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."
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."