Our Common Good

In the last few years, conservatives have made significant contributions to political organizations that have pushed the state to the right on core economic issues, and explicitly pushed right to work as a top goal (see the graph above):

Americans for Prosperity–Michigan, the group founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, has a relatively new chapter in Michigan that has produced pamphlets extolling right-to-work reforms. This week, the group set up a heated tent outside the capital to support Snyder’s law and bused activists to Lansing to counter labor protesters.

The Mackinac Center is a right-wing think tank in Michigan that issues pro-“right to work” reports, sponsors an anti-labor legal foundation and produces an array of other content, from a Pininterest page to short videos explaining why Michigan should adopt right-to-work. The center has gone on a media tour, touting Snyder’s move this week on CNN, Fox Business and much of the Michigan press. Notably, the group recently started two of its own media outlets, Michigan Capitol Confidential and Watchdog Wire Michigan.

These organizations are part of a more aggressive political force that is adept at controlling the twenty-four-hour news cycle and managing coalitions. Unlike ordinary business lobbies that simply support right-to-work, these advocacy groups go out and shape public opinion through broad messaging and content development, which in turn is used for organizing around policies.

Both AFP and the Mackinac Center are backed financially by the billionaire DeVos family, which has sought to control public policy debates through state-level nonprofits. Donors Trust, the nonprofit foundation used by wealthy conservative donors to anonymously finance activism on the right, has heavily funded AFP and Mackinac in the last three years. Doug DeVos chairs a nonprofit that has mobilized influential executives in the state to support right to work in Michigan.

The model isn’t new. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) relied heavily on Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin and a state-based think tank called the MacIver Institute to build political support for his effort to curtail union rights. In Ohio, Governor John Kasich (R-OH) worked closely with another business-backed group, the Buckeye Institute, for his attempt to crush local unions.

On the left, the only comparable group in Michigan is Progress Michigan. Progress Michigan, which is backed by several local unions, brought together a coalition of progressives to oppose right-to-work, and demonstrated at the capital in Lansing this week. Although Progress Michigan has leveraged a sizable local union membership base to make up for its small budget, as the chart I created above shows, it hasn’t been able to compete financially with the right.

Now that the right-to-work fuse has been lit, establishment groups on both sides of the ideological divide have entered the fray, including local chambers of commerce and the Tea Party on the right, and unions on the left. Working America, the AFL-CIO affiliate, has helped mobilize people for protests today. But in terms of shaping the ideological debate—it’s important to realize that the anti-labor forces have worked for years through groups like Mackinac and AFP to set the stage.

The “American” in American Petroleum Institute, the country’s largest oil lobby group, is a misnomer. As I reported for The Nation in August, the group has changed over the years, and is now led by men like Tofiq Al-Gabsani, a Saudi Arabian national who heads a Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Aramco) subsidiary, the state-run oil company that also helps finance the American Petroleum Institute. Al-Gabsani is also a registered foreign agent for the Saudi government.

New disclosures retrieved today, showing some of API’s spending over the course of last year, reveal that API used its membership dues (from the world’s largest oil companies like Chevron and Aramco) to finance several dark money groups airing attack ads in the most recent election cycle.

Last year, API gave nearly half a million to the following dark money groups running political ads against Democrats and in support of Republicans:

• $50,000 to Americans for Prosperity’s 501(c)(4) group, which ran ads against President Obama and congressional Democrats.

• $412,969 to Coalition for American Jobs’ 501(c)(6) group, a front set up by API lobbyists to air ads for industry-friendly politicians, including former Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA).

• $25,000 to the Sixty Plus Association’s 501(c)(4), which ran ads against congressional Democrats.

Jack Gerard, the president of API, was a close ally to the Mitt Romney campaign. Like the US Chamber of Commerce, API is one of several large trade associations that has spent heavily in support of Republican candidates. 

The disclosures also show that in 2011, API spent over $68 million for public relations/advertising with the firm Edelman, $5.4 million on “coalition building” with the firm Advocates Inc, and $4 million with DDC Advocacy for “advocacy.” DDC is the firm led by Sara Fagen, the former Bush White House aide ensnared in the DOJ purges scandal. DDC now works with corporations to help them communicate with workers on how to vote.

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative organization backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, took aim at Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) on Monday, accusing him of working against his state’s interests with his apparent change of heart on Obamacare.

In a statement, AFP said that Scott’s recent signal that he was willing to consider implementing key provisions of President Barack Obama’s health care reform law was a step in the wrong direction.


Scott had stood as one of the most stubborn adversaries of Obamacare, even in the wake of the president’s reelection, which effectively secured the law’s existence. But after first vowing to reject moves to set up a state-run health insurance exchange and expand Medicaid rolls under the Affordable Care Act, Scott said last week that he was ready to “have a conversation.” Leaders in the state legislature have also signalled a willingness to take steps toward implementation.

The New Jersey Legislature passed a bill on October 18 creating a state-based online health insurance marketplace; it did so because under Obamacare a state must either create its own insurance marketplace or let the federal government do it. Christie vetoed a similar state-based insurance exchange bill in May, but he said last month he wouldn’t decide what to do about the new bill until after Election Day. Enter the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-backed conservative grassroots group. AFP-New Jersey is pressuring Christie to reject the state exchange bill and rebuff Obamacare’s requirements before November 16, the date by which states must submit its health insurance plans to the federal government.

Koch-Backed Group Warns Chris Christie | Mother Jones

The silly thing about AFP’s lobbying is that New Jersey will get a health care exchange regardless of whether Christie vetoes it. In that case, the federal government would set up an exchange for New Jersey instead of the state setting it up for itself, and the resulting exchange would be run by federal bureaucrats instead of state bureaucrats. So this is just ideological posturing. (via dendroica)

Monica Crowley, a Fox News analyst and WABC talk radio host, is spending today bashing Barack Obama throughout Colorado. She’ll speak at rallies sponsored by Americans for Prosperity in Loveland, Northglenn, Westminster, Golden, Aurora, Colorado Springs and Pueblo as part of what’s billed as the group’s “second statewide Obama’s Failing Agenda Bus Tour.”


According to a press release for the event, “this tour will educate Americans on the most harmful aspects of President Obama’s big-government agenda…” The group adds that “The Failing Agenda bus tour is an issue advocacy effort by Americans for Prosperity and does not expressly advocate for the success or defeat of any candidate for public office.” But you get the drift.

Since the IRS granted its tax exemption in 2004, Americans for Prosperity has never received so much as a phone call, a letter or an inquiry from the agency about its spending, according to Chairman Art Pope.

AFP has turned in its tax returns every year, just as the law requires, reporting that it did not spend a dime on politics — an answer that seems implausible from a common-sense perspective, but one that the IRS appears to have accepted as consistent with its vague and ambiguous definition of political activity.

AFP isn’t alone; at least $134 million in ads, mail, phone calls and other political spending this election have come from tax-exempt groups that said they didn’t plan to spend money on political campaigns, according to a POLITICO analysis of records filed with the IRS and the Federal Election Commission, as well as news reports and press releases.

If you’re looking for the cop on the beat for much of the outside spending in 2012 — when Republican-allied groups alone intend to spend upwards of $1 billion — stop by the IRS, one of the most feared and hated government agencies around.

Except when it comes to political spending, the IRS is more like a toothless tiger.

Unlike campaigns or super PACs, which the FEC regulates as political committees, groups like AFP operate under a once-sleepy section of the Tax Code — 501(c)4 — written decades earlier to allow a range of groups to avoid paying taxes while serving a social benefit. The 501(c)4 groups are able to:

• Raise and spend unlimited donations, without ever publicly disclosing where they got the money.

• Pay no corporate income taxes on any of those donations.

• Do all that raising and spending without filing a single piece of paper with the IRS until months after Election Day.

• Operate in the shadows of an IRS bureaucracy that won’t tell reporters, or even members of Congress, who has applied to create 501(c)4 groups, how it evaluates applications or whether it’s approved particular groups.

Even some members of Congress say they feel stonewalled in their requests for basic information.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), one of several lawmakers dogging the IRS over its apparent inaction in the face of the 501(c)4 spending surge, sees the irony in the situation.

“We have case after case in this office of little folks that the IRS goes after for assessments — small business that they go after — where they used their highly aggressive tactics,” Levin said. “And you’ve got huge amounts of money being spent here, but very, very feeble, weak enforcement of the law.”

Levin and other lawmakers such as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), have spent months trying to get the IRS to explain itself. “Getting information out of them is like pulling teeth,” Levin said.

Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the nonprofit financed by David Koch and other wealthy Republican businessmen, has spent some $31 million on anti-Obama ads since April. The group recently opened 98 Get-Out-the-Vote offices, hired some 200 field staffers, and has been distributing its state of the art voter targeting technology on Samsung tablet computers to its volunteers. Now AFP is hoping to win hearts and minds with gifts of free gas.

AFP is hosting events at gas stations across the country to provide gasoline to motorists for the price of $1.84 per gallon. The group is paying for up to 15 gallons for 100-150 drivers at each station, telling them that the $1.84 price symbolizes the price per a gallon before Obama took office in 2009.


The Koch’s political operatives are hoping drivers forget the fact prices peaked over $4.00 under Bush, that the prices in January 2009 were artificially low because of the financial crisis, and that there’s little a president can do to affect oil prices. There’s also the hypocrisy problem. Koch Industries, the company that invented the oil derivative, considers itself one of the world’s biggest players, up there with Goldman Sachs, engaged in the type of commodity speculation that many experts believe is a key driver in rising gas prices. AFP is also providing free barbeque to at its anti-Obama rallies as well as gift cards to its phone bankers, which in the past have been as high as $200 each for the most productive volunteers.

AFP’s giveaways seem to be increasing at a time when other related groups are adding more incentives for people to volunteer against Obama. Last Thursday, the Republican Jewish Coalition, another undisclosed group associated with a small set of wealthy patrons, including Mel Sembler and Sheldon Adelson, began giving away iPads to its most active volunteers. The Huffington Post reported on the RJC’s efforts to “woo” volunteers:

Put in at least 20 hours at an official RJC phone bank in California, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York or here in Washington and receive a $100 American Express gift card. Up that to 30 hours and one gets an older model iPad 2 (worth about $200). And to volunteers who dial up Jewish voters for 50 hours or more, the RJC will give a new 32GB iPad 3, worth $599. Less time gets a lesser tablet, with 40 hours on the phone equaling a 16GB iPad 3 ($499).
Of course, some pro-Obama groups are providing minor gifts to their supporters as well. As far I know, it’s been limited to free pizza, or in one case, a $5 gift card for an evening of phone banking.

As the secretive campaign against the three Florida Supreme Court justices up for merit retention took shape Monday, one of the targeted justices warned that the future of the state’s independent judiciary was under threat.

"This is the most stressful time I’ve ever experienced in my life,’’ said Justice R. Fred Lewis at a meeting of the Hillsborough County Bar Association. “There is an entire branch of government to protect and defend. We cannot sacrifice fairness and impartiality and the court system to political whims."

Lewis’ remarks came three days after the Republican Party of Florida announced it will oppose him and Justices Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince because of their “activist” and liberal views.

On Monday, Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group affiliated with the Koch brothers announced a political campaign they have been developing for months to highlight the judicial records of the justices. Starting Tuesday, the group will run television ads across the state chastising the justices for ruling against a 2010 proposed constitutional amendment intended by the Legislature to counter President Barack Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act — the one Republicans dubbed ObamaCare.

“We’re not advocating for the election or defeat of any of the justices what we’re attempting to do is call more attention to them advocating from the bench,’’ said Slade O’Brien, president of the Florida chapter of AFP.


Lewis said the announcement by the RPOF shifted what had been a whisper campaign against the three justices into a frontal assault on the judiciary.

"The idea was to vote out all three justices so Gov. [Rick] Scott could replace them,’’ he said.

He urged the Hillsborough lawyers to come to the defense of the merit retention system, put in place under former Gov. Reubin Askew. He had responded to a long history of abuse and corruption in the judiciary when justices were elected to office.

"If we allow politics to overtake the three branches of government, we no longer will have the democracy we’ve enjoyed for 200 years,’’ Lewis said. "I’m trusting that somewhere in the middle there are fair-minded individuals who believe the court system is too valuable to kill through partisan politics."

The unprecedented move by the Republican Party was roundly rebuked by lawyers and former Supreme Court justices on both sides of the aisle on Monday.


Americans for Prosperity said that in addition to the ads to be aired in television markets of Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando, Jacksonville, Daytona Beach and Tallahassee on Tuesday and Wednesday, they will launch a website to provide voters with information on the justices’ records: youbethejudgefl.com.

The 30-second ad accuses the court of rejecting a constitutional amendment written by the Legislature that would serve as a referendum on the Affordable Care Act on the November ballot. The justices ruled that the non-binding amendment included a misleading summary because it made numerous promises such as ensuring “access to health care services without waiting lists.”

When the state acknowledged the summary was misleading, it asked the court to replace the text of the amendment in the summary. The court ruled it did not have the authority to do that.

Alex Villalobos, the former state senator from Miami and president of Democracy at Stake, a nonprofit advocacy group working to support the justices, called the ad misleading.

“They blame the court for the decision but where’s the commercial that blames the Legislature for having done it wrong in the first place?” he asked.

Politicizing the judiciary….  Not something anyone, regardless of their personal politics, should tolerate.

President Obama’s reelection prospects look better in recent polls, but organizers from both parties report growing evidence that new voter-outreach programs funded by conservative groups could give GOP nominee Mitt Romney an edge if the race is close.

In the key battleground states, Obama’s celebrated network of organizing experts and neighborhood captains is being challenged by a conservative coalition that includes the National Rifle Association, the billionaire-backed Americans for Prosperity and a newly muscular College Republicans organization with a $16 million budget

The conservative groups “are fully funded and ready for hand-to-hand combat,” said Steve Rosenthal, a Democratic organizer.

We cannot take anything for granted. After you register to vote, please check in with the local Democratic Party headquarters, the local Obama campaign or another active political group in your district to see how you can help.  If you have never helped with get out the vote activities, you’ll be surprised at how much fun it can be.


Have you seen this anti-Obama ad? The Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity is spending millions to run it nationwide. It relates the story of Shona Holmes, a Canadian who says she had to travel to the US to seek free-market treatment for a life-threatening brain tumor.

Thing is, it’s BS — and it has been since her case was first used by anti-Obamacare conservatives in a 2009 ad. It even has its own Wikipedia entry. Turns out Holmes never had a life-threatening brain cancer, but a benign growth, and she skipped out on her scheduled care to get an earlier appointment in the States. Nevertheless, AFP decided to use it for a new, deceptive ad this year.

Meantime, HuffPo relates the story of another Canadian, Ian, who does have a malignant brain cancer - and whose Canadian health benefits paid for his very sensitive care in America, even as he watched his friends to the south suffer and waste away:

Ian goes on to tell a story of a U.S. system where fellow brain tumor patients spent their time pleading with U.S. insurance companies for just one more week of treatment. The friends Ian made at the hospital had to leave treatment early because they had run out of money and the insurance companies would no longer cover the procedure.

Ian is still alive. But his friends are dead.


That awkward moment when the Republican billionaire who basically bought Scott Walker’s election and is in Karl Rove’s circle jerk super PAC is way more moderate than Mitt Romney. 

On the day of Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech, a gaggle of Republican politicians pay tribute to David Koch, who tells a reporter that he is a very good person.

Americans for Prosperity, the Tea Party organization backed by the Koch brothers, is set to begin a $25 million advertising assault aimed at President Obama, its largest effort to date.

The ad campaign is the latest example of how independent political groups funded by a small number of wealthy donors are shaping the presidential campaign in key swing states. Conservative groups and “super PACs” have been particularly aggressive, pummeling Mr. Obama on the airwaves as Mitt Romney’s campaign waits until after the Republican National Convention — when it will be legally permitted to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars it has raised in recent months — to ramp up its advertising efforts.

American for Prosperity said that the first of several ads would begin appearing on Wednesday in 11 battleground states, including here in Florida. The campaign will last for three weeks — extending through Labor Day weekend — and includes Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

The conservative outside-spending behemoth Americans for Prosperity will launch a $9 million ad campaign targeting the Affordable Care Act in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the law, AFP president Tim Phillips tells me.

The ads will begin Wednesday afternoon, with the total price tag covering broadcast television, cable and social media in 12 presidential swing states.

The message, Phillips said: Obama “owns the mandate” – and now it’s a tax, according to the Supreme Court.

The conservative outside-spending behemoth Americans for Prosperity will launch a $9 million ad campaign targeting the Affordable Care Act in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the law, AFP president Tim Phillips tells me.

The ads will begin Wednesday afternoon, with the total price tag covering broadcast television, cable and social media in 12 presidential swing states.