Once upon a time, the major players in Arkansas politics were from, well, Arkansas. But the vagaries of campaign-finance law have opened the floodgates for deep-pocketed individuals, groups and corporations from far and wide to have their say, and then some. So it came to be that David and Charles Koch, billionaires from Kansas, didn't need to set foot in the state to have an outsized impact on historic elections that flipped the legislature from Democratic to Republican for the first time since Reconstruction.
The Koch brothers fund Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group based in Virginia. If you're an Arkansan with a mailbox, there's a good chance you've heard from AFP — it sent out more than a million mailers in the state over the last two years pushing the conservative line on local issues and elections.
What's the Koch agenda? As virulently anti-government libertarians (David Koch was the Libertarian party's vice-presidential candidate in 1980), the Koch brothers would like to see significant reductions in individual and corporate taxes and in the social safety net. The politicians and groups they fund are generally anti-union, anti-regulation and skeptical of global warming. Here in Arkansas, they would likely have an interest in stopping environmental regulation, slashing spending and taxes and stopping Medicaid expansion (they are strongly opposed to the Affordable Care Act).
AFP is probably best known for national attacks on President Obama and his agenda, but the group made a splash in the 2012 election cycle with a focus on going small, targeting local races and issues in 35 states with a $100 million budget.
Among those states was Arkansas, a prime target as the last state in the old Confederacy with a Democratic legislature, and with every seat up for election last year because of redistricting. In addition to the mailings, AFP led a bus tour through the state (featuring the actor who played Cliff the postman on "Cheers"!), blanketed the airwaves with television advertisements, made 60,000 phone calls and knocked on 15,000 doors.
"Out-of-state interest groups saw this past election cycle as their opportunity ... to turn another legislature," Arkansas Democratic Party spokesperson Candace Martin said. "So they took that opportunity."
AFP's Arkansas chapter reportedly spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million during the election cycle, though the exact figure is impossible to know since AFP is not legally required to disclose how much it spends. AFP Arkansas state director Teresa Oelke declined repeated requests for comment on this story. In an Associated Press article last October, she said that AFP spent $900,000 in the state over the course of two years. Other conservative advocacy groups followed suit, spending unknown sums on mailings and advertisements, including the Faith and Freedom Coalition and 60 Plus (both also reportedly have gotten support from the Koch brothers).
The materials produced by these groups generated controversy for factually dubious information, including presenting procedural votes as support for taxes that legislators had in fact opposed. Many focused on candidates supposedly voting to support or oppose "Obamacare," though of course local legislators had no vote to cast on passing the federal healthcare law. Some mailers also had racial overtones, one using an image of a black doctor as the face of Obamacare.
One of the biggest buys was an AFP ad that made the surreal claim that people were leaving the state because of high taxes and government debt, which led Gov. Mike Beebe to accuse AFP of "trashing Arkansas."
"AFP deliberately sent out pieces of mail that distorted the record," Dan Roth, spokesman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said. "If you have organizations spending vast sums to distort elected officials' records, it creates a different environment."
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