In Florida, Republicans Are Americans for Prosperity’s Top Target

The Koch-linked group has spent 2015 pushing Republicans legislators in GOP-controlled states to be more conservative—sometimes making enemies in the party it supported last election.

Ken Koeppe wears tea bags on his hat during an Americans For Prosperity rally.
National Journal
Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
June 7, 2015, 4 p.m.

OR­LANDO—At 9 a.m. on a re­cent Wed­nes­day, vo­lun­teers and staff already had packed the an­onym­ous-look­ing sub­urb­an house that serves as Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity’s loc­al headquar­ters. They fueled up on cof­fee and break­fast pastries be­fore ven­tur­ing out in the already-beat­ing sun, nearly a year and half be­fore the next big elec­tion, to knock on con­ser­vat­ive voters’ doors.

AFP, one of the main arms of the Koch broth­ers’ con­ser­vat­ive polit­ic­al ma­chine, is best known for its cor­por­ate ti­tan founders and multi-mil­lion-dol­lar ad cam­paigns blast­ing con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats. The non­profit helped GOP can­did­ates up and down the bal­lot win elec­tions in 2014, and you could prac­tic­ally hear Demo­crats bit­ing their nails when the Kochs re­vealed their net­work’s 2015-2016 budget: a whop­ping $889 mil­lion.

But on that Wed­nes­day, AFP’s vo­lun­teers were mo­bil­iz­ing against a Re­pub­lic­an, blast­ing state Sen­ate Pres­id­ent Andy Gardiner’s pro­pos­al to take fed­er­al funds to put more low-in­come Flor­idi­ans on Medi­caid. The vo­lun­teers, armed with bro­chures and scripts (as well as lots of chilled Gat­o­rade and wa­ter) were knock­ing on doors here in the hopes of driv­ing con­ser­vat­ives to re­gister op­pos­i­tion to the plan.

It’s part of na­tion­wide trend: AFP has spent 2015 rais­ing hell in GOP-dom­in­ated state­houses, where the group feels some Re­pub­lic­ans have strayed from con­ser­vat­ive prin­ciples.

Flor­ida and 22 oth­er states have both Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors and Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled le­gis­latures, but that doesn’t mean they al­ways pass le­gis­la­tion har­mo­nioi­usly. AFP is bat­tling with them over Medi­caid ex­pan­sion (in Flor­ida, Ten­ness­ee and else­where), pro­posed in­creases to the gas tax, tax cred­its for the film in­dustry and a host of oth­er is­sues.

“This en­tire year is about hold­ing ac­count­able Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­it­ies,” Tim Phil­lips, Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity’s pres­id­ent, said in an in­ter­view. “They are do­ing some good things too. But we’re do­ing an enorm­ous ex­pan­sion of spend­ing and staff time to­ward hold­ing Re­pub­lic­an le­gis­lat­ive ma­jor­it­ies ac­count­able on is­sues.”

In that light, the enorm­ous poster of Mar­tin Luth­er King, Jr. in AFP’s loc­al headquar­ters takes on spe­cial mean­ing. The quote be­neath King’s pic­ture reads: “In the end, we will re­mem­ber not the words of our en­emies, but the si­lence of our friends.”

But nowhere is AFP’s fight with Re­pub­lic­ans more in­tense right now than in Flor­ida, where the politi­cians they are tar­get­ing are largely Re­pub­lic­ans.

Chris Hud­son, AFP’s Flor­ida state dir­ect­or, is not shy about tout­ing his group’s in­flu­ence. Law­makers “see people in their of­fices wear­ing but­tons with little green torches, and they think, ‘I’m about to find out what my 2015 le­gis­lat­ive agenda is,’” Hud­son boasts.

Tal­l­a­hassee is packed with power­ful lob­by­ists and le­gis­lat­ors who might dis­agree, but AFP still ar­gues its ef­forts are bear­ing fruit. The push for Medi­caid ex­pan­sion has got­ten less likely as time has gone on, with Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Rick Scott is­su­ing veto threats and some ini­tial busi­ness sup­port fad­ing. In the mean­time, AFP says it has knocked on over 40,000 doors dur­ing the le­gis­lat­ive ses­sion to op­pose the ex­pan­sion and oth­er is­sues. When the Flor­ida le­gis­lature was con­sid­er­ing a bill to provide tax in­cent­ives to film­makers, the group in­cited 42,000 act­iv­ist emails worth of out­rage to le­gis­lat­ors, and the bill died dur­ing the reg­u­lar le­gis­lat­ive ses­sion.

AFP re­cently opened its 12th field of­fice in the state, its biggest pres­ence any­where in the coun­try. Hud­son says the es­tab­lished of­fices reg­u­larly have 25 to 50 vo­lun­teers com­ing through the doors to help out. And there are more staffers work­ing in “float­ing” of­fices without a per­man­ent loc­a­tion as the group’s reach grows.

AFP does more tra­di­tion­al lob­by­ing some­times, send­ing its act­iv­ists to Tal­l­a­hassee to but­ton­hole law­makers, and it spends money on a vari­ety of mail­ers, ra­dio ads, and TV spots—like a ver­sion of this anti-Medi­caid ad that star­ted run­ning on TV last week. But pulling to­geth­er the people who make those phone calls, or even­tu­ally be­come vo­lun­teers, is a la­bor­i­ous and some­times un­re­ward­ing pro­cess.

On that re­cent Wed­nes­day morn­ing, a set of AFP can­vass­ers in Gardiner’s dis­trict en­countered more cats than people. Many doors are marked with “no so­li­cit­a­tion” signs. Those who an­swer the door aren’t al­ways friendly.

In one in­stance, AFP’s tar­get­ing ap­peared to have missed the mark: “I’m a Rhode Is­land-raised Demo­crat,” one Obama­care sup­port­er said at his door. “Still want to talk?” On oth­er oc­ca­sions, AFP or­gan­izer Al­isa Ar­diles said, she’d been men­aced. “I had someone threaten to shoot me last year,” she said. “He thought we were Com­mun­ists be­cause of the flame sym­bol. I said, ‘sir, I can­not stress enough that we are not.’ You meet some char­ac­ters.”

But the tar­geted door-knock­ing does bring people in­to the fold. At one door, Ar­diles en­countered a wo­man who hadn’t heard of Medi­caid ex­pan­sion be­fore but pledged to call Gardiner’s of­fice after hear­ing Ar­diles’s pitch. The Medi­caid pro­gram was already creaky, she said, and it couldn’t handle one mil­lion more pa­tients—es­pe­cially if the state would even­tu­ally have to take over the cost.

“I think you’re right,” the wo­man fi­nally said, prom­ising to use the in­form­a­tion to call Gardiner’s of­fice. So did sev­er­al oth­ers who answered their doors that morn­ing.

AFP’s work hasn’t dis­suaded the Sen­ate, which last week passed Gardiner’s new plan nearly un­an­im­ously. But it ran aground in the House last week, where hard­line po­s­i­tion against the ex­pan­sion had looked more and more likely to win over the last few months.

“I would have said eight weeks ago I didn’t un­der­stand what the House was do­ing,” said Tre’ Evers, a Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant from Or­lando. “But AFP has suc­cess­fully branded this around Obama­care, and as a fight op­pos­ing that.”

Moreover, the grass­roots work AFP does on policy is­sues helps build its grow­ing vo­lun­teer base. Some even­tu­ally join as part- or even full-time staff mem­bers, fuel­ing the growth that has AFP-Flor­ida look­ing at new places to es­tab­lish field of­fices.

Part of their door-knock­ing pro­gram is de­signed to en­cour­age con­tact with po­ten­tial vo­lun­teers, who would then help re­cruit more vo­lun­teers. At oth­er times, the fo­cus might be on polit­ics over policy, which has its own ways of bring­ing more people in. Then, by the next le­gis­lat­ive ses­sion, there are even more vo­lun­teers to push is­sues be­fore law­makers.

“People are just shocked to find out this isn’t a go-away op­er­a­tion,” said Chris Hud­son, AFP’s Flor­ida state dir­ect­or. “We have diehard act­iv­ists who work year-round.”

Gardiner, their chief op­pon­ent on Medi­caid ex­pan­sion, is less sure of their in­flu­ence. “I don’t know how big their pres­ence is,” Gardiner said in an in­ter­view. “Cer­tainly every­one knows their con­nec­tion with the Koch broth­ers, and they’ve done some mail in my and some oth­er areas. But both sides are ad­voc­at­ing and do­ing mail. It doesn’t both­er me. And God bless ‘em for par­ti­cip­at­ing in the pro­cess.”

Oth­er Re­pub­lic­an le­gis­lat­ors get more volat­ile about AFP. State Sen. Nancy De­tert was one of the Re­pub­lic­ans push­ing the film tax in­cent­ives earli­er this year. “I hope you are get­ting paid a lot of money to show up to these meet­ings and say mean­ing­less things,” De­tert said, on cam­era, to an AFP rep op­pos­ing the bill. “Ob­vi­ously, you are for prosper­ity for your­self, and not oth­er people in the in­dustry.”

Next year, when the pres­id­en­tial race, a ma­jor U.S. Sen­ate cam­paign, and more polit­ic­al activ­ity ramps up in the na­tion’s biggest swing state, AFP’s en­er­gies will shift once again to cri­ti­ciz­ing Demo­crat­ic policies and some­times dir­ectly ad­voc­at­ing for GOP can­did­ates. But for now, they’re work­ing to pull their own party to the right.

An­dres Ma­lave, AFP’s Flor­ida com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or, says the group’s will­ing­ness to take on Re­pub­lic­ans and con­ser­vat­ives con­founds some. “They don’t know how to turn it off be­cause we’re not be­hold­en to any in­terest as usu­al,” Ma­lave said.

But of­fi­cials call­ing on AFP to ease off in the name of pan-Re­pub­lic­an solid­ar­ity are fast find­ing out that the group pulls no punches—not for party, and not even for fam­ily. When AFP-Flor­ida re­leased its an­nu­al “eco­nom­ic free­dom score­card” for le­gis­lat­ors in 2014, Hud­son’s own fath­er, GOP state Rep. Matt Hud­son, got a mid­dling “B” grade.

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