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Who is "Americans for Prosperity"?

By Felicia Sonmez

The news today that Americans for Prosperity (AFP) is launching $500,000 worth of new TV ads in Arizona targeting Democratic Reps. Ann Kilpatrick, Harry Mitchell and Gabrielle Giffords is the latest indication that conservative group will be a major player in the November midterm elections.

The new AFP ads come a week after the group's sister organization, Americans for Prosperity Foundation, announced plans to launch a $4.1 million ad campaign targeting 24 competitive House seats in 11 states -- a buy that may well be the biggest of the summer.

Americans for Prosperity's increasing involvement in races this cycle has caught the attention of the New Yorker, which earlier this week published a lengthy investigative piece on the organization's co-founder, billionaire David Koch, and his brother, Charles Koch.

The group has also drawn the fire -- and ire -- of national Democrats, including President Obama, who mentioned it by name in a speech at an Austin fundraiser earlier this month.

"Right now all around this country there are groups with harmless-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity, who are running millions of dollars of ads against Democratic candidates all across the country," Obama said. "And they don't have to say who exactly the Americans for Prosperity are. You don't know if it's a foreign-controlled corporation. You don't know if it's a big oil company, or a big bank."

So who, exactly, is Americans for Prosperity?

Americans for Prosperity, a 501(c)4, is actually one of two groups co-founded by Koch. The other, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, is a 501(c)3.

Both organizations qualify as not-for-profit organizations under Internal Revenue Service code. A 501(c)(4) is allowed to do considerably more issue advocacy work than a 501(C)(3), however. Neither group has to disclose the identity of its donors or the amounts of money those contributors have given.

Koch, the owner of the Koch Industries oil and manufacturing conglomerate, currently serves as the chairman of Americans for Prosperity Foundation's board and is believed to be one of the group's top donors.

Both arms of the group were formed in 2004 after they split off from a separate group, Citizens for a Sound Economy, which was founded by Koch in 1984. (The 2004 split also led to the founding of FreedomWorks, now chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey.)

The president of Americans for Prosperity is Tim Phillips, a strategist who once served as chief of staff to Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and co-founded the Century Strategies consulting firm with Republican activist Ralph Reed. AFP's previous president, Nancy Pfotenhauer, left to become an adviser to Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) presidential bid. (Pfotenhauer had previously worked as a lobbyist for Koch Industries.)

Over the past several years, the organization has become a powerhouse among conservative advocacy groups, running television ad campaigns and bus tours pushing for earmark reform and opposing net neutrality legislation while taking on cap-and-trade and the national health care overhaul.

(For a full list of whose spending what in the 2010 elections, check out the Post's brand spanking new chart detailing weekly expenditures.)

Two years ago, the group had 22 state chapters and affiliates; now, that number has grown to 31, according to AFP spokesperson Mary Ellen Burke, who added that the group has more than 70,000 individual donors.

"Some give $5; others give $500," Burke said, adding that corporate donors account for less than 10 percent of the group's total donations.

Phil Kerpen, Americans for Prosperity's vice president for policy, has estimated that the group will spend $45 million this year.

The group's inaugural "Defending the American Dream" summit in 2007 was a must-attend campaign trail stop for Republican presidential hopefuls, and its annual summits since then have been frequented by national Republican figures from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.).

(The group's 2010 summit will take place in Washington this weekend; organizers say more than 2,000 people have already registered for the event.)

The group's interest -- and influence -- has grown in recent cycles.

In the summer of 2006, the organization spent $1 million on ads in Michigan, West Virginia and Rhode Island urging Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) and Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) to support earmark reform. The group also launched a national bus tour that year to protest earmarks, targeting Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.V.) among others.

In 2008, AFP stepped up its activities. Its "Hot Air Tour" involved floating hot air balloons in a number of states -- including one near former Vice President Al Gore's house -- in protest of what it described as "global warming alarmism."

But it's only been over the past two years that Americans for Prosperity has really flexed its muscle. In 2009, the group was involved in organizing protesters at many of the health care town halls across the nation, and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation ran a $1.7 million TV ad campaign alleging that the national health care overhaul would result in a Canadian-like system.

In the following months, AFP funded ads against a rail project in Florida as well as a multi-million dollar campaign pushing lawmakers to oppose the EPA's finding on greenhouse gas emissions. It also ran ads in the Pennsylvania special election earlier this year hitting Rep. Mark Critz (D-Pa.) for his position on energy, has hammered Reps. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) and Tom Perriello (D-Va.) for their votes on health care; AFP recently went up with a $330,000 ad buy against Rep. Betsy Markey (D-Colo.).

Democrats have hammered the group -- as well as similar organizations including American Crossroads and the American Action Network -- for refusing to disclose their donors.

(Democrats, of course, have their own outside groups that also refuse to reveal their donor lists.)

The group's latest buys are rightly taken as an indication that it intends -- and is well-positioned -- to be a major player this cycle and beyond.

By Felicia Sonmez  | August 26, 2010; 12:21 PM ET
Categories:  Governors, House, Senate  
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