How Koch Brothers’ Americans For Prosperity Aims To Shape Colorado Politics

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Photo: Americans for Prosperity workers
Americans for Prosperity staff in Colorado.

The top ranking Republican in the Colorado legislature, Bill Cadman, recently attributed his ascension as president of the Senate to the efforts of a conservative advocacy group: Americans For Prosperity. AFP is guided by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who live outside of the state. Nationally, the group will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the 2016 election, a portion of that in Colorado.

Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner spoke with AFP's state director, Michael Fields, about the group's legislative priorities and election-year strategies. Warner also spoke with Kenneth Vogel, the chief investigative reporter for Politico, who covers money, politics, and influence.

Excerpts of the conversations are transcribed below.

Fields on whether AFP should take credit for Cadman's Senate presidency:

"I think the point he was largely trying to make was that our organization really focuses in on policy issues... like defending TABOR [the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights], like addressing the issues with Obamacare, really set the tone for some of the discussions that are happening across the state and led to what the Republicans were talking about and are talking about at the state Capitol."

Fields on the scope of AFP's advocacy and how it's grown over the years:

"We've built up in the last couple years. If you look at 2014, we had five field directors. Last year we went up to seven. This year we've gone up to nine... We get involved [in] everything from, you know, a bag tax in Fort Collins all the way up to national issues, and we've definitely gotten more involved at the state level, at the Capitol, and we want to continue to do so."

Fields on AFP's top priority in Colorado this year, opposing Governor John Hickenlooper's proposal to reclassify the Hospital Provider Fee:

"We saw it as an end-run around TABOR; that TABOR's in place to allow people to vote on tax increases. This Hospital Provider Fee, or tax, was counted under these TABOR caps since it started in 2009, and we thought that it should continue to be, and that the government should really focus not on short-term fixes, but looking at the long haul, looking at things like PERA reform, looking at things like how much money we're spending on healthcare, to address, really, the budget issues in general."

Fields on why AFP says its advocacy is issue-based, though it runs political advertisements that mention certain candidates:

"You won't see personal attacks; you won't see things that aren't issue-based... A lot of times [candidates] run in elections and say they're going to do this, this, and this, and holding them accountable to what their campaign promises were is an important job that we do... We do believe that people deserve to know where people stand on issues, and then really encourage people to vote in general."

Vogel on what sets AFP apart from other political groups:

"AFP and the Koch networks' ambitions are really unprecedented in American politics. We've never seen a privately funded, privately held political machine that has invested so much over so long. ... It is not lip service to say their goal is to change American politics, to change the culture of American politics, and to some extent, the culture of America itself to be one of personal responsibility and less [of a] role for the government. ...

"It comes at a time that the parties themselves have seen their power and the amount of money available to them diminish. There is sort of a vacuum for a group like the Koch network or efforts on the Left that have been less successful in raising as much money to create this long-term permanent political and policy infrastructure that the Kochs talk about."

Vogel on what motivates the Kochs:

"Koch Industries has been tremendously successful over the years and has had its most successful period, in terms of sheer profits and growth, during the Obama administration. ... The reason they have done quite well is because the system serves them fine as it is. So there is no need for them to spend all of this money to try to influence policy and politics in a really public way that draws them into the spotlight and puts a target on their backs if their sole goal is to just do well and make a lot of money. They are already doing that. I think you have to look elsewhere ... to really figure out what is driving them."

Editor's note: CPR News thanks The Colorado Statesman and Kara Mason for providing audio for this story.