The Right Leans In
Americans for Prosperity, known largely for its affiliation with the billionaire Koch brothers and for organizing Tea Party rallies, is part of this state-focused spending spree. The group has opened new local chapters or more than tripled the funding for existing chapters in key states. This increased spending has helped Americans for Prosperity recruit conservative activists and deploy them during contentious policy debates. Audit reports collected by the New York State Attorney General’s office show that Americans for Prosperity went from spending about $4.9 million on state chapter activities in 2009 to $10.6 million in 2011, the last available disclosure. Those figures do not necessarily account for the television, radio and Internet advertising purchased by the group when lobbying on state policy issues (which has reportedly reached over $4 million in places like Wisconsin), or the ubiquitous bus tours it has sponsored around the country.
A key area of growth among state-level conservative think tanks involves efforts to develop nonprofit media. Founded in 2009, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity has partnered with SPN and Americans for Prosperity to hire and train conservative reporters in nearly every state capital. In fact, many Americans for Prosperity officials now lead the center.
As Joe Strupp of Media Matters has reported, the Franklin Center’s stated mission is to take advantage of cutbacks at local papers: “Cash-strapped and under-staffed, local and regional newspapers often can’t provide the real information that voters need to make good decisions.” Strupp, who interviewed several local editors who reluctantly run the center’s syndicated content, noted that some stories covered by the group—including one claiming that a union traded free barbecue for votes in Wisconsin—turned out to be false.
The head of the Franklin Center, a former executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party, boasted that by 2011, the group had hired more than 100 journalists in forty-four states—virtually all of them placed at SPN-affiliated think tanks. In Tennessee, it hired an award-winning journalist, Clint Brewer, for over a year, while in Hawaii and other states, its affiliates ran multiple stories questioning Obama’s birth certificate.
Consultants associated with State Policy Network have also set up supposedly nonpartisan “government transparency” websites. These sites, which neglect the topic of highly paid government contractors while at times exaggerating the pay of public sector employees like teachers—have recently cropped up in almost every state. In Ohio, the Buckeye Institute, an SPN-affiliated think tank, provided the underlying data for a database on public employee pay, which came under criticism after the Associated Press reported that it was “riddled with errors and omissions.”
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This latest project in conservative infrastructure building comes at a time when power is drifting away from political parties and other long-established organizations. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has accelerated this trend, with new Super PACs and attack-ad nonprofits springing up almost as fast as donors can write checks. The upgraded state echo chambers, led by SPN think tanks, seem particularly well-suited for this environment: they are fast-paced, Internet-savvy and dedicated to eliminating their perceived opposition.
Months before Scott Walker took the oath of office as Wisconsin’s forty-fifth governor, the groundwork for his controversial “budget repair bill,” which severely curtailed public sector collective bargaining rights, had already been laid. The John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy, founded in 2009 as the second SPN think tank in the state, had—along with the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, an older state affiliate—published several studies calling for government leaders to tackle public sector employee bargaining. Specifically, they targeted teacher pay and benefits as the driver of the state’s budget ills. Unlike the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, the MacIver Institute waged its advocacy through YouTube videos and social media, including its own blog.
Brett Healy, president of the MacIver Institute, explained later that it was “critically important” that the state think tanks used “digital media” advocacy and “not the traditional research and analysis…that we’re normally accustomed to doing.”
In January 2011, as Walker began his term, conservatives opened two new reporting outfits in the state. The Franklin Center helped sponsor one called Wisconsin Reporter, while American Majority, a group that helps train conservative activists, started another called MediaTrackers.org. The MacIver Institute bloggers, joined by these new reporting organizations, moved quickly to frame the debate, interviewing protesters who had gathered in Madison to try to stop the bill. The interviewers highlighted the radicals among the group, harshly criticized child participants and sought to rebut union arguments against the budget.
Meanwhile, the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity began a “Stand With Walker” campaign in partnership with the MacIver Institute. The group aired over $342,000 worth of advertising to support the governor’s budget and also began a bus tour crisscrossing the state to drum up support. A turning point came when the MacIver Institute’s bloggers reported that a group of teachers on sick leave were being given fake doctors’ notes by volunteer physicians among the protesters. The story took off, garnering coverage by the local and national media; there was so much Internet traffic to the MacIver Institute’s website that the server crashed. “Tracie [Sharp] probably remembers the panicked phone call that she received from me trying to figure out a patch to fix the situation,” Healy recalled.
The Wisconsin groups went on to help re-elect a pro-Walker State Supreme Court judge and successfully fend off the attempt to unseat Walker himself in a recall election.