DC-based special interest group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) is busing-in out-of-state Tea Partiers and spending millions on advertisements, rallies, and phone banks in the weeks before recall elections for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, and four state senate seats. But the group founded and funded by New York-based oil billionaire David Koch insists its activities have nothing to do with the Wisconsin campaigns or elections.
"We're not dealing with any candidates, political parties or ongoing races," said Luke Hilgemann, the director of AFP's Wisconsin operations, about AFP's four-day, ten-city bus tour taking place the week before Wisconsin's June 5 election.
"We're just educating folks on the importance of the reforms," he said.
The "reforms" Hilgemann is referencing include Governor Walker's contentious attack on public sector collective bargaining and his austerity budget, which AFP touts as having saved taxpayers money -- but which Walker's critics say have crippled public schools and led to Wisconsin being dead last among all 50 states for job growth. Those controversial reforms also compelled over 900,000 people to sign petitions for Walker's recall.
Since at least November, AFP has staged an aggressive pro-Walker campaign while claiming to be focused merely on promoting Walker's "reforms" rather than the candidate himself or the recall election. The group has been one of Walker's top allies since he introduced his divide-and-conquer legislation in February of 2011, and even before that in putting Walker on the AFP stage in his earlier campaign for governor.
Continuation of AFP "It's Working!" Campaign
Just as Governor Walker's opponents started collecting recall signatures in November 2011, AFP began running a series of slick TV and web ads claiming "It's Working!", and alleging that Walker's fiscal policies have been good for the state (while ignoring all the bad news). The campaign has reportedly cost at least $2.9 million so far -- nearly three times as much as Walker's opponent Tom Barrett has raised.
The ads come from the "charitable" side of AFP -- the AFP Foundation -- which as a charity organized under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, has an absolute prohibition against intervening in political campaigns. The ads were produced in collaboration with another 501(c)(3), the Bradley Foundation-funded MacIver Institute, which has the same prohibition. As the Center for Media and Democracy has reported, the ads push the envelope on Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules about nonprofit participation in political campaigns, never mentioning Walker or the election but advancing a message consistent with Walker's electoral strategy.
The AFP-Foundation and MacIver "It's Working!" campaign has also included a series of townhall events across the state in November and December to have a "respectful discussion on why we must maintain the reforms that have saved hundreds of millions for Wisconsin taxpayers," according to an AFP press release. The implication is clear -- the election of a governor other than Walker would threaten the "reforms," and his reelection would maintain them. And according to AFP, "we must maintain the reforms."
But, AFP claims the campaign is not about the elections -- indeed, if it were, the organization could lose its nonprofit status.
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign believes the AFP / MacIver ads really are about the elections, and filed a complaint with the IRS accusing the groups of violating IRS rules.
"Stand With Walker"
In February and March of last year, hundreds of thousands of people occupied and marched on the capital in protest of Governor Walker's policies, including his Act 10 proposal to limit public sector collective bargaining. At the start of the uprising's second week, Walker accepted a phone call from a person he believed to be David Koch, who asked how the governor's efforts to "crush that union" were going. The caller was actually Buffalo Beast blogger Ian Murphy, who recorded and publicized the conversation.
Among other things, Walker asked that Koch have "his guy on the ground" -- presumably an Americans for Prosperity leader -- organize rallies and encourage people "to call lawmakers and tell them to hang firm with the governor."
Regardless of how AFP received the request for help, the group seemed to have met Walker's request. The same day that Walker chatted with the fake David Koch, Koch's AFP began running "Stand With Walker" TV ads across the state, along with promoting a pro-Walker petition. As the anti-Walker protests heated up, AFP launched a "Stand With Walker" website and a "Stand With Walker Wisconsin Bus Tour," and organized a "Stand With Walker" counter-rally at the state capitol.
Not about the Election?
In 2012, AFP appears to be ramping-up its campaign to aid Walker as his recall election grows near. AFP kicks off the "A Better Wisconsin Bus Tour" in Waukesha on May 30, visiting ten Wisconsin cities before rendezvousing in Racine with out-of-state AFP members. As part of the tour, 70 staff members will be recruiting volunteers to call voters and canvass neighborhoods. In recent weeks, the group has also been organizing phone banks.
Although Governor Walker likes to complain that out-of-state union bosses are behind his recall, AFP has been recruiting plenty of support for Walker from outside Wisconsin. State AFP chapters around the country have been organizing organizing "Freedom Phone" phonebanks for "patriots throughout the nation" to make phone calls into Wisconsin to tell Wisconsin residents to "support the Wisconsin reforms."
The AFP operation in Illinois is busing out-of-staters "to rally and canvass neighborhoods in [Racine] Wisconsin on June 2" (three days before the election) to "make our voices heard in support of the Wisconsin reforms." The effort appears to be well-funded -- attendees are charged cost only $5 for a round-trip bus ticket with lunch and dinner provided. By comparison, a round-trip commercial bus ticket from Racine to Chicago would cost $47, lunch and dinner not included.
The director of AFP's Wisconsin arm insists the effort has nothing to do "with any candidates, political parties or ongoing races," despite photos from recent events prominently displaying pro-Walker campaign propaganda and one of AFP's top field coordinators being a current Vice-Chair and Executive Board Member of the Winnebago County Republican Party. Additionally, many AFP staffers have long ties to the GOP, such as AFP Director Luke Hilgemann, who until recently worked as Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder's Chief of Staff. (More information is available about Hilgemann and Suder in the Center for Media and Democracy's ALEC Exposed in Wisconsin report.)
It is not clear whether the bus tour, phone banks, and canvassing are operating via the 501(c)(3) AFP-Foundation, which is officially prohibited from any political campaign activity, or through AFP's 501(c)(4) wing, which can do some things its (c)(3) cannot but also cannot act as a Political Action Committee or 527 organization without disclosing electioneering expenditures.
Regardless of which AFP wing is advancing the campaign, it stretches the imagination to believe AFP's claims that organizing bus tours, phone banks, TV ads and out-of-state canvassers -- in the weeks and months before the election -- has nothing to do with the election. Particularly when AFP chair David Koch, who has not given any money directly to Walker's recall campaign fund, has recently said "we're helping [Walker], as we should" and "we've spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We're going to spend more."