Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the Koch brothers-backed political organization that has spent tens of millions of dollars supporting Republican candidates in the last several election cycles, says it is open to supporting candidates of any political party, according to an internal memo from AFP CEO Emily Seidel obtained by CNBC.
Since its founding in 2004, AFP has been known as one of the most influential conservative organizations in the U.S. During the 2018 midterm cycle, the group — and its super PAC, AFP Action — spent a combined $15.3 million on independent expenditures aiding Republican candidates. AFP also engages in other forms of advocacy, including significant local organizing and issue ads, which do not have to be disclosed to the FEC.
Over the last two decades, the Koch network’s major groups — AFP and Freedom Partners — have cumulatively spent about $120 million in independent expenditures supporting Republican candidates or opposing Democratic candidates, according to OpenSecrets data. They have not spent a single dollar supporting Democratic candidates during that time.
AFP founder David Koch and his brother Charles have given millions of dollars from their personal fortunes to Republican candidates and causes over the last few decades. In recent years, however, the Koch brothers have come into conflict with President Donald Trump on issues including trade and immigration, and they reportedly told other major conservative donors this winter that they will not back the incumbent president in 2020.
The latest memo nonetheless reflects a surprising shift in the Koch network’s priorities. However, AFP’s stated support for politicians of any party appears to be limited to incumbent candidates facing primary challengers.
“AFP or AFP Action will be ready to engage contested U.S. Senate, U.S. House, and state-level primary races, including Republican, Democrat, Independent or otherwise, to support sitting legislators who lead by uniting with others to pass principled policy and get good things done,” the memo says.
AFP has usually concentrated its spending on general elections, but spending during the primaries could allow the group to extend its influence into districts where one party dominates.
Some progressive candidates excelled in safe Democratic districts in 2018, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) knocking off the more moderate incumbent Joe Crowley in a district that skews D+29, according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), whose stance on abortion separates him from most Democrats, narrowly fended off a primary challenge in a D+6 district in 2018 and will face one again in 2020.
This isn’t the first time the Koch network has signaled that it is open to backing Democrats. Seidel and Charles Koch told donors last July they would support Democrats who reflected their policy model, but AFP did not explicitly support any Democrats during the 2018 midterms. The group actively campaigned against several moderate Democrats including former Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), both of whom lost their races. The organization did briefly run digital ads thanking former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) for voting in favor of a financial deregulation bill. AFP did not campaign for Heitkamp’s Republican challenger, but she lost anyway.
Although AFP has never backed a Democratic candidate, the Koch Industries PAC made donations to a handful of conservative Democratic incumbents during the 2018 midterm cycle, including Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Collin Peterson (D-Minn.).
This week’s announcement, however, may suggest a tangible shift in strategy for AFP. In addition to renewed openness, the group announced it will launch four issue-specific PACs focused on economic opportunity, free speech, free trade and immigration reform. AFP has previously fought for Right to Work laws and been involved with issues of free speech on college campuses. It has also opposed tariffs, advocated for embracing immigration as a way to supplement an aging labor force and supported criminal justice reform with the goal of reducing mass incarceration.
Charles Koch announced in May that a number of Koch-led organizations will undergo restructuring. Freedom Partners will cease to exist, while other groups including the Latino-focused Libre Initiative will move under AFP.
Seidel’s memo said AFP will begin to announce the candidates it will support in the coming weeks.