The Grassroots Machine That Trump Wishes He’d Had
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because in this election of a century, certain conservatives are pushing for more than a president.
Tucked in an unmarked office between the local Kroger and the Wintersville water tower, more than a dozen volunteers are champing at the bit. During weekday work hours, some of these residents of an Appalachian area in southeastern Ohio frenetically work a phone bank. There are former steelworkers in a town that no longer has a steel factory, and millennials who are disenchanted by an unattractive job market. In many ways, this scene seems like a postcard for Trumpism. Only these activists from the sprawling Americans for Prosperity network are spending the final hours of a whirlwind election championing conservative causes — while very purposefully not mentioning the flaxen-haired elephant in the room.
Across 35 states, the partially Koch-funded nonprofit and its affiliated issues-based advocacy organization has promoted free-market economic philosophies and candidates in key swing states this election, reporting that its members have knocked on over one million doors in Florida and contacted more than two million voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania. This is the closest thing to the Barack Obama–inspired operations that Democrats often boast about, and groups like Americans for Prosperity partly explain why GOP Senators and down-ballot Republicans are consistently outperforming their presidential nominee in the polls. Should Donald Trump lose on Tuesday, perhaps nothing will be more scrutinized than his lack of a traditional organizing effort — because despite having the Excalibur of conservative canvassing at his fingertips, he never became the heir worthy of pulling it from the stone.
The Ohio branch reported a 17 percent increase in volunteers, up to 264 statewide, and it’s adding paid gigs — not losing them — after Election Day.
Rumbling through Americans for Prosperity’s Wintersville office with a Notre Dame tracksuit and polished wooden cane, Joe “Sluggs” Smarrella has a familiar tale. He worked at the steel mill for decades and is a Democratic union member who boasts an independent streak, having campaigned for Dems and GOPers alike in recent years. Election cycles come and go, but AFP, founded in 2004, tackles local issues year-round, allowing it to groom committed free-market lovers like Sluggs. “I’ve been involved in a lot of organizations, but this one is my last — I hope,” he says. The Ohio branch reported a 17 percent increase in volunteers, up to 264 statewide, and it’s adding paid gigs — not losing them — after Election Day. Says Ron Ferguson, AFP’s Steubenville senior field director: “They’re not going to leave us because we’re not going to leave them — and that’s why, where most organizations lose people to presidential campaigns, they’re sticking with us.”
Not everyone is so enamored. Other endeavors with Koch brother influence — including the Hispanic-focused Libre Initiative, millennial-driven Generation Opportunity and Concerned Veterans for America — have plans to merge under AFP’s leadership in January. It will expand AFP’s influence even more, although watchdog groups say these tax-exempt organizations advance political agendas while not having to publicly disclose their bankrollers. Other nations, including the United Kingdom and Canada, have much tighter reporting requirements, says Anthony Gaughan, a professor at Drake University with expertise in campaign-finance laws. “The bottom line is that our system is much less regulated,” he adds.
Donor disclosure aside, not all conservatives are convinced AFP is truly grassroots-directed. “The top-down command-and-control approach has limited their effectiveness, and it’s ironic to me when these free-market capitalist organizations claim conservative values but don’t put those values into practice,” says American Majority PAC founder Ned Ryun. (Full disclosure: Ryun’s data-gathering technology, Voter Gravity, is a competitor to the tech used by AFP.) Ignoring Trump this cycle exemplifies that approach, Ryun continues, and will have consequences should the billionaire lose. “There are a few people who are going to have really hard questions for the Kochs and vote with their dollar not to be part of that work in the future.”
Sporting a camo hat and burly beard, AFP’s Ohio state director Micah Derry is the type of conservative intellectualist this populist election has often dismissed. The 29-year-old says his team’s vision is to be state-based first and to explain the benefits of economic freedom, not endorse candidates — although it does work against those who don’t support those principles. And when asked if AFP should shoulder some blame if Trump does lose, Derry argues that backing the billionaire — whose résumé of economic conservatism is dicey — would compromise AFP’s principled reputation when tackling local issues. An AFP spokesperson wouldn’t comment on Trump but did say that, in 2012, “we moved the needle” for Mitt Romney.
Indeed, while AFP organizers insist their effort could help either would-be president, it’s clear rallying free-market conservatives could boost Trump even without mentioning his name. In St. Clairsville, Ohio, as in many cities across the nation, AFP’s efforts are in full swing. Austin Warehime, an Ohio University Eastern senior, carries an iPad bearing the i360 canvassing program. With a database of over 250 million voting-age adults, i360 tells Warehime each person’s name in “House #30” and whether or not they’ve voted. Among other things, it ranks residents on a scale from 1 to 10 on their openness to free-market principles. Earlier in the year, the organization reached out to anyone ranked between 3 and 6 (true moderates, Derry says). But over the final two weeks of this race, its members have been focused on get-out-the-vote efforts — which means targeting folks ranked at least a 7.
Warehime knocks on a door and asks the owner, Thomas, if he’s aware of Democratic Senate candidate Ted Strickland’s “pay-to-play” past. “He’s a Democrat?” says Thomas, who declines to give his last name. “Then I’m not supporting him.” That’s enough for Warehime, who wraps up by reminding Thomas to get out and vote. But the wooed voter isn’t done yet: “What have you guys noticed about Trump and Clinton?” Warehime demurs. Thomas doesn’t. “It’s like having two Dumpster fires and then deciding which one is hotter to jump into. But I’ve got to vote for Trump — if I don’t, it’s a vote for Hillary.”