BRIGHTON, CO — It’s an unseasonably warm Wednesday in early April, and a handful of activists in green Americans for Prosperity T-shirts are reading addresses off an iPad and matching them with homes on the streets of a suburban neighborhood in Anywhere, USA.
Just before rush hour American flags wave in the wind and hopscotch chalk fades on this quiet Adams County street. A dad teaches his little girl how to ride a bicycle that has ribbons streaming from the handlebars. And it is here, in places like this in the battleground suburbs, where persuadable voters will determine in November whether Colorado will have universal healthcare or reelect a Democrat to the U.S. Senate.
The activists who work for Americans for Prosperity— a tax-exempt social welfare group that’s part of a well-funded conservative political network backed by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers— know this as well as anyone.
The next house on their list is painted purple. Quirky. Christmas decorations still adorn the garage, and garden gnomes and other woodland creatures line the walkway to a porch full of wind chimes and a disco ball.
Jordan Gascon, 29, a clean-cut and energetic Americans for Prosperity field director who used to work for the Republican National Committee, holds an iPad. An app, called i360, has told him a woman named Carrie Miller will be behind the door of this purple house. The program has told him something else, too: Miller is someone within what is called the “persuasion universe.” That’s an AFP term that means she’s a registered, active voter in Colorado either known to be uncertain about a particular issue or about whom AFP needs more information. The group wants to confidently categorize her as someone likely to vote for or against Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in the fall or on an upcoming ballot measure called Amendment 69.
Sure enough, Miller opens the door. She’s a hip-looking grandma with boxy, black-framed glasses atop blond hair. She has a tattoo on her forearm and a black shirt tucked into jeans with a flashy fake-diamond belt. And, no, she tells the young man on her porch, she doesn’t know a thing about Amendment 69.
Gascon pleasantly explains why he’s out talking to people about the amendment, known as ColoradoCare, which if approved by voters in November would create the first state-based universal healthcare system in the nation.
Miller politely asks if the amendment would replace the “Obamacare crap” with something else.
“It takes it another step,” explains Gascon. “It’s going to push out our private health insurance and force us all onto a state-run program. So it will be like Canada or Britain when government controls the entire healthcare system. And then it’s going to cost us 25 billion dollars for the first year. So, in order to pay for it, it is going to come with a 10 percent payroll tax. Ten percent non-discretionary income tax.”
The grandmother accepts this information from Gascon, along with an Americans for Prosperity flyer about Amendment 69, with genuine interest. She flips the flyer over in her hands.
“So it’s ‘No’— we don’t want it— correct?” she asks.
The young man smiles.
“Senator Michael Bennet, he’s up for re-election. Are you familiar with him?” he asks, moving on.
Miller is not. She doesn’t keep up with senators. But is this Senator Bennet for Amendment 69 or against it, she wants to know.
“The reason we ask about him is he was the deciding vote on Obamacare in 2009, and he has been unwilling to share his opinion on whether we should pass this amendment or not,” Gascon tells her. “We are obviously against it, so …” [Editor’s note: During the reporting of this story, Bennet’s campaign told The Colorado Independent he is against Amendment 69.]
The rest of the brief conversation between Miller and Gascon goes like this:
“What’s his name?”
“So I’ll write it down — that’s ‘No’ for him and ‘No’ for this?”
“OK, great! Well, thank you so much! … That was very easy.”
The conversation then turns to the weather.
The weather is beautiful.
AFP in Colorado: Strong force at the Capitol or hard to measure?
Americans for Prosperity (AFP) started out in 2004 as the prime tax-exempt nonprofit arm of the Koch brothers and a network of likeminded, conservative donors, many of whom are unknown. The group initially aimed to influence policy at the national level in Congress. Over the past 12 years the group has grown. As The Hill newspaper has reported, “The network is now the most powerful force in right-wing politics, with a budget and technological infrastructure that rivals that of the Republican Party.”
During the early years of the administration of President Barack Oabama, AFP aligned itself with the rise of the anti-tax Tea Party movement. More recently, as partisan gridlock has stymied much policymaking in Washington, D.C., AFP has made more aggressive plays in the states where policy work is cheaper, and often more fruitful.
These days AFP is building a grassroots army, staffing up in states and cities across the nation. Its network of large donors has pledged to spend nearly $1 billion during this election year alone, and not just on the presidential race. The group is also focused on state and local public policy issues and elections. As a social welfare group, or 501 (c)(4), AFP’s tax-exempt status means it “must operate primarily to further the common good and general welfare of the people of the community.” What AFP cannot do is primarily engage in activities like asking people to vote “for” or “against” specific candidates. But if the group or its activists don’t use those two magic works, nothing can stop them from legally talking to the public about people up for election. So by tying Bennet to the ColoradoCare ballot measure and to the unpopular Affordable Care Act (only 41 percent of Americans have a favorable view of it, according to the Kaiser Foundation), AFP can get involved in an election without running afoul of IRS tax-exemption rules.
Americans for Prosperity says it doesn’t support, endorse, or oppose candidates — just issues.
Whether that’s how some influential close observers of Colorado politics see the group, though, spilled onto the Twitterverse this spring. Lynn Bartels, a former political reporter for The Denver Post who covered the 2014 midterm elections in which Republican Cory Gardner unseated Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, is now the spokesperson for the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. Last month she tweeted this about AFP:
— Lynn Bartels (@lynn_bartels) March 29, 2016
Bartels said later she was just messing with AFP because she has friends who work there.
Around the country, Americans for Prosperity has fought big transportation-funding bills in state legislatures like South Carolina, and smaller proposals like for a streetcar project in Milwaukee. The group has taken on governors and city councils and has involved itself in elections such as last year’s school board recall election in Jefferson County that made national news.
The free-market group, which doesn’t disclose its donors, has been involved in Colorado for about six years, where its chapter has become increasingly robust. AFP now has a state director, a deputy state director, a communications director, nine field directors, and 24 part-time field associates, plus hundreds of volunteers who make phone calls or knock on doors.
“This year we have gotten more involved at the Capitol,” says AFP’s state director Michael Fields, a 28-year-old Teach for America alum with a law degree.
Early in this year’s legislative session, AFP rolled out a six-point agenda on a slick brochure that was placed on the desks of all 100 lawmakers. The group does its own design and marketing, but uses Colorado vendors for print and direct mail. In Colorado, there are lawmakers whose for-profit private businesses handle print and direct mail as vendors, and some at the Capitol have murmured about the possibility of lawmakers personally profiting from AFP.
Asked about that, Fields told The Independent, “We don’t use any elected officials’ companies as vendors.”
In February, AFP activists swarmed the Statehouse to hold a news conference with lawmakers. One of those, Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs, happens to be the president of the Republican-controlled Senate. He credited the group for his rise to power in Colorado, thanking AFP for knocking on doors during election years and talking to voters about issues.
“I can tell you this,” Cadman said at the Feb. 4 AFP rally. “I don’t think I would be the president of the Senate if it wasn’t for the efforts you and yours did over the previous elections. And we look forward to continuing our partnership with you.”
For some on the left in Colorado, Cadman’s statement was a smoking gun, proving the influence the group has over Senate leadership. The added fact that Cadman’s spokesman, Sean Paige— this year’s state-funded communications director for Colorado’s Republican Senate majority— is a former deputy state director for Americans for Prosperity was enough to incite claims by progressive activists in Colorado of a full-blown AFP conspiracy.
— Laura Chapin (@LauraChapin) February 4, 2016
— Laura Chapin (@LauraChapin) November 8, 2015
Mainstream newspaper reporters like Peter Marcus of The Durango Herald, who covers the Capitol, have also pointed out the link.
— Peter Marcus (@MediaMarcus) April 13, 2016
For his part, Paige says he enjoyed his years with AFP Colorado and takes pride in what the group accomplished when he was there, “but my only loyalty now is to Senate Republican leaders and caucus members, who are doing equally important work here at the Statehouse.” He laughed off the tweet as an example of the “kind of tit-for-tat sparring and snark that sometimes happens on Twitter but shouldn’t be taken seriously.”
For a political group adept at merging grassroots activism with big money, Colorado — where the Koch brothers own vacation homes — is a target-rich state in which to shape policy. A purple swing state, Colorado has one of just eight divided legislatures in the country. Republicans control the Senate by one seat, with an 18 to 17 majority. Democrats control the House by three seats. When it comes to national groups looking to airdrop some influence, Colorado might as well be waving landing signals on the runway.
This year, AFP’s “6 for ‘16” agenda for Colorado’s legislative session names protecting the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) as a top agenda item. It also cites plans to hold Colorado’s health exchange accountable, block President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan emission standards, defend the state’s fracking industry, support public charter schools and repeal a tax on business personal property.
From the perspective of legislative power brokers like Lucia Guzman, the term-limited Democratic Senate minority leader from Denver, the pressure AFP has brought to this legislative session has played a significant role in blocking Democratic bills from passing out of GOP-controlled committees and onto the floor of the Senate.
“It seems new to us this year,” Guzman said about the group’s power at the Capitol. “It’s just something that’s looming out there. I feel like we’re not only debating 18 people, but we’re debating 18 people and a tremendously organized outside force.”
Guzman and her caucus held a March news conference that included nearly every Democratic senator in Colorado. As a prop, the group placed on an easel a blown-up March 14 headline from The Denver Business Journal reading “Colorado legislative session reaches mid-point with virtually no accomplishments.” Under it appeared the blown-up cover of AFP’s agenda brochure.
“I think this is a damning headline,” said Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, an Adams County Democrat who’s not running for re-election. “It speaks to what we’ve seen here in the General Assembly.” He noted how many bills have died on party-line votes in GOP committees this year, and reminded the reporters present about how “in February we saw the Senate Republicans standing with the Koch-brothers-backed group called Americans for Prosperity here in our own Capitol.”
The news conference touched off a short news cycle about AFP’s influence this session, and drew a quick response from Senate President Cadman. He said his Democratic counterparts were overreacting to his assertion that he owed his leadership position to AFP’S work in election years.
“Twisting that into some kind of conspiracy, conveniently centered around the left’s usual bogeymen, the Koch brothers, suggests a little paranoia, mixed with a lot of partisan posturing,” he told The Colorado Springs Gazette. “We really don’t have time to follow Democrats down that rabbit hole with less than half the session left.”
In the Democratically controlled House, Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst of Gunbarrel said she doesn’t think AFP is pulling any strings with GOP leadership to help block a key strategic budget plan she’s pushing— a plan AFP opposes. What Hullinghorst is angling for is an effort to reclassify a billion-dollar hospital program, called the hospital provider fee, so its revenues don’t count against mandated revenue caps set forth by TABOR. Blocking the plan fits into AFP’s position on defending TABOR, which is a state constitutional amendment that requires voters to approve any new taxes and restricts government spending based on mathematical formulas. Hullinghorst and other Democrats want to turn the hospital program into a TABOR-exempt enterprise to keep more money in the budget. AFP sees such a move as a scheme to circumvent the spirit of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
Early in the session, AFP asked lawmakers to sign a pledge that they wouldn’t reclassify the program, and the group has called on its activists to pressure at least two Republicans who have signaled their support for the effort. When AFP put out a post on Twitter calling out one of them, Republican Sen. Larry Crowder, the move sparked a tweet-storm from the Alamosa farmer who bucked his party and later signed on as a sponsor of a bill to re-designate the hospital provider fee as a stand-alone TABOR-exempt enterprise.
— Larry Crowder (@SenatorCrowder) February 19, 2016
Crowder is something of a maverick in the Colorado GOP. He calls himself a “staunch Republican,” but isn’t one to toe the party line if he thinks doing so would hurt his district. In 2013, Crowder was the only Republican to vote for Medicaid expansion in Colorado, and his position on the hospital provider fee puts him even more at odds with GOP leadership and AFP in a year when he’s up for re-election. At the time of this writing, AFP’s Fields said he did not know if Crowder had a Republican primary challenger, and he said AFP had not generated any phone calls into Crowder’s district.
What happens with Crowder this year could be telling. If the senator draws a Republican challenger and goes down, and if AFP becomes active on the ground in his district during that election, no one will forget how Crowder stepped out of line with Senate leadership and Americans for Prosperity on the hospital provider fee issue.
Another aspect that has sharpened AFP’s profile in the debate over the hospital program this year is how alone AFP stands in opposition to the reclassification bill in the context of the traditionally Republican-friendly business lobby in Colorado. Local chambers of commerce and business industry groups are in near-monolithic support of the reclassification plan, while AFP is against it. The same month AFP’s pledge went out to lawmakers, so did a letter signed by 17 business groups urging support for the hospital plan. The groups included the Denver Chamber of Commerce, the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, Associated General Contractors, the state Wheat Growers Association and chambers from Aurora to Grand Junction, and others.
Americans for Prosperity sees that as a point of pride — an indication that AFP stands for principle and not party politics or sucking up to particular business interests. Fields points to lobbyist registration data last year showing that 307 lobbyists working on the hospital provider fee issue last year were either neutral on the effort or supporting it— and only AFP was opposed. Three-hundred and seven to one. For Fields, the swarm of business lobbyists on one side of the fight has the whiff of crony capitalism. He worries interest in the issue could come from a desire for tax breaks or benefits for certain business sectors over others.
“So we’re OK with it,” Fields told The Independent about the lopsided lobby. He pointed out that AFP doesn’t try to get involved in every issue at the Capitol, but has core agenda items, like this one, on which it focuses its energy.
Passing the hospital provider fee plan is a key agenda item this session for Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who outlined the reclassification effort in his January State of the State address. So far, Republicans in the Senate, led by Cadman, haven’t budged in their opposition except for Crowder.
Hickenlooper says it’s hard to know how much sway Americans for Prosperity has had on his agenda this session.
“It’s not easy to see exactly where their influence is felt, to be honest,” he told The Independent. “So I can’t really give you a direct answer because I can’t really measure which parts of the agenda are being impacted one way or the other.”
Hickenlooper used the Clean Power Plan as an example, saying he believes much of the opposition to his effort to reduce pollution in Colorado with new regulations comes from a large array of political groups that might or might not include AFP.
Even on that issue, though, “I’m not sure we can prove that or say that with authority,” the governor said.
In mid-March, AFP itself issued a half-time report to lawmakers outlining how the group was faring on its six priorities. So far, it claims success with half of them. AFP helped put pressure on Colorado’s Legislative Audit Committee to accelerate an audit of Colorado’s Obamacare exchange by six months. A bill to give local governments the ability to ban fracking died in the House. And the state’s budget committee cut funding for Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division in a compromise over the Clean Power Plan.
“Those are the kinds of successes we’re looking for,” Fields says.
With fewer than 30 days left in the session, the fate of AFP’s other legislative priorities, including the hospital provider fee bill, is still being decided.
Says AFP’s Colorado communications director Tamra Farah: “We see the ball moving down the field with 6 for ’16.”
AFP in context: Another group in the TABOR protection squad
As purple as Colorado is, the state has a decades-long tradition of anti-tax fervor that pre-dates the rise of the Tea Party and Americans for Prosperity.
In 1991, a California lawyer named Douglas Bruce who had moved to Colorado Springs and become a landlord and a peppery political force, convinced that city to put a Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, amendment into its charter. The measure put in place, among other arcane requirements, a unique rule that voters must be asked, at the ballot box, to approve any future tax increases proposed by politicians. Successful in the Springs, Bruce took his idea statewide, and in 1992 voters altered the state Constitution to enact TABOR for state and local governments.
Since then, a cottage industry of think tanks, policy shops, influence peddlers, law firms, activists and political groups have sprouted up around TABOR. While voters in municipalities and at the statewide ballot box have voted to increase taxes for certain things — or to put certain TABOR requirements on brief holds for specific projects — TABOR is largely seen as a political force of nature that cannot be significantly altered or repealed. While the amendment does much more than just require voters to approve tax increases, any statewide campaign to abolish it would be met with a simple refrain: Shouldn’t you decide if you should keep more of your tax dollars instead of politicians?
“The whole TABOR thing over the years has just sort of settled in,” says John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University. “I describe it as the fifth gospel in the New Testament for a lot of voters, Republicans in particular. You’ve got Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and TABOR. There’s almost a religious devotion to TABOR.”
Because of that, protecting TABOR has become part of the Republican orthodoxy in Colorado. Even some Democrats, like Hickenlooper, are not so-called TABOR-haters. The governor has said this year if the hospital provider fee can’t be exempted from TABOR it might be time to re-examine the amendment. But he also said last year, “Just for the record, I like TABOR.”
In this context, the idea that a national free-market group, Americans for Prosperity, has joined Colorado’s constellation of TABOR protectors — from the libertarian Independence Institute to the TABOR Foundation — is perhaps not so momentous.
‘We make it a year-long thing’
What Americans for Prosperity does bring to Colorado, however, is a big bankroll along with grassroots activism that can be galvanized and directed toward a particular issue. AFP Colorado says it has more than 120,000 activists in the state who have carried out at least some sort of “action” for the group, even if it’s as simple as having signed an online petition. State director Fields says the group gets most of its money from inside Colorado. He declined to disclose the group’s donor list, which, as with other nonprofits on either side of the ideological spectrum in Colorado, is not public.
Jeff Crank is one Koch-network Coloradan who has watched the group grow over the years — both from the inside and out. The conservative Colorado Springs talk radio personality who once ran for Congress was the first state director for AFP when it started here half a dozen years ago. He says the group has become more of a power player in the state since then.
“When I started the AFP chapter here it was me working out of my home office, and I think my budget was $100,000; that included my salary,” he told The Independent. “So it’s grown from that to when I left I had one other staff person, a deputy director, and now you look what AFP has become. It’s got field coordinators and field staff all across Colorado. It’s just a much more efficient and effective and advanced fighting force than it was when I had it. I mean it was the Libyan Air Force maybe when I had it and now it’s the United States Air Force and Marine Corps combined or something.”
For someone who works for Americans for Prosperity, answering a question about whether the group is a Hydra-like super-effective force at influencing state-level policy in Colorado, or if progressives are overhyping their influence, is a tricky proposition. They want to say they’re effective, but also push back on being a puppet master in command of powerful politicians.
“It’s a ‘both’ answer,” says Michael Fields. “We’re not as effective as we want to be, but I think we have been becoming more effective, especially on the state-level issues at the Capitol. We’ve made it a point over the last couple years, but especially this year, to get more involved.”
What makes the group effective, he says, is that instead of sending a lobbyist to the Capitol, AFP can organize activists to light up the legislative office phone lines or put pressure on a specific lawmaker back in his or her hometown. It works like this: AFP will call a committed activist in a lawmaker’s district, talk to that activist about an issue, and then patch the constituent directly through to a lawmaker’s office to talk to the lawmaker, a staffer, or to leave a message.
“We can call into a district or we can have activists in a district that are those peoples’ constituents,” Fields says. “If you get 50 emails from people who are your constituents about an issue, you’re going to pay attention. That sets off the aides to be like ‘something’s going on with this.’ If you have events about issues, or if you have speakers, those are the types of things that have an impact on legislators. And a lot of them obviously have their strong views on stuff but sometimes they need some of that pressure to say, ‘Hey, there’s people that are going to back you if you vote this way on this important bill or they’re going to come after you if you don’t.’”
Another factor setting AFP apart in Colorado is the stamina of its year-round canvassing efforts. The group works in waves. On one week in early April, its activists were out knocking on doors and talking to voters about ColoradoCare and Michael Bennet. The next week, they might be out trying to educate voters about the the prospect of fracking bans.
“We make it a year-long thing,” Fields says. “Not tearing up and building down around elections — because elections are important, but they’re not as important as what’s going on day in and day out at the Capitol or at city council or in Congress.”
Concern about whether ColoradoCare might actually pass in November isn’t necessarily what had AFP staff and volunteers out in the suburbs this month. Rather, opening with the issue allowed them to get into other more specific issues with voters, like pounding on Obamacare, and of course, talking about a U.S. senator unfriendly to AFP’s cause who is up for re-election this year.
“Senator Bennet has a bad record of voting for Obamacare,” says Fields. “Now we’re talking about single-payer, doubling down on that— let’s have those conversations.”
‘He’s for the Amendment’
Back in the Denver suburbs of Adams County, the i360 app Americans for Prosperity and other Koch-network groups use to target voters has led a spunky older activist with a Cuban accent to a house in a Brighton neighborhood. Canvassing for AFP not only fits with Maria Weese’s politics, but it’s also how she gets her exercise.
Denver Broncos flags outside this particular house wave in the breeze alongside others for motorcycle racing brands. Inside an open garage sit two men drinking beer next to two hogs. The garage looks like a motorcycle shop with a checkered banner hanging across it, tools lying around, and posters of pin-up girls tacked on the wall. One of the men wears a bandana.
Down the street, Jordan Gascon has been saying how Michael Bennet “has been unwilling to share his opinion” about Amendment 69 for the ColoradoCare universal healthcare ballot measure. The official script he uses says Bennet voted for Obamacare, but AFP Colorado does not know if Bennet has an official opinion on Amendment 69.
Speaking to The Colorado Independent weeks later, Bennet’s campaign spokesman Andrew Zucker will say Bennet does not support the passage of Amendment 69 in Colorado.
“It’s no surprise that the Koch brothers are spending money to mislead voters about Michael Bennet because he’s taken on special interest attack groups like the ones that they fund,” he’ll write in an e-mail. “Michael does not think that single payer is the right approach to solving our health care problems, and in particular has concerns about putting a complete overhaul of our health care system, including a massive tax increase, into the State Constitution where it can’t be changed.”
Fields will respond by saying it’s nice to see Bennet “finally come out against single-payer,” and that he hopes the senator will reverse his decision on Obamacare.
But on this day in early April, at least one potential Colorado voter hears something different. APF has in the past gotten dinged by PolitFact for misrepresenting the views of politicians.
Weese introduces herself to one of the men in the garage and calls one of them by name — she has his name on her iPad app— and then asks if he’s familiar with Amendment 69, the healthcare ballot measure up for a vote in November. He looks up from his beer and says he is not.
She tells him there would be a 10 percent payroll tax if it passed. She asks him if he has health insurance.
“I do,” he says.
She tells him he’d have to pay more taxes.
She asks if he’s familiar with Bennet. He is not.
“There is two senators,” she says, moving on. “Bennet is up for re-election … and he’s for the Amendment. Knowing that, would you be voting for Senator Bennet?”
“Probably not,” the man says.
Weese leaves a flyer with the two men and compliments them about one of the motorcycles.
“Enjoy your beer,” she says cheerfully, walking back toward the street where she’ll update the iPad’s database and head to the next house in hopes of pulling yet another voter closer to AFP’s position in the group’s persuasion universe.
[Photo credit: Austin Kirk, Creative Commons, Flickr.]