Obama’s Bête Noire

by Eliana Johnson
The mild-mannered head of AFP relishes the president’s attacks.

Dallas — Tim Phillips loves peanut butter. The president of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a free-market advocacy group, is in the midst of his annual “Defending the Dream Summit,” which this year brought more than 3,000 grassroots activists to the Lone Star State.

We’re sitting at a table in Dallas’s Omni hotel, sharing a piece of peanut-butter pie, and it’s hard to compute that the mild-mannered guy in front of me is the force behind AFP, the bête noire of Senate majority leader Harry Reid and the Democratic party writ large.

“I’m a Jif guy,” Phillips tells me, digging in on his peanut-butter preferences. He likes ice cream, too, especially Dairy Queen, and claims to know every highway exit on every major interstate in Virginia where he can find one. “If you can’t get a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Blizzard with a squeeze of peanut butter on top, I think the next best one is the banana with the wafer,” he says.

Phillips took the reins of AFP in 2008 and has been in the crosshairs of high-profile Democrats almost from the start. As the 2010 midterms approached, President Obama warned his supporters about groups with “harmless-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity.”

“They don’t want you to know who the Americans for Prosperity are, because they’re thinking about the next election,” he said.

You get the feeling that if Americans had known Tim Phillips was running the AFP machine, they wouldn’t have been too frightened.

Phillips relishes the attacks, and there’s a simmering intensity beneath his cheerful sincerity. The Democratic attacks, he concedes, have helped him attract new supporters. “I think it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise,” he says. “I think a lot of activists look around and go, ‘That’s public enemy No. 1 for these lefties, that’s who I want to volunteer and work with.’”

Videotape of Reid and Obama attacking the Koch brothers and AFP was splashed across a giant screen in the hotel ballroom on Friday, where thousands of activists gathered for the conference’s opening session. It was easy to see that it buoyed them, as it does Phillips. The activists booed at the sight of Reid and cheered Obama’s mention of AFP. When Phillips took the stage, he thanked “our good friends David and Charles Koch” with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

Looking around the ballroom at these activists, many of whom had arrived on buses from nearby states, and who came clad in some sort of Americana, one would not easily connect them with the scions of industrial wealth Reid and Obama have warned about. During the conference, many attended seminars intended to school them on basic elements of public policy and grassroots activism, crash courses such as “Wastewatchers: Tightening the Belt on Government Spending,” headlined by Indiana governor Mike Pence, “Social Media: What’s That Button Do? (BEGINNERS),” and “Social Media: Short & Sweet (ADVANCED).”

“Free-market business folks like the Kochs would never simply support an institution that could not and did not attract broad support in the marketplace of ideas — in this case, the public-policy arena,” Phillips says. “It would tell those folks that their model was flawed if no one else would join, if no one else would help support it financially.” The Koch network is deliberately built to protect the anonymity of donors, so it is impossible to tell how many individuals contribute to AFP, but it says it has received donations from more than 70,000 people across the country.

What AFP has done is to find and energize true believers across the country and make them a part of a richly funded network. AFP has spent $22 million on the 2014 elections to date and considerable effort putting full-time staff on the ground in dozens of states. They don’t leave at the end of an election cycle but are permanently embedded there where they can build a stable and ever-growing network that has insight into local issues.

“The longer our model is in a state, the more effective it becomes,” Phillips says. He compares it, somewhat bizarrely, to Novocain: “It takes a while, but it works,” he says, pointing out that AFP now has over 500 activists working in battleground states manning phone banks and knocking on doors. AFP activists, Phillips notes, have knocked on more than 1 million doors this election cycle. He pauses to order an espresso. “We did not get to 1 million doors in all of ’12,” he says.

His chief marketing officer, Dennis Vegas, who spent his career in the private sector working in senior management positions at both AT&T and Enron, chimes in. Working for AT&T in Monterrey, Mexico, Vegas recalls, he “had 2,000 people going door to door talking about” the company. “I figure, if we’re going to lead a revolution, so to speak, having the people on the ground” building trust in their communities “would be a tremendous way to shape the direction of our nation,” he says. “It is hopefully happening.”

AFP is playing the political game both high and low, deploying its grassroots supporters but also messaging relentlessly on television. After the 2012 election, in which the Koch donor network spent more than $100 million, it commissioned a searching self-assessment to ensure it was using data, personnel, and money appropriately.

This year, AFP has refined its television spots along the way. Though Phillips maintains that Obamacare remains the “single most visceral” issue of the election season, his latest ads tell a different story.

When we sat down, Phillips, Vegas, and AFP communications director Levi Russell were excited about a new ad airing in Alaska, where Republican Dan Sullivan is challenging incumbent Democratic senator Mark Begich. The one-minute spot, part of a $1 million buy, features the testimony of a lodge owner against the backdrop of the Last Frontier’s stunning vistas. He slams Begich for missing too many Senate votes. Other ads airing in Arkansas and Louisiana home in on the rising cost of energy and slam incumbents for “going Washington.” Obamacare expanded the playing field, putting states like Michigan and Colorado in play, and AFP is taking the opportunity to hit Democrats there on a host of other issues.

Its goal right now is singular: to retake the Senate in 2014. “We’re held accountable by our donors,” Phillips said. “Donors like to know their money is working. Most organizations don’t have that.” As the largest outside spender on the Republican side, the benchmark for success is obvious.

— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.

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