Koch Brothers Are Outspending Everyone for a GOP Senate Takeover

Americans for Prosperity has outspent all other Republican groups combined, including Karl Rove’s American Crossroads.

National Journal
Alex Roarty
Jan. 16, 2014, midnight

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.

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