Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity running full-fledged ground game

ORLANDO – William Lawson is no stranger to the life of a canvasser. The mounds of campaign literature, the talking points, the occasional loose dog are all familiar to him. As a field manager for the Alan Grayson for Congress campaign (he is now running for Senate), he empathizes with most entry-level political professionals.

“He couldn’t have been old enough to drink,” Lawson said about the canvasser who knocked on his door a few weeks back. “If you look at the literature, it’s sounds progressive enough.”

The piece of door hanging literature he showed me featured an image of a railroad track at dusk. In the bottom-third it read “Keep Florida on the right track by following the Five for Florida plan.” It’s only on the back that the true agenda is revealed.

The five points of the Five for Florida plan are each euphemistically put conservative talking points. For example, one point is “push for innovative, free-market health care reforms” and another reads, “eliminate subsidies for all energy production,” which are in reality attacks on the Affordable Care Act and renewable energy respectively.

It all comes together when you read at the bottom:

“Think that sounds like a good plan? Get involved with AFP,” or Americans for Prosperity.

The Koch Brothers funded group has begun a major push into the swing states with an aggressive faux-grassroots hiring campaign. They are targeting white working-class people in those swing states, particularly folks who, by previous voting patterns, have shown they are open to progressive ideas. The plan is to turn them to the right and thereby tip the 2016 national elections in favor of the GOP.

Such voters live in Orange County, Florida where in 2012 there was wide support for an earned sick-time ordinance that was later squashed by the GOP-run state government. The same voters have also elected a progressive Congressman, making them a target for the Koch canvassing operation.

“It didn’t look like he knew [who he was working for]” said Lawson of his visitor, but a look at the Americans for Prosperity job announcement on the job website Indeed.com shows otherwise.

The field associate position in the Koch operation, tested first among white rural voters during the Scott Walker recall election in Wisconsin, pays $10 an hour ($2 less than what canvassers made in 2012 working for Alan Grayson, $5 less than what one could make working for local progressive canvassing operations) and has the duty of recruiting a minimum of 20 volunteers to work 16 hours a quarter.

“Expected activities include, but are not limited to, canvassing designated geographical areas, building relationships with prospective community activists and leaders, and engaging the citizenry regarding the merits of economic freedom and policies that promote individual well being consistent with the… missions of Americans for Prosperity Foundation.”

As of the writing of this article, AFP has four job openings for canvassers in four different Florida cities: Titusville, Tampa, Boca Raton, and Naples.

“I felt for the guy, but I had to give him an earful before he left” Lawson said. Lawson currently works as field staff for the Central Florida AFL-CIO.

The occasional less-than-tactful, summary dismissal is an occupational hazard for canvassers of any political persuasion.

The bigger push

Florida is one small part of the Americans for Prosperity overall election cycle strategy. Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO released a report in February from the field on a unique “Front Porch Focus Group.”  In it, they break down the Koch Brothers’ many operations. Americans for Prosperity is the umbrella organization under which these operations carry out their specific charge.

The LIBRE Initiative “advances the principles and values of economic freedom, with a focus on the Hispanic community.” LIBRE is active in six states and is opening offices in two more, including Ohio, in 2016. Their funding is expected to grow to more than $9 million in 2016.

Generation Opportunity focuses on the issues of people from ages 18 to 34, which apparently include things like “keeping fantasy sports regulation free.” Their massive digital operation has earned it 2.4 million Facebook followers. Their fieldwork is almost exclusively event based, usually centered around “happy hours.” They’re operational in four states, including Ohio.

The Faith and Freedom Coalition focuses on faith-based organizing and is one of their strongest get-out-the-vote forces. In 2012, Faith and Freedom Coalition made 21 million GOTV calls, distributed 30 million voter guides in 117,000 churches, and contacted almost 2 million unregistered voters.

Despite its smears against Saul Alinsky (the community organizer noted for his 1971 book “Rules for Radicals”), the AFP is doing an excellent job of taking a page out of the playbook of progressive organizers. The AFP is not leaving grassroots organizing to the progressives. For almost every Koch-backed GOP canvassing operation there is a parallel progressive organization that existed first.

Americans for Prosperity is currently running at least one field office in 25 states. In the key presidential swing states of Pennsylvania and Ohio, however, you’ll find two or more and for very good reason.

Almost half the white working-class voters in many districts in an arc running from the suburbs of Cleveland to the suburbs of Pittsburgh cast their votes in 2012 for President Obama. Moving those voters to the right can push two key states into the GOP column, the Koch brothers hope. The Working America survey showed that half these voters have not yet made up their minds. Of those who have, however, the number leaning toward Donald Trump approximates the combined total of those backing Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The survey showed, however, that conversations with trusted sources of information, like the Working America canvassers, could result in people changing their minds. “A surprising number of people were eager to engage in the conversation, sometimes for an extended length of time, and they were looking for insights they considered reliable and for a way forward to remedy the uncertainty they feel about their lives and the future of the country.”

Photo: Patrick J. Foote | PW



Patrick J. Foote
Patrick J. Foote

Patrick Foote writes occasionally for People's World. At the University of Central Florida, he worked with the Student Labor Action Project organizing around the intersection of student and worker issues. He would go on to work in the labor movement in such organizations as Central Florida Jobs with Justice, AFSCME Council 79, and OUR Walmart.