In one of the ads Americans for Prosperity (AFP) has put on the air this year, a thirtysomething actress stands against a white backdrop and looks into the camera. “People don’t like political ads,” she says plaintively. “I don’t like them either. But health care isn’t about politics, it’s about people, and millions of people have lost their health insurance, millions of people can’t see their own doctors, and millions are paying more and getting less.” At the close, a narrator urges viewers to “tell Mary Landrieu to stop thinking about politics and start thinking about people.” Such ads have also run against Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Mark Udall in Colorado, and incumbent Democratic House members in Arizona, Florida, and New Hampshire.
Ads like the “white ad,” as it has become known, are not new to 2014. They are part of a sustained assault against Obamacare mounted with the help of the donor network organized by Charles and David Koch and the array of social-welfare groups it funds.
The ads themselves, which have inflamed Democrats this election season, represent five years of knowledge, accumulated through polls and focus groups, about how to use the health-care issue to pull Americans into the GOP camp. With AFP having spent over $30 million so far this year to bring down sitting Democratic senators, the ads also symbolize the changing nature of American politics. Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United
decision, unlimited outside spending by 501(c)(4) social-welfare groups has finally allowed Republicans to match the political muscle of labor unions, whose spending was also blown open by the decision, but which have long poured money into Democratic coffers.
That newfound equity is one reason why the AFP ads have sent Democrats into a tailspin and led them to make the ads, and two of the people funding them, a major campaign issue of 2014. Senate majority leader Harry Reid devoted much of a news conference and an entire speech on the Senate floor to attacking the Koch brothers, calling their efforts “un-American” and accusing them of trying to rig the political system in their favor. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has launched a digital campaign around the rallying cry “The GOP is addicted to Koch!”
AFP president Tim Phillips dismisses attacks like this as the “villain approach” to politics and says he’s not only skeptical of their efficacy but finds them morally repugnant. “If you google AFP, you’ll find that we’ve never gone after George Soros. It’s the right of every American to be involved in the political process — and frankly, the responsibility.”
The Koch network’s anti-Obamacare assault began in 2009 with Sean Noble, a former chief of staff to Arizona congressman John Shadegg and then an adviser to the Koch brothers, and Randy Kendrick, the wife of Arizona Diamondbacks part-owner Ken Kendrick and a prominent donor to the Kochs’ formidable fundraising network.
Noble had worked with Arizona state legislators in 2008 on Proposition 101, an amendment to the state constitution that would have prohibited employer and individual mandates in health insurance. When it was defeated, Noble says, Kendrick urged him to take the health-care fight national.
“Randy Kendrick said, ‘Who do I have to give money to? What organizations are doing this?’” Noble tells me. When he surveyed the landscape, Noble found only 501(c)(3) groups such as the Galen Institute and the Pacific Research Institute, which, unlike 501(c)(4)s, are prohibited from participating in campaign-related activity. There weren’t any groups operating in the (c)(4) space devoted to putting the brakes on a national health bill.
For Kendrick, events added a sense of urgency to the cause. It was November of 2008: President Obama had won the election, and rumors swirled that he was set to nominate former South Dakota senator Tom Daschle to serve as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services — a nomination eventually derailed by news that Daschle had for years failed to pay taxes on a car and driver lent to him by a wealthy friend.
Kendrick had read Daschle’s 2008 book Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis and saw it as a blueprint for the legislation the Obama administration would look to enact. She was alarmed. Daschle noted polls and research showing that the political climate in 2008 was more favorable to a fundamental reform of the nation’s health-care system than it was in the early 1990s, when Hillarycare sputtered out. He pointed to growing support for “a so-called individual mandate” and urged readers to help overcome “the mistaken belief that we have the best health care in the world.”
The result of Kendrick and Noble’s efforts was the Center to Protect Patient Rights (CPPR), which was incorporated in April 2009 and funded largely through donations from the Koch network. The two attended a June 2009 Koch donor seminar in Aspen, Colo., where, Noble says, a federal takeover of health care was for the first time introduced to donors as an issue of urgent importance.
Before lunch on the third and final day of the seminar, Noble says, Kendrick delivered an “impassioned speech” on the topic. “People were moved to tears by how invested she was in this,” Noble says, and at the lunch that followed her remarks, donors spontaneously pledged $13 million to the cause. Since then, similar lunches have raised over $100 million.
With that largesse, CPPR produced dozens of ads that targeted hundreds of Democratic congressmen in the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans regained 63 seats and recaptured the House majority in the largest midterm romp since 1938. Noble coordinated the disbursement of over $50 million to several other groups that paid to put the ads on the air: Americans for Prosperity, the 60 Plus Association, Americans for Job Security, Americans for Limited Government, and the American Future Fund. Two years later, California officials levied a $1 million fine on CPPR when they determined the group failed to disclose the intermediary sources of independent expenditures it made to oppose two ballot propositions in the state.