ANCHORAGE (Reuters) - When it comes to influencing politics, few billionaires are more effective than the industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch. Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the nonprofit organization they founded and continue to support, achieved a 95 percent success rate in the 2014 election races where it spent money.
But in Alaska, a state that could be pivotal in the 2016 elections, the group’s reception has been surprisingly chilly.
Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly two to one in America’s northernmost state, and the GOP candidate has won every presidential contest in the state for the last 50 years. The conservative AFP’s message of free markets and limited government, along with its strong support for oil industry interests, resonates here.
But the same independent spirit that defines Alaskans also makes them bristle at attempts by outsiders to shape their thinking, political analysts say, and the Kochs are viewed as outsiders here by many Democrats and Republicans alike.
Dave Stieren, a conservative talk radio host in Anchorage, said that in Alaska the group has been neither the “boogeyman” liberals fear nor the “engine for change” the Kochs would like it to be. It just hasn’t had much impact, he said.
“When you say Americans for Prosperity in Alaska,” he said, “I’m like, ‘Who?’”
The problem isn’t that AFP supports causes and candidates unpalatable to Alaskans. In 2014, for example, the group targeted Democrat Mark Begich, who was defeated by Republican Dan Sullivan in the U.S. Senate race. But even some Alaskans closely aligned with AFP’s goals question whether the group’s efforts in the race helped.
Alaskan Republican strategist Art Hackney, who last month signed on to Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, is happy to credit AFP with a long list of accomplishments outside the state, including in Iowa, North Carolina and Colorado.
“In most of those states what they did worked but in Alaska it doesn’t,” he said. “In Alaska they had an impotent system.”
As evidence, he cites a commercial AFP ran during the Begich-Sullivan race featuring a woman describing how Begich’s positions hurt her family.
“Senator Begich didn’t listen. How can I ever trust him again?” she asked.
But the woman decrying Begich turned out to be an actress from Maryland, and that didn’t play well in Alaska, where it drew considerable media attention.
“Alaskans know she is not Alaskan and never voted for Begich in the first place and it’s a lie,” Hackney said.
In the end, Hackney said, he believes the AFP ad actually helped Begich, who lost to Sullivan by the narrowest margin of any Senate race in the country.
Christopher Neefus, a spokesman at Americans for Prosperity’s Washington headquarters, disputes claims that the group has struggled in Alaska.
He notes that AFP opens chapters only in states where support has reached critical mass. A year ago, he said, 5,000 people in Alaska had either signed AFP-sponsored petitions, connected with the group on Facebook or Twitter, or in some other way added their names and contact details to a list maintained by AFP.
That’s six-tenths of a percent of Alaska’s population of 730,000, the same percentage that led AFP to open an office this month in Mississippi.
And since AFP’s Alaska chapter opened, three thousand more people in the state have added their names to AFP’s lists, Neefus said.
As of July 24, AFP Alaska had 6,405 likes on its Facebook page. But among the comments the page has attracted is this one, posted on May 17 by user Wynter Narcissus: “Hey, AFP, get OUT of Alaska!! You are NOT welcome here!!”
Other comments convey more warmth: “Good to see you. Thanks for the bumper sticker!” wrote Bethany Marcum below a post advertising AFP’s booth at a local fair.
Still, AFP Alaska’s director, Jeremy Price, sometimes faces tough questions, even in seemingly friendly territory.
“Tell me what Americans for Prosperity does. Why are you here?” asked conservative radio host Mike Porcaro when Price visited his show on June 24.
Price, an Alaskan native, had just begun describing the group as “a grassroots organization in favor of limited government,” when Porcaro cut in: “People would say, ‘Americans for Prosperity, huh. Would that be the Koch Brothers?’”
“Yes,” Price said.
The group, which doesn’t have to disclose its funding sources, gets support from other donors as well as the Kochs. In 2013, the last year for which records are available, the group took in about $44 million.
But AFP does not shy away from its connection to the Kochs.
Price and his staff open weekly meetings with a mandatory exercise in which Price, reading from a poster on the conference room wall, selects one of the 10 concepts, known as Market-Based Management Principles, described by Charles Koch in his book “The Science of Success.” Participants then discuss how to apply the principle to accomplish AFP’s mission.
The subject of the Kochs comes up frequently. During a meeting last month with Chad Padgett, a senior staffer for Alaska Congressman Don Young, Price described the reactions he gets after explaining the Koch connection to Alaskans who’ve asked: “It’s amazing: Most people you meet immediately either love you or hate you,” he said.
Price, 36, is a former aide both to Young and to Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, another Republican. He was born and raised outside of Fairbanks, a personal detail he acknowledges is essential for the job.
He manages a staff of four, all of them with backgrounds in local Republican politics. Aside from the 2014 Senate race, the group has so far focused on only a handful of issues and candidates.
Earlier this year, it advocated against expanding Medicaid in Alaska, something states can do with federal support under the Affordable Care Act. The legislature voted against Gov. Bill Walker’s proposal to expand the federal program. But on July 16, Walker, an independent, announced he would expand healthcare coverage in the state with an executive order, bypassing the legislature.
The Alaska AFP tweeted tartly later that day, “It’s a great day in Alaska for proponents of bigger government.”
AFP’s efforts in Alaska come just as the red state is becoming slightly more purple. Anchorage voters elected a Democratic mayor, Ethan Berkowitz, this spring by the largest margin of any vote in city’s history – despite attack ads run against him by AFP. And some political analysts say Begich, who narrowly lost his Senate race, is in a good position to run for the seat currently held by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who won as a write-in candidate in 2010.
As a non-profit, issues-based group rather than a political action committee, AFP is limited in the political support it can provide. Its volunteers can’t stump for specific candidates, and the group can’t lobby or make specific endorsements. But it can run education campaigns and air ads attacking candidates on issues.
In addition, Price and his staff have used a combination of door-knocking campaigns and hosted gatherings to try to sign up new volunteers for their cause.
One such event, called “Pints & Policies,” was held June 24 at an upscale Anchorage pizzeria in an attempt to recruit young Alaskans for AFP’s national conference in August.
The 40 or so people who turned out at the Fat Ptarmigan for the event got two free drink tickets after supplying contact information to AFP, and they seemed happy to be there and interested in the speakers. But it remains to be seen how successful such efforts will be.
“They’re very good at luncheons,” said talk show host Stieren. But he questions whether his state needs an AFP branch. “Alaska is really good at having world-class oil, world-class mines, world-class fisheries, and we’re really good at growing our own, world-class crazy political movements,” he said.
Price, however, is confident that AFP has a place in his native state. “We are all Alaskans. We love our state and we’re concerned for its future…,” he said. “Those who support bigger government will be disappointed to learn that we are here for the long term.”
(This version of the story corrects the spelling of the last name to Porcaro from Percaro, in paragraphs 22 and 23.)
Reporting by Emily Flitter; Edited by Sue Horton