This article first appeared at The McAlvany Intelligence Advisor on Wednesday, October 8, 2014:
Sensing an opportunity to turn the liberal tide in 2012, free-market advocates Charles and David Koch established the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. They successfully recruited about 200 members, each of whom paid a minimum annual membership fee of $100,000 and raised more than $250 million in the process. When added to other funds that the Koch Brothers were able to raise in their effort to influence the electorate in 2012, the total came to more than $400 million.
Despite that enormous sum, the Koch Brothers, and conservatives, were thrashed in 2012.
Taking a page out of Tom Watson’s book (Watson was IBM’s second president, best known for claiming that he failed his way to success), to wit that “if you want to succeed, double your failure rate,” the Brothers Koch shifted strategies, adopted the successful ones from the left, and went back to work. In January, they raised more than $170 million from their friends and supporters, and then another $130 million in June at an elegant fundraiser in Florida.
They learned that simply outspending the left didn’t work, that the real work was done knocking on doors, taking names, and focusing on those folks most likely to vote who agreed with them. And so they created the American Energy Alliance (AEA) and expanded Americans for Prosperity (AFP). The AEA poured millions into ads targeting Democrats in close Senate and House races, criticizing them for their opposition to building the Keystone XL pipeline. Last year, thanks to those efforts, Congress ended a two-decades-old tax credit for wind energy companies that forced those companies to stand or fall on their own without taxpayer subsidies.
But their main focus is Americans for Prosperity. AFP just opened permanent state chapters in South Dakota and Alaska, and has added new chapters in South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee, and West Virginia over the last 12 months, bringing the total to 35 state chapters. AFP now has more than 500 paid staff people coordinating the efforts of vast numbers of volunteers, along with a highly sophisticated data management program that connects directly with that of the Republican National Committee (RNC).
Their poster child is the state of Iowa. Two years ago, Iowa’s AFP consisted of three people: a 30-year-old Army Ranger, Mark Lucas, and two friends. Since then, Lucas has been promoted to regional director for AFP, with nearly three dozen paid staff members in five field offices, and runs the operations in 11 states, including Iowa. So far, volunteers in Iowa have actually spoken face-to-face with more than 80,000 likely voters. Said Lucas:
Basically, our field directors are community organizers. People used to make fun of President Obama’s background, but community organizing works.
Following each of those face-to-face interviews, the volunteers, using iPads connected with Data Trust, a private company that has an exclusive connection with RNC’s database, enter relevant demographic information, along with opinions on various hot topic issues. That information is then sorted, sifted, and winnowed so that future efforts can be directed specifically to those most open to the conservative message.
Another lesson learned was that “hit and run” doesn’t work very well in politics. That’s why, according to AFP leaders, their effort is long-term. Said Tim Phillips, AFP’s national president:
We’ve got to get to the point where we’re a deeper part of a community, and the left has done that for a lot longer, with a much bigger footprint.
It’s about building a brand and a community. Then, when the attacks come – “Oh, you’re just a part of a Koch network or some national network” – it doesn’t really ring true with what people are seeing.
The brothers also learned that focusing exclusively on national candidates and issues is less effective than creating a brand that is recognized at the grassroots level. For example, Colorado’s AFP chapter is running television advertisements in a small handful of state Senate districts. In Colorado, Democrats presently hold just a one-vote majority in the state Senate, which makes it a prime target for the GOP and an opportunity for AFP.
In Wisconsin, the state’s AFP chapter is deeply involved in Governor Scott Walker’s tough reelection fight as well.
Volunteers being drawn into local “hot button” issues can often be recruited into statewide and then national efforts. Said Phillips: “A lot of times, a local property tax battle will bring a whole new group of people out. Then it’s easier to get movement on the state level.”
The brothers have also learned that this is going to be a long-term fight. AFP is committed to keeping those offices open and staffed and politically active long after the midterm elections in 2014 are history. As Iowa’s regional director Lucas put it:
All we’re going to do is get bigger. After 2014, we’re not shutting down our offices. You’re going to see all these other guys pack up the day after the election, but we’re going to stay open.
The Koch Brothers have successfully expanded their father’s business, and in the process made each of them multi-billionaires. They are not used to losing. What they are used to is learning from their mistakes and profiting mightily from them. November’s midterm elections will be the first true test of their new strategies resulting from lessons learned in 2012.
The Washington Post: Americans for Prosperity plows millions into building conservative ground force
The Washington Post: Americans for Prosperity to add offices in 2 new states
The Daily Beast: Koch Brothers Unveil New Strategy at Big Donor Retreat
The Nation: Kochs spent $412 million in 2012 elections