WASHINGTON — Americans for Prosperity (AFP) — the group backed by David and Charles Koch that has been pouring millions of dollars into competitive Senate races to the rising alarm of Democrats — was also among the politically active groups on the ground in this month’s special House election on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
But its agenda had little to do with the fate of David Jolly, the Republican candidate who won that race. The group’s ground troops — including those who knocked on doors, ran phone banks and reached out through social media to gauge ways to motivate voters — were part of a much greater project, with a prize much larger than a congressional seat.
Americans for Prosperity turned the Florida contest into its personal electoral laboratory to fine-tune get-out-the-vote tools and messaging for future elections as it pursues its overarching goal of convincing Americans that big government is bad government.
As the group emerges as a dominant force in the 2014 midterm elections, spending up to 10 times as much as any major outside Democratic group so far, officials of the organization say their effort is not confined to hammering away at President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. They are also trying to present the law as a case study in government ineptitude to change the way voters think about the role of government for years to come.
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“We have a broader cautionary tale,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity. “The president’s out there touting billions of dollars on climate change. We want Americans to think about what they promised with the last social-welfare boondoggle and look at what the actual result is.”
Leaders of the effort say it has great appeal to the businessmen and businesswomen who finance the operation and who believe that excess regulation and taxation are harming their enterprises and threatening the future of the country. The Kochs, with billions in holdings in energy, transportation and manufacturing, have a significant interest in seeing that future government regulation is limited.
Democrats say their own research has shown that voters are skeptical about candidates who benefit from political spending by superrich businessmen with an anti-government ideology.
“The notion that two billionaires are bankrolling Republican candidates because they support an agenda that is good for the Koch brothers and bad for middle-class families is very persuasive to voters,” said Matt Canter, the deputy executive director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The little-noticed Florida field operation and a similar one in Virginia during the governor’s race last year were part of the group’s effort to apply the well-honed, data-centric business practices of the Koch brothers, as well as undisclosed donors, to devise an approach that is not only smarter, sleeker and sprier, but also one that provides more bang for the big bucks.
Two years ago, Americans for Prosperity spent more than $100 million, but Obama was re-elected and Democrats held the Senate, despite the group’s investment in Indiana, Wisconsin, Florida and other key states. Afterward, the organization underwent a rigorous self-analysis, as it usually does in election cycles: Did it have the right personnel in the right positions? How effective was its work in the field? Was it using data well? Was its messaging right?
“There was an awful lot of introspection there,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist. “AFP is dedicated to research. They are dedicated to doing this in a quantifiable way.”
The group, for instance, analyzed the available data, determining which of their ads performed best, and held focus group sessions. Among the most recognizable changes from 2012 is that Americans for Prosperity is now producing testimonial-style ads and carrying out an elaborate field effort, spending more than $30 million already in at least eight states with crucial Senate races and in some House districts.
Many of Americans for Prosperity’s current ads feature women talking directly to the camera, explaining how Obama’s health-care law has hurt them and their families.
The group just repurposed one of its original ads for Colorado, where Republicans see a new opportunity, with a woman saying: “Obamacare doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work.” The tag line now urges voters to call Sen. Mark Udall, the Colorado Democrat facing re-election, about the law.
Democrats and others have challenged the specifics of the ads and the use of actors in some of the spots, but Americans for Prosperity has not retreated.
The organization also switched to a more business-minded approach in the production of its ads, moving from largely relying on a single company to soliciting bids from a larger number of firms, according to people outside the Koch network with knowledge of its efforts.
The change in advertising strategy is a response to an analysis that found that the group’s 2010 and 2012 ads often failed to tell moving personal stories about how a particular policy, such as health care or renewable energy, was affecting the lives of real people, said Phillips, Americans for Prosperity’s president.
Americans for Prosperity is also stepping up its ground game. The organization now has more than 200 full-time paid staff members in field offices in at least 32 states. The idea is to embed staff members in a community, giving conservative advocacy a permanent local voice through field workers who live in the neighborhood year-round.
They can also serve as a ready-to-go field organization in future election years and on future issues — not dissimilar from the grass-roots, community-based approach Obama used successfully in 2008 and 2012.
“Too often our side will gear up for an individual issue battle or in some cases an election, but we don’t have a permanent infrastructure,” Phillips said. “What we took from studying it was that we have to have a bigger, more permanent infrastructure on the ground in these states, and this takes time.”