DENVER — Red T-shirts, professionally produced signs and even an airplane banner carried the message of the day: “Stop the EPA power grab.”
The rally had a grass-roots flavor with a folk duo singing “This Land Is Your Land,” “Someday Soon” and “Rocky Mountain High” to families of coal miners from Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.
But the professional touches, from water bottles to the posed photo with everyone shouting “AFP!” on the count of three all pointed to rally organizer Americans for Prosperity.
Nationally, the group is known as a key cog in the political operation for Charles and David Koch, two business billionaire brothers known for opposing government regulation and supporting free markets.
But the organization isn’t just a purveyor of negative advertising bashing “Obamacare” while subtly panning Democrats and praising Republicans. AFP has chapters in 33 states, including Colorado, that influence politics from the school board to the statehouse.
“We don’t focus on any political candidate or any political party,” said Dustin Zvonek, Colorado’s AFP director. “We try to mobilize the grass roots to promote or to defend economic freedom.”
But Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, views AFP’s Colorado operations in a more skeptical light.
“Basically, they’re well lawyered up, and if they jump through certain hoops, they can avoid the disclosure laws that apply to everybody else that spends money on elections,” he said.
The Koch connection
The late July rally was timed to coincide with Environmental Protection Agency hearings in Denver and other cities on the Obama administration’s plan to reduce carbon pollution.
Energy issues are at the forefront for AFP and for the Koch brothers, the group’s founders. The two built on their father’s oil and gas fortune, expanding what is now Koch Industries into an international and privately held behemoth that still focuses on oil and gas but also deals in chemicals, forest products, minerals and more.
AFP — and the Kochs — are strong supporters of oil and gas development and strong opponents of regulation, especially environmental restrictions. Jeff Crank, a former congressional staffer and candidate, took over the Colorado chapter in 2009.
“We didn’t have much infrastructure when I started,” he said.
But soon the group was holding rallies across the state to oppose the Affordable Health Care Act, or “Obamacare.” Rallies on the issues continue, as does field work coordinated by paid staff.
“It’s been a growing presence that’s been consistent, particularly in Colorado,” said Crank, who went on to lead AFP nationally for a time and now runs a private political consulting firm, Aegis Strategic, which is linked to the Kochs.
The ground game for the Colorado chapter includes a National Day of Action on the first Saturday of each month, soliciting volunteers to make calls or knock on doors. Zvonek said the group has 25 to 30 paid employees to help organize volunteers for such efforts.
We didn’t have much infrastructure when I started. It’s been a growing presence that’s been consistent, particularly in Colorado.
former director, Colorado AFP chapter
Kyle Saunders, a political scientist at Colorado State University, said AFP takes aim at unaffiliated voters, a growing demographic in Colorado.
“Groups like AFP have more reason to focus their resources here than in other unbalanced states because here they can make an impact,” he said.
But Saunders said it’s early to reach out to such voters, when campaigns typically focus on September and October.
“It’s an interesting time if they’re already trying persuade the middle, “Saunders said. “Usually that happens late in the game.”
Other groups were listed as sponsors of the anti-EPA rally, including the Colorado Mining Association. The lengthy parade of speakers included union representatives from the United Mine Workers of America, a bit of an irony, considering AFP’s opposition to organized labor.
Before the speakers took the stage, attendees were encouraged to shout “Americans for Prosperity” across from the state Capitol. “How about Americans for coal?” shouted Dianna Orf, a lobbyist for the Colorado Mining Association who helped organize the event. But her suggestion was scarcely heard.
‘Kochtopus’ in Colorado
Americans for Prosperity may be the Kochs’ ground connection in Colorado, but there’s plenty of other activity by the so-called Kochtopus network of nonprofits funded by the two men and their wealthy colleagues.
In 2012, AFP spent more than $537,000 on ads in the state opposing President Barack Obama’s re-election, according to the Federal Election Commission. This year so far, the group has spent at least $311,000 on Colorado ads attacking “Obamacare” and mentioning Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, who faces a tough re-election bid against Republican Rep. Cory Gardner.
In fact, Gardner was one of several Senate candidates invited to Charles and David Koch’s summer meeting. There Crank interviewed Gardner and another candidate during one session, according to The Nation.
Freedom Partners, a related nonprofit supported by the Kochs, has almost $1.2 million in ads scheduled this year, also attacking Udall on “Obamacare.” The American Energy Alliance spent almost $157,000 on ads criticizing Udall on the Keystone Pipeline, which is intended to carry oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
And Generation Opportunity spent nearly $1 million for TV and online ads earlier this summer attacking Udall for federal spending, unemployment and the Affordable Care Act. GenOpp is a Koch-related nonprofit group aimed at millennials, best known for its “Creepy Uncle Sam” ads discouraging enrollment in “Obamacare.”
GenOpp, which Zvonek called a partner organization, recently started a ground operation in Colorado.
Toro said the groups’ nonprofit status makes it difficult to assess their activities. “It’s really hard to say, because we don’t know how much money they’re spending,” he said. “But their voice is everywhere. They’ve really made what they want to talk about an issue.”
Only certain issues fit
There are certain things, however, that AFP doesn’t talk about. For instance, some participants at the anti-EPA rally wore “Coal, guns, freedom” stickers.
But when AFP got involved in the recall elections of two Democratic state senators last fall, gun rights weren’t mentioned, even though that was the reason other groups successfully pressed for the recalls.
The AFP door hanger during the Colorado Springs recall instead mentioned state Senate President John Morse’s votes for a health care exchange, Medicaid expansion and increased fees.
“The Second Amendment is an issue we don’t talk about,” Zvonek said.
Crank said such issues don’t fit in with the economic freedom mantra of AFP and the Koch brothers. “You’ve never seen AFP talk about guns or any of the social issues or immigration,” he said. “There’ve been a lot of attempts to get them involved in other things, and they’ve always resisted it.”
But AFP does get involved in issues beyond energy. Zvonek lobbied the state legislature unsuccessfully earlier this year for a bill to halt implementation of the Common Core standards in Colorado schools.
And AFP’s activity provides an antidote to ProgressNow Colorado, a nonprofit formed in 2003 to promote progressive ideas. But Americans for Prosperity operates as a single, national entity based in Virginia that oversees the state chapters.
Michael Huttner, the founder of ProgressNow, who has helped expand the group to 23 states, noted that each ProgressNow state chapter is individually organized, and selects its own key issues.
“I think the Koch brothers, who have got a lot of money to throw at this — they’re throwing the money at the targeted states,” he said.
The fine line of politics
While Zvonek says AFP doesn’t get involved in elections, he told Politico last fall that the organization spent $350,000 to support conservative school board members in Douglas County.
There, the school board has battled the teachers’ union, a fight AFP proudly supports. Zvonek said the spending didn’t go to endorse or oppose candidates but to promote the school board’s reform efforts.
As a social welfare nonprofit, Americans for Prosperity must avoid certain political activity. Most notable, said Toro, that means avoiding using the “magic words” of voting for or against any candidate. “We monitor them and we see how close they walk to the line,” he said.
At the pro-coal rally, he noted that Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez was introduced as a former congressman, not a current candidate. Speakers avoided mentioning the upcoming election specifically.
“You’ve got an opportunity in November to take Colorado in a different direction,” Beauprez told the crowd, estimated by AFP at 500. “Colorado and America deserve better than what they’ve been getting.”
While AFP said it invited Democratic incumbent Gov. John Hickenlooper, the governor’s staffers said they didn’t receive an invitation.
Toro noted that while Beauprez and others at the event avoided direct election and campaign references, there was still a political feel to the event when a gubernatorial candidate was the penultimate speaker.
“It essentially amounted to a freebie political event for Beauprez,” Toro said.
With the Udall-Gardner race rated a tossup, Toro noted that AFP seems “very focused on the U.S. Senate race.”
But Crank noted that the organization produces ads year round, including anti-“Obamacare” ads in Colorado in 2013. And he emphasized the lack of coordination with political groups.
“I never, in the time I was there, met with the leadership of the Republican Party or whatever. We just wouldn’t do it,” he said. “The movement really isn’t about politics. It’s about principles, principles of the ideas.”