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Politics & Policy

The Koch Network’s 2018 Playbook

Indian Wells, Calif. – I’ll have more on the Koch network’s winter meeting and their views on the coming year in a separate piece, but this morning Tim Phillips and Emily Seidel of Americans for Prosperity gave the assembled donors an overview of their plan for the coming midterm elections.

“These elections are going to be brutally tough,” warned Seidel, the group’s CEO. “The recent elections in Virginia and Alabama suggest that both anger and enthusiasm are high among progressive groups… We have to go ‘all in’ in 2018.” To that end, the group expects to spend “on the high end” of a $300 million to $400 million sum.

AFP has paid staff in just about all of the states that could have competitive Senate races in 2018: Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

The group already spent $3 million advocating for the tax cuts in Wisconsin, hoping to persuade the state’s first-term Democratic senator up for reelection this year, Tammy Baldwin, to support the tax cuts. It did not succeed – no Democrat in Congress voted for the tax cuts – but they felt the six weeks of ads helped lay the groundwork for the campaign to come.

“We did events and town hall meetings across the state,” Phillips said. “Warsaw, Appleton and everyplace in between. good crowds of folks, lots of local media attention, lots of digital work as well… Today, we’ve got more grassroots activists in Wisconsin than the Wisconsin teacher’s union has members. That’s how you change a state.”

A survey last week found Baldwin with an even 40-40 split on approval and disapproval ratings… not reassuring numbers for an incumbent.

The group is a fan of paid media – mostly television advertising — but only in the spring, when ad rates are least expensive. Seidel says that’s best for “defining the battlefield and putting our opponents on defense…  Our sweet spot is in the first half of the year for paid media. This gives us an opportuntiy to influence broad swaths of the electorate as they’re making up their minds. By the time we meet again in July, this part of our strategy will be completed.” After that, they target the remaining undecided voters person to person with phone banks and going door-to-door.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee is running for Senate and spoke at this year’s winter meeting; it is extremely likely that the Koch network will have her back in her bid for U.S. Senate.

The network is considering intervening at 15 gubernatorial races in 2018; three currently held by the Democrats, in Colorado, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, and twelve currently held by Republicans: Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

The group has already decided to make a seven-figure commitment to help Adam Laxalt, the Nevada attorney general who’s running for governor. Doug Ducey of Arizona is another favorite of the network; he has attended each Koch winter meeting since 2011. Charles Koch has already pledged his help to Illinois governor Bruce Rauner and Scott Walker of Wisconsin is another longtime favorite of the network.

Phillips mentioned Americans for Prosperity expects 80 House races to be competitive in 2018, but notes that voters tend to pay less attention to these races until later in the cycle. The group counts 16 Republican retirements in districts that they could flip. “The election year of 2010 is similar to 2018, with one big difference: this time we’re on defense.”

He told the attendees that AFP is analyzing data to rank those districts from most competitive to least competitive, and make a massive direct mail and digital effort throughout the summer. In last summer, the ongoing grassroots effort in senatorial and gubernatorial races will add the House races to their plate.

The group has not intervened in Republican primaries in the past and, at least so far, indicated it does not intend to – but it is worth noting that the Koch network doesn’t want to support just any Republican. They prefer conservative, free-market candidates who focus on repealing regulations, curtailing bureaucracy, cutting taxes. This year’s meeting has heavily emphasized criminal justice reform; if it’s not quite a litmus test for the group, it’s hard to picture them enthusiastically backing a candidate who vocally opposed those reforms.

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