ser­vat­ive out­side groups, it doesn’t go out of its way to an­noy the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s powers that be. D.C. in­siders have also prob­ably heard of the group’s pres­id­ent, Tim Phil­lips, a long­time GOP hand who once worked for former Vir­gin­ia Gov. Bob Mc­Don­nell. And they prob­ably re­mem­ber that the group spent gobs of money — un­suc­cess­fully — in the last pres­id­en­tial elec­tion try­ing to put Mitt Rom­ney in the White House.

But for such an im­port­ant or­gan­iz­a­tion, that’s an aw­fully bare cup­board of facts. “Opaque” is the word many people reach for to de­scribe AFP — and that’s when they talk about it at all. A few polit­ic­al con­sult­ants I con­tac­ted, the types nor­mally keen to opine on any­thing, de­clined an in­ter­view. The im­pli­cit mes­sage: Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity doesn’t like its in­ner work­ings ex­posed to the world.

Re­cently, however, Phil­lips agreed to speak to me about the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s long-term think­ing and goals. After an ini­tial phone con­ver­sa­tion, we met in a cof­fee shop down­stairs from the group’s na­tion­al headquar­ters in Ar­ling­ton, Va. His over­rid­ing mes­sage dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tion was simple: AFP is not just in­ter­ested in this year’s Sen­ate elec­tions. It has much big­ger am­bi­tions.

“It’s a little frus­trat­ing when someone says, ‘Oh, this is a polit­ic­al ef­fort about the U.S. Sen­ate,’ ” said Phil­lips, who at 49, with thin­ning brown hair, looks the part of an up­per-level man­ager. “They don’t look at the to­tal­ity of what Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity is do­ing.”

The group has chapters in 34 states and claims mil­lions of vo­lun­teers. In many ways, it’s akin to a third party, al­beit one that doesn’t run its own can­did­ates. Every gear in the ma­chine churns to­ward one ob­ject­ive: re­mak­ing the coun­try in a fisc­ally con­ser­vat­ive im­age — at the loc­al, state, and fed­er­al levels. Its vis­ion is a coun­try with few­er taxes, less reg­u­la­tion, and the nearly un­fettered right of in­di­vidu­als to do what they want without in­ter­fer­ence from a meddle­some gov­ern­ment — es­sen­tially, the kind of place Ayn Rand would have wanted to make a home in.

For the mo­ment at least, these goals align per­fectly with the GOP’s agenda of re­claim­ing the Sen­ate in 2014. But are there po­ten­tial costs for the Re­pub­lic­an Party when a group like AFP ac­quires so much power and in­flu­ence?

STATE-LEVEL SUC­CESS

Of course, AFP’s lead­ers don’t see them­selves as a polit­ic­al jug­ger­naut cap­able of over­whelm­ing their foes. Like a lot of groups with power, they con­sider them­selves a mere coun­ter­bal­ance to op­pos­i­tion forces — in this case, the net­work of lib­er­al act­iv­ist or­gan­iz­a­tions and uni­ons that con­sti­tute the in­sti­tu­tion­al heft of the pro­gress­ive move­ment.

Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity was formed in 2004 as a spin-off from a free-mar­ket group called Cit­izens for a Sound Eco­nomy. (Freedom­Works was also a spin-off from the or­gan­iz­a­tion.) AFP had only four state chapters then, ac­cord­ing to Phil­lips (who has been pres­id­ent since the start). Some state chapters had the humblest of be­gin­nings. Take the group’s Wis­con­sin branch: Phil­lips re­calls that the grass­roots act­iv­ists at its 2005 launch event numbered a paltry 14.

But it didn’t take long for AFP to be­come a force in the Badger State, which by 2011 had be­come ar­gu­ably the coun­try’s fore­most battle­ground for con­ser­vat­ives and pro­gress­ives. AFP spent heav­ily to help Scott Walk­er with­stand an at­temp­ted re­call, and thereby pre­serve his vic­tor­ies against pub­lic- sec­tor uni­ons.

It wasn’t just Wis­con­sin. In Michigan, AFP helped to suc­cess­fully push for right-to-work le­gis­la­tion. And in Flor­ida, it helped to de­feat Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Rick Scott’s at­tempt to ex­pand Medi­caid this year.

In­deed, Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity has had a lot more suc­cess in­flu­en­cing state gov­ern­ment than in­flu­en­cing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. “It’s been frus­trat­ing in Wash­ing­ton. We’ve lost some tough battles,” Phil­lips says. “But at the state level, I would ar­gue, it’s been a once-in-a-gen­er­a­tion mo­ment of free-mar­ket policy vic­tor­ies.”

GOOD FOR THE GOP?

The group’s most am­bi­tious goal is to re­peal Obama­care. As Phil­lips tells it, the cur­rent spend­ing spree on Sen­ate elec­tions is just one step in a long-term plan to get rid of the law. Next year, he hopes that a Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate and House will force Obama to veto their ef­forts to re­peal the least pop­u­lar parts of the le­gis­la­tion, such as the in­di­vidu­al man­date. “If he has to veto those, it keeps it in front of the pub­lic and it shows him as un­will­ing to take some reas­on­able com­mon­sense re­forms,” Phil­lips says. “It keeps the is­sue very much front and cen­ter.”

That would un­doubtedly be sat­is­fy­ing to AFP and to con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists. But wheth­er it would be good polit­ics for the Re­pub­lic­an Party re­mains to be seen. Many GOP strategists and lead­ers have gingerly be­gun ac­know­ledging that the health care law, as much as they might dis­like it, is get­ting close to im­possible to re­peal. Moreover, at a mo­ment when the party is try­ing to ex­pand its co­ali­tion and gen­er­ally soften its im­age, throw­ing people off their health in­sur­ance by re­peal­ing Obama­care en­tails ob­vi­ous polit­ic­al risk.

AFP, of course, doesn’t see it this way. For one thing, the group dis­putes the premise that people would be kicked off in­sur­ance with the re­peal of Obama­care. “Just speak­ing purely hy­po­thet­ic­ally, who says people would have to lose their in­sur­ance?” says Levi Rus­sell, AFP’s na­tion­al spokes­man. In ad­di­tion, while Phil­lips is aware of the GOP’s chal­lenges, he doesn’t think that Re­pub­lic­ans are court­ing dis­aster with their cur­rent co­ali­tion. “I think that the pub­lic-policy arena is in­cred­ibly volat­ile,” he says. “You look at the last 150 years — just when one side or the oth­er thinks they have a per­man­ent gov­ern­ing co­ali­tion, they’re proven dra­mat­ic­ally wrong.”

Already dur­ing Obama’s pres­id­ency, Phil­lips ar­gues, there has been a pen­du­lum swing against big gov­ern­ment. He cites the ex­ample of cli­mate change. “We’ve gone from both nom­in­ees in 2008 not just broadly sup­port­ive of re­forms in the name of glob­al warm­ing but ac­tu­ally back­ing cap-and-trade, which was the most ag­gress­ive, in­trus­ive policy put for­ward in a ser­i­ous fash­ion on the en­ergy is­sue,” he says. “We’ve gone from that to the policy be­ing dead­er than a door­nail. It’s not even brought up in po­lite com­pany any­more.”

As for Rom­ney’s de­feat: It wasn’t be­cause of his small-gov­ern­ment agenda but be­cause he simply wasn’t a good sales­man. “Gov­ernor Rom­ney struggled with ex­plain­ing his own suc­cess with the busi­ness world and how it’s helped people, not hurt people,” Phil­lips says.

Not sur­pris­ingly, that ex­plan­a­tion raises hackles on the Demo­crat­ic side. “I would put that same as­sess­ment in the same cat­egory as the Re­pub­lic­ans who thought they were go­ing to win the elec­tion the week be­fore the elec­tion,” says Joel Ben­en­son, the Obama cam­paign’s chief poll­ster in 2012. “That couldn’t be fur­ther from the truth. The cam­paign was fought, day in and day out, over a con­trast in eco­nom­ic vis­ion and eco­nom­ic val­ues.”

Whatever the ex­plan­a­tion for 2012, Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity is hop­ing for bet­ter res­ults in 2014 — and in the years ahead. If its over­whelm­ing spend­ing so far this year is any in­dic­a­tion, AFP is go­ing to be a power cen­ter in Amer­ic­an polit­ics for a long time. “We’re genu­inely a long-term ef­fort,” Phil­lips says. “We’re not about some elec­tion cycle.”

STATE-LEVEL SUCCESS

Of course, AFP’s lead­ers don’t see them­selves as a polit­ic­al jug­ger­naut cap­able of over­whelm­ing their foes. Like a lot of groups with power, they con­sider them­selves a mere coun­ter­bal­ance to op­pos­i­tion forces — in this case, the net­work of lib­er­al act­iv­ist or­gan­iz­a­tions and uni­ons that con­sti­tute the in­sti­tu­tion­al heft of the pro­gress­ive move­ment.

Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity was formed in 2004 as a spin-off from a free-mar­ket group called Cit­izens for a Sound Eco­nomy. (Freedom­Works was also a spin-off from the or­gan­iz­a­tion.) AFP had only four state chapters then, ac­cord­ing to Phil­lips (who has been pres­id­ent since the start). Some state chapters had the humblest of be­gin­nings. Take the group’s Wis­con­sin branch: Phil­lips re­calls that the grass­roots act­iv­ists at its 2005 launch event numbered a paltry 14.

But it didn’t take long for AFP to be­come a force in the Badger State, which by 2011 had be­come ar­gu­ably the coun­try’s fore­most battle­ground for con­ser­vat­ives and pro­gress­ives. AFP spent heav­ily to help Scott Walk­er with­stand an at­temp­ted re­call, and thereby pre­serve his vic­tor­ies against pub­lic- sec­tor uni­ons.

It wasn’t just Wis­con­sin. In Michigan, AFP helped to suc­cess­fully push for right-to-work le­gis­la­tion. And in Flor­ida, it helped to de­feat Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Rick Scott’s at­tempt to ex­pand Medi­caid this year.

In­deed, Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity has had a lot more suc­cess in­flu­en­cing state gov­ern­ment than in­flu­en­cing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. “It’s been frus­trat­ing in Wash­ing­ton. We’ve lost some tough battles,” Phil­lips says. “But at the state level, I would ar­gue, it’s been a once-in-a-gen­er­a­tion mo­ment of free-mar­ket policy vic­tor­ies.”

GOOD FOR THE GOP?

The group’s most am­bi­tious goal is to re­peal Obama­care. As Phil­lips tells it, the cur­rent spend­ing spree on Sen­ate elec­tions is just one step in a long-term plan to get rid of the law. Next year, he hopes that a Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate and House will force Obama to veto their ef­forts to re­peal the least pop­u­lar parts of the le­gis­la­tion, such as the in­di­vidu­al man­date. “If he has to veto those, it keeps it in front of the pub­lic and it shows him as un­will­ing to take some reas­on­able com­mon­sense re­forms,” Phil­lips says. “It keeps the is­sue very much front and cen­ter.”

That would un­doubtedly be sat­is­fy­ing to AFP and to con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists. But wheth­er it would be good polit­ics for the Re­pub­lic­an Party re­mains to be seen. Many GOP strategists and lead­ers have gingerly be­gun ac­know­ledging that the health care law, as much as they might dis­like it, is get­ting close to im­possible to re­peal. Moreover, at a mo­ment when the party is try­ing to ex­pand its co­ali­tion and gen­er­ally soften its im­age, throw­ing people off their health in­sur­ance by re­peal­ing Obama­care en­tails ob­vi­ous polit­ic­al risk.

AFP, of course, doesn’t see it this way. For one thing, the group dis­putes the premise that people would be kicked off in­sur­ance with the re­peal of Obama­care. “Just speak­ing purely hy­po­thet­ic­ally, who says people would have to lose their in­sur­ance?” says Levi Rus­sell, AFP’s na­tion­al spokes­man. In ad­di­tion, while Phil­lips is aware of the GOP’s chal­lenges, he doesn’t think that Re­pub­lic­ans are court­ing dis­aster with their cur­rent co­ali­tion. “I think that the pub­lic-policy arena is in­cred­ibly volat­ile,” he says. “You look at the last 150 years — just when one side or the oth­er thinks they have a per­man­ent gov­ern­ing co­ali­tion, they’re proven dra­mat­ic­ally wrong.”

Already dur­ing Obama’s pres­id­ency, Phil­lips ar­gues, there has been a pen­du­lum swing against big gov­ern­ment. He cites the ex­ample of cli­mate change. “We’ve gone from both nom­in­ees in 2008 not just broadly sup­port­ive of re­forms in the name of glob­al warm­ing but ac­tu­ally back­ing cap-and-trade, which was the most ag­gress­ive, in­trus­ive policy put for­ward in a ser­i­ous fash­ion on the en­ergy is­sue,” he says. “We’ve gone from that to the policy be­ing dead­er than a door­nail. It’s not even brought up in po­lite com­pany any­more.”

As for Rom­ney’s de­feat: It wasn’t be­cause of his small-gov­ern­ment agenda but be­cause he simply wasn’t a good sales­man. “Gov­ernor Rom­ney struggled with ex­plain­ing his own suc­cess with the busi­ness world and how it’s helped people, not hurt people,” Phil­lips says.

Not sur­pris­ingly, that ex­plan­a­tion raises hackles on the Demo­crat­ic side. “I would put that same as­sess­ment in the same cat­egory as the Re­pub­lic­ans who thought they were go­ing to win the elec­tion the week be­fore the elec­tion,” says Joel Ben­en­son, the Obama cam­paign’s chief poll­ster in 2012. “That couldn’t be fur­ther from the truth. The cam­paign was fought, day in and day out, over a con­trast in eco­nom­ic vis­ion and eco­nom­ic val­ues.”

Whatever the ex­plan­a­tion for 2012, Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity is hop­ing for bet­ter res­ults in 2014 — and in the years ahead. If its over­whelm­ing spend­ing so far this year is any in­dic­a­tion, AFP is go­ing to be a power cen­ter in Amer­ic­an polit­ics for a long time. “We’re genu­inely a long-term ef­fort,” Phil­lips says. “We’re not about some elec­tion cycle.”

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