Koch Group Turns Off TV as It Pushes Personal Campaign Approach

  • Libertarian-leaning network prefers door-knocking to TV ads
  • Political arm has been endorsing in Republican House primaries

The Denver suburbanite had little time for politics when she opened her door to Jesse Mallory, the head of the Colorado division of the political arm of a libertarian political network founded by the billionaire Koch brothers.

Yet the undecided voter used the opportunity to ask Mallory about meddling from Democratic outside groups in a GOP primary for a competitive House race, where the Americans for Prosperity super political action committee was boosting state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer’s (R) bid for the nomination.

That visit was part of the effort by the Koch group to target voters one-on-one rather than relying on more expensive TV ad blitzes to shape the Republican conference in Congress next year.

“Everything you do should complement a ground game, because this is where you can actually talk to people and hear about what’s on their mind,” Mallory said as he hiked between single-family homes in Westminster, Colo. late last month.

Photo by Zach C. Cohen
Americans for Prosperity Action Colorado Director Jesse Mallory, right, speaks with canvassers in Westminster, Colo. on June 27.

At a time when the airwaves are saturated with political ads, the well-heeled conservative group says it’s found a more effective way to reach key voters. Leaders of the group say they re-emphasized paid canvassing, digital ads, and direct mail because human contact is the best way to deliver a political message in a environment crowded with competing and confusing messages. The congressional primaries and the November general election, when control of both chambers is up for grabs, will test the effectiveness of that approach.

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“Distrust in political parties and the media is growing faster than ever before,” said Emily Seidel, chief executive of Americans for Prosperity and senior advisor to AFP Action. “But Americans still listen to their neighbors and people in their communities – especially when we engage on an issue they care about.”

There’s no substitute for a one-on-one connection, Seidel said in an emailed statement.

AFP and its super political action committee, AFP Action, have spent almost $130 million to influence federal elections over the last decade, disclosures to the Federal Election Commission show. Until recently, that included tens of millions spent on TV ads.

In the current election cycle through early July, the group has reported no expenditures on TV ads. The group has doled out more than $8 million for House and Senate races, independent expenditure reports filed with the FEC show. It still had more than $14 million in cash left to spend at the beginning of June, according to its latest FEC disclosure.

Its biggest donor — giving a total of $6.5 million so far this cycle — is Koch Industries, the company headed by billionaire Charles Koch, who along with his late brother David, founded AFP.

(Photo by Patrick T. Fallon for The Washington Post via Getty Ima
Charles Koch, who with his late brother, David, founded Americans for Prosperity

AFP’s outreach relies on i360, a company wholly owned by Koch Industries Inc. that’s experimented for years in honing messages that move voters. Michael Palmer, i360’s president, said the highest return on investment comes “from direct contact with voters through grassroots and layered individualized marketing efforts.”

Canvassers use i360 data to strategize about which houses to reach, even when it means visiting more than once. They’re able to identify voters to target — for instance, Republican and unaffiliated voters likely to participate in the GOP primary but who haven’t submitted their ballots — and get step-by-step directions through a neighborhood. If they reach a voter on their doorstep, the canvasser’s script pops up with messages based on issues that voter cared about.

AFP’s strategy contrasts with other groups and candidates that have doubled down on TV ad buys, the Wesleyan Media Project reported last month. TV advertising in the 2022 midterms is again shattering records, the research project launched in 2010 at Wesleyan University in Connecticut found.

“The bulk of the evidence does show that TV ads are still persuasive,” said Travis Ridout, a professor of government at Washington State University who’s a leader of the Wesleyan Media Project. There’s plenty of ad inventory, especially on local broadcast television, and the TV demographics are good for finding persuadable voters, Ridout said.

“The old people watching TV are the most likely to vote,” Ridout said, “and that’s especially true for those watching local news: people interested in politics and highly likely to vote.”

Endorsing Candidates

AFP Action has endorsed five Senate candidates and almost two dozen House candidates nationwide — all Republicans, according to a list provided by AFP spokesman Bill Riggs.

The group has been critical of Donald Trump and is supporting candidates in GOP primaries that the former president has sought to defeat. It’s favoring Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection and now faces a primary opponent the former president is backing in the Aug. 2 primary. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) defeated a Trump-endorsed challenger in the June 14 primary with AFP’s support. It is also helping Nick Begich (R) in the Aug. 16 primary against former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s (R) Trump-backed bid to replace the late Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska).

AFP’s super PAC has been working since November to help elect state Attorney General Eric Schmitt in Missouri’s crowded Republican Senate primary. The group said Schmitt has been a key ally on cutting taxes and regulation and allowing state funding of private schools.

AFP Action’s endorsement of Colorado’s Kirkmeyer, who won the Republican nomination last month for the state’s new competitive House district, was its first ever in a congressional primary in that state. To persuade undecided voters, the super PAC knocked on 42,000 doors, made 72,000 calls, sent 342,000 total mailers, and ran roughly $15,000 in digital ads.

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Mallory said getting involved in a primary gives the group greater insight into a candidate’s world view at the outset and opportunities to press their case after beneficiaries of their support get elected to office.

“This actually gives us a unique opportunity to not just add another line member to the Colorado delegation, but really start to reshape what Congress looks like,” Mallory said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Zach C. Cohen in Denver at zcohen@bloombergindustry.com; Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com