Eric Bott (right) Wisconsin State Director of Americans for Prosperity, with AFP Wisconsin Field Director Jim Joyce, and other supporters at the grand opening on the AFP Weston field office on June 15.
The political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity used to be known for hosting raucous rallies in public spaces to decry the loss of economic freedom, born out of frustration with the economic meltdown and large bank bailouts that followed.
Now the group is hitting the phones and knocking on doors to spread their message, says state director Eric Bott, who was present at the June 15 opening of the organization's new regional office in Weston. Located on Schofield Avenue a few blocks past Target, the group has grown from a Tea Party startup into a well-organized group focused on influencing policy, favoring limited government, reduced spending and smarter approaches to education. The group is also committed to promoting free speech, Bott says.
The Weston AFP office is run by Jim Joyce, the full-time field director, and three part-time staff. Joyce previously worked as an insurance agent in the area, and for Kulp’s of Stratford, the roofing and energy company founded by Bob Kulp, who was elected to the State Assembly as a Republican in 2013. Joyce also served as treasurer for Kulp’s campaign that year.
While AFP does keep a scorecard for state politicians, it doesn’t do the same for local politicians and doesn’t endorse particular candidates. The group's leaders will meet with all politicians, local and statewide, to promote their ideology, Bott says. “If there’s someone in Madison we disagree with, we will inform constituents of their policy position,” Bott says. “If there’s someone we agree with, we will tell their constituents about that. We’re big on accountability.”
A check with Follow the Money, a nonpartisan archive of contributions to political campaigns, shows the national group has donated more than $1 million to Republican candidates nationwide, and less than $500 to Democratic candidates.
The Wisconsin AFP group hasn't so far been particularly active. According to the database, since 2005 it has funded just a handful of Wisconsin candidates, including Samantha Bady, who lost in the Democratic primary in 2008 in Wisconsin Assembly District No. 17 to Barbara Toles. Critics considered Bady a “fake” Democrat because she received funding from traditionally Republican donors while proclaiming a largely conservative ideology.
Aside from Bady, the AFP and people associated with the group have donated small amounts to the Republican Party of Wisconsin and to Gov. Scott Walker's 2014 campaign, the database shows. That could change if the grassroots organization continues to spread its message throughout the state.
The political action group was initially funded by the Koch Brothers, Charles and David, as a means to promote their particular policies. The brothers typically endorse or influence Republican or Tea Party candidates who align with their economic viewpoint, which line up closer to the Libertarian party, particularly with their views on certain social issues such as criminal justice reform.
Today the AFP is funded by more than 90,000 individual donors nationwide, including thousands in Wisconsin, Bott says. In Wisconsin, the political advocacy group has more than 130,000 volunteers and has opened offices all over the state, of which Weston’s is the latest. The Weston office is the seventh field office in Wisconsin; an eighth just opened in Eau Claire.
About half of those volunteers are people who’ve never been involved in politics, even locally, Bott says. Directors recruit heavily for volunteers for local offices, and in doing so have grown the national volunteer base to 2.8 million, Bott says.
Each field office serves as a hub for volunteer efforts, hosting town halls on a monthly basis, featuring expert speakers, and using it as an organizational hub meant to better influence policy makers. When a major initiative comes up in the area, Bott says, volunteers will knock on doors, talk to neighbors and make phone calls.
While much of the group’s focus is on state policies, it won’t be uncommon to see the group speak out on local issues too, such as at the city council or county board level. With so many versions of local government, the group will be selective of which issues it takes up, Bott says.