Koch group launches ground war — against GOP lawmaker

Koch group launches ground war — against GOP lawmaker
© Getty Images

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity is pulling out all the stops to end Rep. Renee Ellmers’ career in Washington.

ADVERTISEMENT
The group founded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch has dozens of field workers descending on the lawmaker’s district in the Raleigh suburbs, all of whom are working to brand the three-time incumbent as a fake conservative who has too often voted for legislation reaffirming Washington’s crony capitalism.

“This is someone who claimed to be a conservative leader,” said AFP's president, Tim Phillips, explaining the decision to single out Ellmers among so many other House Republicans who have voted for the same bills.

“And when you looked at her record on government spending and cronyism ... it's just not true.”

This is the first time the Koch network has ever opposed a sitting Republican lawmaker facing a primary fight. 

The final straw was Ellmers's support for the Export-Import Bank, the ultimate example of crony capitalism in many conservatives' eyes, because it provides government-backed loans to large corporations.

If successful, the AFP campaign against Ellmers will become a cautionary tale for other congressional Republicans who don’t vote in line with the Koch network's agenda. 

Ellmers is frustrated about the Koch campaign, and her chief of staff, Al Lytton, defended his boss's voting record in emails to The Hill on Thursday.

Lytton said Ellmers's vote for the 2013 budget deal, which won criticism from the right, was crucial to fund the military. Her vote for the Export-Import Bank saved thousands of jobs in her district, Lytton said. He also defended subsidizing green energy as supporting an “all of the above” energy policy.

“Perhaps AFP regrets Rep. Ellmers winning because she isn’t beholden to them — or any other Washington special interest groups like AFP,” Lytton said.

“Rep. Ellmers has and will always vote in the best interest of her district — she will not vote to please Washington or to pacify the Washington special interest groups."

AFP is launching a six-figure digital ad and direct mail campaign against Ellmers. But the real damage may be from the group’s ground game.

On Wednesday, The Hill spent a day with AFP as its North Carolina grassroots army visited the homes of likely Republican primary voters in Ellmers' newly redrawn second district ahead of the June 7 primary. 

More than 2,000 doors were knocked on that day, according to state director Donald Bryson. 

A vanload of conservative women in their 50s and 60s drove around the Raleigh suburbs, alighting at homes targeted by the Kochs’ voter targeting application. They were supported by younger staff, but they too are trained and permanently employed by AFP. 

The grassroots army has another advantage: Its members know the neighborhoods and, in some cases, have already spoken to the people they're canvassing. 

AFP is stationed full time in North Carolina — and 34 other states — year-round. This permanent presence makes the Koch army particularly dangerous for their political opponents during elections. AFP has a microscopic knowledge of congressional districts that only an annual budget of some $100 million can buy.

By election day, AFP will have made direct contact with nearly every Republican in Ellmers's district expected to vote in the primary against Rep. George Holding (R-N.C.) and two-time Senate candidate Greg Brannon.

It's hard to judge how much trouble Ellmers is in on June 7, and no good polling has been released for the 2nd district primary.

The Hill witnessed more than a dozen AFP doorstep conversations on Wednesday, and only one likely Republican primary voter said they would vote for Ellmers.

Most expressed a negative view of the incumbent congresswoman, which may be a result of compounded efforts by AFP and other conservative groups like the Club for Growth to brand Ellmers as a Washington crony.

Phillips, who is one of the most influential operatives in conservative politics and a top lieutenant of the Kochs, has no illusions about how difficult it will be to unseat Ellmers.

“North Carolina is one of our core states,” Phillips told The Hill on Wednesday. “We have a cold, clear-eyed view of how difficult it is to defeat an incumbent. It almost never happens. ... But we just thought it was important to take the stand here.”