In an interview with Politico Pro that ran today, the President of the Koch Brothers’ Super PAC showered praise on their “model legislator,” Ron Johnson. For five years in Washington, Johnson has done the Kochs’ bidding. Now they’re returning the favor, spending three million dollars in dark money on Johnson’s campaign. Expect more praise from the Kochs — and millions more in television ads — so long as Sen. Johnson continues to call Social Security a Ponzi Scheme, does not believe in the federal minimum wage, and touts disastrous trade deals that ship Wisconsin jobs overseas.
“There are some states where the senators have records that are impressive… Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin – again, he’s in a state that a lot of people see voting heavily Democratic in a presidential year, but he has an impressive record.”
“The Ryan budgets of 2011 and ’12, they were important to us. For the first time Medicaid and Medicare reform was passed that put those programs on a path to solvency and did a better job of helping people…Free trade is an important issue for us, and we are deeply disappointed to see it demagogued by a lot of these Republican candidates – and not just Mr. Trump, by the way.”
POLITICO Pro Q&A: Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips
By Scott Bland
May 23, 2016
The presidential election is attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in outside political spending already this year. But one of the biggest-spending groups hasn’t spent a dime on that race – and has no plans to change that soon.
That’s because Americans for Prosperity has major problems with some ofpresumptiveRepublican nominee Donald Trump’s issue positions. The group is not “Never Trump,” AFP President Tim Phillips said in an interview, but the new GOP standard-bearer has not given Phillips’ group good reason to get involved in the top-ticket race of 2016.
Instead, AFP has poured resources into building yet more and more field offices around the country, as well as new endeavors like GOP Rep. Renee Ellmers’ primary, AFP’s first time ever opposing a Republican member of Congress in a primary.
Phillips spoke about that and more in a half-hour conversation. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What’s AFP up to this year?
We now have the largest number of field staff, field offices and grass-roots activists engaged across the country that we ever have. In a place like Florida, a crucial state, we have 16 field offices there, dozens and dozens of staff. And these are not individuals who are brought in for a particular time of year or election – this is a permanent infrastructure. Our latest office in the greater Jacksonville area, that’s not a pop-tent thing, that’ll be there in 2017 and 2018.
At a time when people have less trust than ever in institutions, the premium is on having the most localized possible manner in which to deliver a trustworthy message, and that’s often volunteers and field staff at a local level. We still do TV and a lot of digital ads, obviously. But it is evidence of the belief we have in a genuine grass-roots infrastructure
The election so far has been dominated by the presidential race. What has struck you so far?
Obviously we stayed out of the Republican presidential primaries. We had never gotten involved in a presidential primary, so it wasn’t new for us. But we stayed out and I’m glad we did, frankly. I don’t know that us getting involved would have really impacted things in a meaningful way.
Is that because paid media impacted things so little, or because it seemed like ideology impacted so little in the race?
Our goal is to be involved when we think we can make a difference on the issues that matter to our organization. And we did not think getting involved in that presidential primary would really accomplish that goal. Also, it’s important to remember that we’re not just a television operation, we have that infrastructure we just talked about. And if you get involved in something like a presidential primary, it can impact the long-term effectiveness and cohesion of your local operations. So we’re very comfortable with that decision.
We’re not in the “Never Trump” category. But we also, at this point as an organization, don’t see a clear enough issue agenda from Mr. Trump, and a tone in how they communicate, that would give us a compelling reason to be involved at this point.
Are there particular issues that you’re particularly eager to hear from Trump on?
Entitlement reform is an issue we’ve been involved in for years. The Ryan budgets of 2011 and ’12, they were important to us. For the firsttimeMedicaid and Medicare reform was passed that put those programs on a path to solvency and did a better job of helping people. We’d like to see Mr. Trump change what he’s discussing there.
Free trade is an important issue for us, and we are deeply disappointed to see it demagogued by a lot of these Republican candidates – and not just Mr. Trump, by the way. Sen. [Ted] Cruz and some other Republicans have demagogued free trade. So that’s an issue that’s important.
Another example is tax policy. Heath care is another one. These are not boutique issues for us, these are core issues. Government cronyism is an important issue. And it’s unclear if he really does oppose government cronyism. So these are issues we’d urge him to be more concise on and frankly to move to the free-market side.
So because of that, not looking as much at the presidential race, what on the federal level has become a focus this year?
We get involved where we see a specific difference. Here’s an example: Ohio. Sen. Rob Portman and former Gov. [Ted] Strickland, there’s a dramatic difference when you look at their records. When you look at what Gov. Strickland did as governor, he raised taxes by over $750 million in just one term. He drove up state debt upwards of $1 billion. 400,000 jobs were lost in Ohio during his term. And when you look at Sen. Portman’s record, it’s not perfect, but there is a policy difference, an issue difference. So we’ve done issue advocacy there advocating Gov. Strickland’s defeat.
In North Carolina, AFP has for the first time gotten involved in a federal primary against GOP Rep. Renee Ellmers? Why there and why now?
She initially ran as a conservative reformer. In fact, she likes to talk about being on some of our AFP bus tours and stuff in 2009 and 2010. But when you look at her record on spending and government cronyism, she has not followed through. There are 10 Republican House members in North Carolina. She was the only one to sign the discharge petition on the Export-Import Bank. She has consistently voted for budget deals that have expanded spending.
We have told Republicans in the House that we’re going to hold them accountable, and this is evidence that we mean it when we say that.
Renee Ellmers doesn’t have a unique voting record among congressional Republicans writ large. Do you hope that AFP’s decision to get involved in North Carolina brings viable challengers out of the woodwork in other districts in the future? Or is this more of a rare opportunity?
Defeating an incumbent at the congressional level is a difficult endeavor, and we know that. But we just felt it was time to take a stand. We just thought it was important. If it encourages other folks out there who are contemplating a run where there’s a clear issue difference, that’s good. But we really want to remind House Republicans that we are not an appendage of any political party. We genuinely hold both sides accountable, and here’s recent evidence of that.
What else should we look out for after North Carolina’s primary is done in a few weeks?
There are some states where the senators have records that are impressive. Sen. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania is someone who[m] we respect a lot, in a state that’s not easy. We mentioned Sen. Rob Portman in Ohio. Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin – again, he’s in a state that a lot of people see voting heavily Democratic in a presidential year, but he has an impressive record. I mentioned Florida, where we have our largest footprint. We’re not involved in the primary there, but it’s an important state to us.
And one other state I’ll mention: We have a deep operation in Nevada, and it’s great to see Harry Reid retire. It’s a good thing for the country and will probably lessen the number of times someone uses the Senate floor to assault private citizens. But we’re very involved there. At the federal level, Rep. Joe Heck has a pretty good record.
On the subject of those door-knocking operations: There was a big story in National Review this week about a re-shifting of financial priorities and scale within the network of Koch brothers-affiliated groups, of which AFP is a part. One part in particular focused on a big slash in paid media spending. AFP’s big wave of early TV advertising was a major feature of the 2014 Senate races. Why has it been different this time?
First, it was a surprise to see National Review shift to writing fiction. But here’s a couple things that come to mind. Using television numbers to indicate level of involvement assumes that strategies remain static. It’s dramatically different from year to year delivering a message to accomplish your goals. In 2013 and ’14, we wanted Obamacare to be an issue and to hold senators accountable on those votes. And there was very little competition to drive and burn in a message on Obamacare. But this year, you have both parties engaging in white-hot presidential nominating contests,and a proliferation of super PACs throwing money on television. We did not think it was the best way to deliver a message on issues. It didn’t make much sense in that environment.
We’ve expanded our grass-roots infrastructure. We think that’s the best long-term manner to make a difference. Because putting a field office and staff in, those folks are creating value in 2017 and ’18 and ’19. A TV ad, that tends to evaporate more quickly.
It’ll be interesting to see long-term if donors see the value of super PACs. Because so many of them are not held accountable. I’ve talked to a fair number of donors who do wonder where their money went and how it was spent. So it’ll be curious to see if this proliferation of super PACs continues in the future given that.
Especially given that super PACs and nonprofits can soak up a lot of the money and effort and volunteers that once used to flow into, say, state party organizations.
Our goal is to have a long-term robust grass-roots infrastructure. That’s one thing a lot of activists like about us. The role of a political party is not to hold its candidates responsible on the issues. That’s not a criticism, it’s just not their role. Their role is to get candidates elected and reelected. Our goal and role is different. Ours is to espouse issue stands and move the culture toward greater prosperity and freedom, and in the course of that we’ll hold both parties responsible – and we’ll thank candidates, too.