By Walker Davis
August 16, 2016

According to a recent National Review report, the political network overseen by the Koch brothers is undergoing a “realignment” to include less national political spending. Some Koch network leaders dispute that assessment, pointing to recent multi-million dollar ad buys. Regardless of how much the network plans to spend in this and future federal elections, one central Koch group has been increasingly using a different tool of political influence over the last few years.

A recent CREW investigation noted that Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a key group in the Koch network, has increased its federal lobbying activity. The organization has also upped its lobbying presence on the state level. CREW examined lobbying disclosure data from all fifty states and found that the number of registered AFP lobbyists in the states more than tripled between 2011 and 2015. The group now has registered lobbyists in a greater share of its state chapters than it did four years ago, too. In 2011, AFP had 19 registered lobbyists throughout 13 of its 25 state chapters. Last year, the group had registered lobbyists in 29 of its 34 state chapters, 62 lobbyists total.

AFP lobbyists

Based on the data examined by CREW, AFP’s lobbying presence goes back the longest in Kansas, Arizona, and Wisconsin. AFP’s growth over the last few years has been in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and South Dakota, adding at least four lobbyists between 2011 and 2015 in each of these states.  In 2015, AFP also expanded its state lobbying presence into five new states: Florida, Alaska, West Virginia, Michigan, and Kentucky.

Of course, each state has its own definition of what counts as lobbying and some of those definitions have changed over time, making it difficult to make definitive comparisons. This analysis includes lobbyists for Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the section 501(c)(3) sister organization of AFP, and treats lobbying entities as one lobbyist. To negate the possibility that the trend shown here is driven by data being made available online for the first time between 2011 and 2015, CREW only examined lobbying registration data from states that made it available online as far back as 2011. This excludes data from New Mexico.

Interest groups take to the states

As states push out legislation at a faster rate than Congress and assume responsibility for policy on more and more issues, many interest groups are turning to the state level where policy goals seem more attainable. Plus, there’s a perception that successfully lobbying for a policy change in one state will make others consider making the same change. As a lobbyist for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce told the Wall Street Journal, “All these interests know that when one state adopts something other states are going to read it and look at it. That is going to set a precedent out there that everyone is worried about.”

The same calculation may be part of what’s driving AFP’s state lobbying push. Andrew Ogles, AFP’s Tennessee state director and a registered AFP lobbyist in Tennessee, told The Tennessean in 2014, “With supermajorities in both houses, Tennessee is a great state to pass model legislation that can be leveraged in other states.” Given that rationale, it’s not surprising that AFP has focused its lobbying efforts on states that tend to elect Republicans, as opposed to liberal bastions like California or Massachusetts where they’ve yet to register a single lobbyist.

The attention to state policy is not itself an innovation within the Koch network. As the National Review authors noted, “[The Kochs] had always believed that…supporting important public-policy initiatives at the state and local levels…paid greater long-term dividends than spending on elections.” National electoral spending has become the calling card of many Koch network groups, but the tenets of the reported realignment aren’t so much a trip into uncharted territory as a “return to their roots.”

AFP especially has long emphasized advocacy and outreach at the state level, where the group sees itself as most successful, and AFP leadership on both the state and national level has been explicit about their intentions to focus on state policy. In North Carolina, AFP President Tim Phillips announced the group’s plans to establish a more consistent presence in the statehouse: “We want to be here year in and year out.” In New Hampshire earlier this month, the group’s state director told the Concord Monitor that the chapter would not be getting involved in the state’s congressional races this cycle and would instead focus resources “exclusively” within the state, a break from past years.

In the process of boosting its presence in the states, AFP appears to be changing the nature of its state-based advocacy by supplementing its longstanding grassroots activity with more and more lobbyists in state capitols—a development that’s consistent with what the group is up to at the national level.

Clashing with the right

AFP’s efforts to push legislation through solidly red legislatures that can be leveraged in other states has sometimes led to the group aggressively going after Republican state lawmakers. AFP earned its reputation in large part by opposing Democratic policies, especially President Obama’s, at the federal level, so its role as a “conservative watchdog against fellow Republicans at the state level” has caught some state Republicans off guard.

That was the case in Florida and Tennessee, where AFP sent out mailers criticizing state Republicans who voted for—or were even “remotely considering”—Medicaid expansion, drawing ire from their targets, and in Tennessee, disapproval from a top Republican state House member for targeting fellow conservatives. Likewise, in South Carolina this year the group generated surprise and frustration from state Republicans who found themselves in AFP’s crosshairs over a gas tax increase.

The relative low cost of advertising at the state and local level gives the group “the chance to be the big fish in a lot of little ponds,” as one ad tracker put it. AFP’s 2014 lobbying expenses in Kansas illustrate that point. Not only was AFP the top-spending group, it reported spending six times more than the next highest spender.

On the other hand, AFP can also work cooperatively with state lawmakers. Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez’s academic study of AFP and other network groups notes AFP’s close work with legislators who are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). For example, AFP’s Tennessee state director Andrew Ogles told The Tennessean that a state transportation bill came out of a “conversation” with state senator Jim Tracy, an ALEC member. Sen. Tracy then sponsored the bill, and AFP went to work lobbying for it.

Advocacy agenda

In addition to lobbying against prominent issues affecting all states like Medicaid, AFP’s lobbying activity indicates a willingness to get involved in strictly local policy issues. In 2014, for example, AFP lobbied in Tennessee against the “Amp,” a 7-mile mass transit system for Nashville. More recently, the group urged state lawmakers in Florida and Utah not to give stadium projects taxpayer support.

Like AFP’s federal lobbying against the Export-Import Bank, AFP has also made examples out of somewhat obscure policies the group views as “government cronyism,” such as tax breaks for film productions, an issue AFP successfully lobbied against in states including Michigan and Montana. Similar to the fight against the Export-Import Bank, the group sometimes clashes with natural allies like chambers of commerce and business lobbies over state policy.

Wisconsin’s especially detailed lobbying data shows AFP’s ability to stake out a sizable role within a state on specific issues. AFP was one of the top three interest groups, in terms of time spent lobbying, on Assembly Bill 32 and Senate Bill 49. Both bills related to eliminating the prevailing wage, which mandates a minimum pay level for workers on public construction projects. Eliminating the prevailing wage is an ALEC model policy, and the senate version of the bill was introduced by former ALEC “legislator of the year,” state Sen. Leah Vukmir.

Michael Fields, AFP’s Colorado state director, explained to the Colorado Independent that the group prefers to focus its energy rather than get involved on every issue, and that it has no problem being the only group on one side of an issue. One Democratic state senate leader said AFP’s increased presence in the state is apparent: “I feel like we’re not only debating 18 people, but we’re debating 18 people and a tremendously organized outside force.”

Revolving doors

In their study, Skocpol and Hertel-Fernandez note revolving doors between AFP, the Republican Party, and other network groups. Alan Cobb, who appears to be AFP’s first-ever lobbyist, is a good example of this interchange. Cobb was the Director of Kansas Public Affairs for Koch Industries before he registered to lobby Kansas state lawmakers on behalf of AFP in 2004. After AFP, Cobb became a Vice President at Freedom Partners, another central Koch network group. He recently accepted a job as a strategic consultant for presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump.

Other registered AFP state lobbyists have come from or moved on to the very government they lobby. Former Montana state Sen. Joe Balyeat went from the Montana legislature to working as a registered AFP lobbyist. In Arizona, Chad Kirkpatrick served in the cabinet of Governor Jan Brewer (R) as chief information officer between two stints as a lobbyist for AFP.

Looking ahead

Other interest groups taking their agenda to statehouses have found it advantageous to go wide by getting established in as many states as possible “to make sure increasingly important state legislatures don’t leave them out of the picture.” That strategy seems to appeal to AFP, which more than doubled the number of states in which it has at least one lobbyist in the course of tripling its registered state lobbyists overall.

Will other Koch network groups follow suit? We shouldn’t rule it out. AFP is the network’s largest grassroots advocacy group, and the one that has been around the longest, so it is a natural choice to take the lead within the network. The LIBRE Initiative, a Koch group geared towards Hispanics, registered to lobby the Florida legislature for the first time last year, hinting that AFP could soon have additional Koch-connected reinforcements in the halls of state capitols across the country.