A Conservative Juggernaut's Long Game

Americans for Prosperity had a rough 2012 at the national level, but the Koch-funded group is looking to build from the states up.

Tim Phillips and David Koch share a laugh. (Associated Press)
Democrats entered the fall of 2013 looking like a slight favorite to retain the Senate. They left the winter of 2014 looking like an undisputed underdog. What happened? The botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act hurt Democrats badly. But the damage from that debacle would have been a lot less potent if not for the efforts of one conservative group in particular. Since October, Americans for Prosperity has spent the kind of money on TV that nobody has ever seen before in the early months of a midterm election—more than $40 million. Just about all of it has targeted a handful of vulnerable Senate Democrats. And just about all of it has ticked off a list of arguments for why Obamacare has ruined health care.
Most of the political world knows the basics about AFP: It's funded in part by billionaire industrialists (and favorite Democratic villains) Charles and David Koch. Unlike a lot of conservative outside groups, it doesn't go out of its way to annoy the Republican Party's powers that be. D.C. insiders have also probably heard of the group's president, Tim Phillips, a longtime GOP hand who once worked for former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. And they probably remember that the group spent gobs of money—unsuccessfully—in the last presidential election trying to put Mitt Romney in the White House.
But for such an important organization, that's an awfully bare cupboard of facts. "Opaque" is the word many people reach for to describe AFP—and that's when they talk about it at all. A few political consultants I contacted, the types normally keen to opine on anything, declined an interview. The implicit message: Americans for Prosperity doesn't like its inner workings exposed to the world.
Recently, however, Phillips agreed to speak to me about the organization's long-term thinking and goals. After an initial phone conversation, we met in a coffee shop downstairs from the group's national headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. His overriding message during our conversation was simple: AFP is not just interested in this year's Senate elections. It has much bigger ambitions.
"It's a little frustrating when someone says, 'Oh, this is a political effort about the U.S. Senate,'" said Phillips, who at 49, with thinning brown hair, looks the part of an upper-level manager. "They don't look at the totality of what Americans for Prosperity is doing."
The group has chapters in 34 states and claims millions of volunteers. In many ways, it's akin to a third party, albeit one that doesn't run its own candidates. Every gear in the machine churns toward one objective: remaking the country in a fiscally conservative image—at the local, state, and federal levels. Its vision is a country with fewer taxes, less regulation, and the nearly unfettered right of individuals to do what they want without interference from a meddlesome government—essentially, the kind of place Ayn Rand would have wanted to make a home in.
For the moment at least, these goals align perfectly with the GOP's agenda of reclaiming the Senate in 2014. But are there potential costs for the Republican Party when a group like AFP acquires so much power and influence?
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 Governor 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."
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."
That would undoubtedly be satisfying to AFP and to conservative activists. But whether it would be good politics for the Republican Party remains to be seen. Many GOP strategists and leaders have gingerly begun acknowledging that the health care law, as much as they might dislike it, is getting close to impossible to repeal. Moreover, at a moment when the party is trying to expand its coalition and generally soften its image, throwing people off their health insurance by repealing Obamacare entails obvious political risk.
AFP, of course, doesn't see it this way. For one thing, the group disputes the premise that people would be kicked off insurance with the repeal of Obamacare. "Just speaking purely hypothetically, who says people would have to lose their insurance?" says Levi Russell, AFP's national spokesman. In addition, while Phillips is aware of the GOP's challenges, he doesn't think that Republicans are courting disaster with their current coalition. "I think that the public-policy arena is incredibly volatile," he says. "You look at the last 150 years—just when one side or the other thinks they have a permanent governing coalition, they're proven dramatically wrong."
Already during Obama's presidency, Phillips argues, there has been a pendulum swing against big government. He cites the example of climate change. "We've gone from both nominees in 2008 not just broadly supportive of reforms in the name of global warming but actually backing cap-and-trade, which was the most aggressive, intrusive policy put forward in a serious fashion on the energy issue," he says. "We've gone from that to the policy being deader than a doornail. It's not even brought up in polite company anymore."
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."