Americans for Prosperity in New Hampshire increases focus on state issues this election cycle

  • The State House dome as seen on Friday, Sept. 11, 2015. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Published: 7/5/2016 12:29:26 AM

State Rep. Joseph Guthrie hadn’t heard much about Americans for Prosperity until he opened his mail this spring and saw his face printed on one of the group’s fliers.

In big letters, the glossy mailer panned Guthrie’s vote against right-to-work legislation, which bans unions from charging dues to non-members.

“I was surprised when I saw it,” the 86-year-old Hampstead Republican said. The fliers likely cost more to produce than Guthrie makes each year serving in the Legislature – $100 – and even more than he plans to spend on his re-election bid – nothing.

“I have never had anything like this happen to me before,” he said. “I’ve never been targeted.”

But this election cycle, this kind of outside pressure on local representatives is only expected to increase.

Guthrie is one of roughly a dozen Republican House members being hit by AFP, a conservative advocacy group founded by billionaire businessmen David and Charles Koch, whose names have become nearly synonymous with big money in politics.

While the conservative group has spent millions of dollars on past elections, AFP has indicated that it may sit out this year’s presidential contest and won’t back U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s re-election bid.

AFP’s New Hampshire chapter says it is focusing its resources “exclusively” on state-level issues this year, a break from the past when it shelled out for the U.S. Senate and congressional contests here.

“This year, we feel the best opportunity for us to advance economic freedom is at the state level,” said New Hampshire AFP Director Greg Moore. “That is subject to change.”

Moore wouldn’t say how much the AFP chapter plans to spend in New Hampshire. But the group has already launched several issue campaigns – one on right-to-work and another on Medicaid expansion, which targeted four state senators.

The idea is that amid Washington gridlock, AFP can influence change at the state level.

“From our perspective, policy works from the ground up,” Moore said recently. “We’re not genuinely focused on who sits in what seat. We’re interested in what the output of the policy pipeline is.”

AFP has proven controversial among Republicans and Democrats alike since it moved into the state nearly a decade ago. Critics say the organization is controlled by secretive mega-donors who don’t represent New Hampshire values. But supporters argue AFP helps hold lawmakers in Concord accountable by telling residents how their representatives are actually voting.

It’s difficult to gauge the state chapter’s activities because it’s nearly impossible to track AFP spending. The conservative group is registered as a 501(c)4 “social welfare” organization at the federal level, meaning it doesn’t have to regularly disclose how it spends money or its donors during an election.

The New Hampshire chapter doesn’t register with the state as a political advocacy organization, so it doesn’t have to file reports showing what it takes in or spends locally. The Monitor learned of the right-to-work campaign through the AFP-NH Twitter account, where staffers and volunteers posted pictures of themselves delivering fliers door-to-door.

The campaign materials feature a picture of the candidate with the message: “Your representative voted to protect big labor over workers’ rights.” It asks voters to call the representative about right-to-work, a policy that was defeated in the Republican-led Legislature during the last session. The door hangers cost about $2,000 to $3,000, Moore estimated. “It’s not that expensive,” he said.

And they are proving successful, he said.

“I do know for a fact, because of the phone calls I get from these representatives, that it is having an impact,” Moore said. “They usually say, ‘Make it stop.’ They start voting better.”

Mixed reaction

Several targets of the AFP campaign said the ads have prompted some calls from constituents. But many said they didn’t know what AFP is or why they were picked.

“It was from out of the blue,” said Republican Thomas Cardon, a first-term representative from Derry.

Some representatives, who live in towns with strong union membership, think the AFP fliers could actually boost their re-election chances. But others, like Republican Rep. Dennis Fields, worry about the ads and wish AFP had talked to them ahead of time. Fields generally supports right-to-work legislation, he said, but didn’t think the most recent House bill was complete.

“I still think people should be able to work in the workplace without being forced to join a union,” said Fields, a 15-term representative from Sanbornton. “It’s a little upsetting when people don’t ask you why you voted for something.”

Others said the fliers won’t make a difference because right-to-work is just one issue out of hundreds they vote on.

“If you are going to campaign against somebody on a singular issue, I guess you have more money than brains,” said Salem Rep. Fred Doucette, a Republican from a union background who has always opposed right-to-work legislation.

Republican Rep. Mark Proulx, a target of the campaign, said he is proud of his vote against right-to-work because he said unions promote “better wages” and “safer working conditions.” All of the constituent calls he has received in response to the ad have been positive, he said.

“Some big deep pocket is paying for (this campaign), and you have to ask yourself, why?” said Proulx, a second-term representative from Manchester. “Is big business going to make out better if we vote in right-to-work? Yeah, they are.”

Membership

AFP has 44,000 members in New Hampshire and roughly 1,200 donors, who help set the group’s agenda, Moore said. AFP pushes for lower taxes and opposes the Affordable Care Act, among other policies.

Moore declined to name the chapter’s donors, but said the annual budget depends on what they give each year. “We have to show our value,” Moore said. “If we’re doing that, (the donors) will give us more support.”

Some New Hampshire lawmakers find great value in AFP. The organization released its annual scorecard recently, rating legislators’ stances on a handful of “key” votes. State Sen. Gary Daniels is one of two state senators who scored an “A+” after he voted against raising the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid and redistributing ratepayer rebates to energy-efficiency efforts.

“It’s affirmation that I am on the right track,” said Daniels, a first-term Milford Republican. “Consequently if there’s something we don’t agree on, it gives me the opportunity to go back and have a discussion with AFP on how did we differ.”

AFP’s differences with major national candidates has changed the conservative group’s game plan this election cycle. Despite spending millions against President Obama in 2012, the organization’s president, Tim Phillips, told CBS News recently that AFP may not be getting involved in this year’s presidential contest over “concerns” with Donald Trump’s policies on trade and entitlement reform.

AFP also doesn’t plan to back Ayotte in her competitive re-election bid against Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, according to Buzzfeed. AFP put up television ads last summer opposing Hassan’s budget veto, but the group has voiced displeasure with Ayotte’s support for the Export-Import Bank and a federal plan to cut carbon emissions.

Guthrie wonders why AFP is targeting him this year, but he is hopeful the ads could have a positive effect in his 3,200-person district.

“It is not a lie, they spelled my name right and it’s not a bad picture,” said Guthrie, who supports unions. “I think they have wasted their money.”

Guthrie isn’t wasting the ad; he filed it away in his scrapbook. “It’s where I put everything worth saving,” he said. “I have got 12 grandchildren and 13 great-grandkids – they might get a kick out of it.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)




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