President Obama's health care law has reshaped the political environment for 2014, endangering Senate Democrats and expanding the field of competitive elections. But one group has brought the prospect of a Republican Senate takeover closer to reality, even before the midterm campaigns get under way.
Look no further than Americans for Prosperity, the conservative outside group funded in part by the wealthy industrialists Charles and David Koch.
AFP has spent a whopping $22 million on TV ads so far this election, part of a multistate campaign that uses Obamacare's troubled rollout to attack vulnerable Democrats. AFP's barrage has knocked several incumbents off-balance just as their reelection campaigns begin—especially senators representing Republican-leaning states. Their early efforts have helped send Democratic senators' approval ratings plumetting in the states where they've spent big bucks.
It's the kind of precise, preemptive strike normally expected from traditional GOP heavyweights like the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But while they have remained almost silent in the midterm election's early going, AFP has singlehandedly taken the fight to Democrats.
And in doing so, it's emerged as the GOP's most important outside group, a role the group's leaders don't plan on relinquishing anytime soon.
"Polling data for a lot of these Senate and House members who … we've undertaken these efforts against have clearly suffered," said Tim Phillips, AFP's president. "They've dropped, and I think that's a reflection of the public's dissatisfaction with Obamacare. And we're determined to keep this issue on the front burner."
Just this week Americans for Prosperity expanded its TV campaign to two states Obama carried in 2012: Iowa and Michigan. It's a sign of things to come.
"In a state like Michigan, where the president handily won twice, you would assume support for his signature legislative accomplishment … would be strong. It's not," Phillips said. "And the fact we're not expanding our effort here demonstrates that even a state that has supported the president over the years, there is deep dissatisfaction. And I think that's a significant sign."
Democrats have taken notice: Across numerous House and Senate races this week, campaign officials have begun pushing back against the group. A spokeswoman for Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, whose state has witnessed more than $6 million in ads from AFP, issued a statement condemning the involvement of "shadowy outside groups" in her Senate race. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, meanwhile, warned in a memo that the group was poised to "dump millions" into a special House race in Florida. The insulating maneuvers are on top of the millions spent by allied Democratic groups like Senate Majority PAC in response to AFP's ads.
Party operatives are raising alarm about the group, telling their donors that they need to step up or risk being run over in the fall. "Democrats need money at this early stage in order to fight back against the limitless spending from the Kochs," Guy Cecil, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's executive director told The New York Times on Wednesday.
The nonprofit organization has been a major player among Republicans in the post-Citizens United campaign finance world.It spent $140 million, $44 million of which came from Koch-backed funds, the Washington Post reported.
But what makes its efforts so significant now is that it's spending big bucks while the other major Republican outside groups are standing pat. American Crossroads has barely raised any money since the last election. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's political arm has spent relatively small sums in several GOP primaries. Even the Senate Conservatives Fund, whose PAC launched several high-profile TV ads against fellow Republicans, has spent only about $5 million in the last year, according to a source close to the group.
In fact, by one measure, AFP has bought almost as much airtime as every other outside group combined. Total spending from Republican and Democratic outside groups totaled only $5 million more than AFP's, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Not all political spending, including Americans for Prosperity's, is reported to the Federal Election Commission, so it's not an apples-to-oranges comparison, but it's nonetheless illustrative of the group's sizable investment.
But money alone doesn't explain its success; timing has been just as important. While other groups kept their powder dry for 2014, AFP's negative spots coincided with dismal reviews of Obamacare's opening months. While voters were hearing about faulty websites and canceled health plans at work and home, they were watching ads that laid the blame on Democrats on their TV. The ads themselves—which have frequently featured a lone man or woman explaining to the camera how Obamacare has hurt them and their family—have won plaudits from other GOP strategists for their personal touch.
"We knew that the rollout was coming, and that public awareness would be heightened as a result," Phillips said. "And we wanted make sure in this period of heightened awareness we were delivering our message that Obamacare was harming Americans."
Phillips said his group's goal is still to repeal Obamacare, which he acknowledges is likely impossible until Obama leaves office. But the consequences for Democrats could be dire. Phillips wouldn't reveal AFP's midterm budget but called the coming investment "significant." It's already on pace to spend more than the $65 million that it shelled out for TV ads in 2012.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated how much AFP raised in the 2012 election cycle and how much of it came directly from the Koch brothers.