PARAGOULD, Ark. — Arkansas is not a battleground in the presidential race, being solidly in Mitt Romney’s camp. It doesn’t have a U.S. Senate contest or gubernatorial election this year. Even its four House races are not considered competitive.
But Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a conservative group backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, has pledged to spend nearly $1 million here.
The prize lies farther down the ballot: Both houses of the Arkansas legislature are in play this November, with every seat up for reelection for the first time in a decade.
Republicans need to flip just a handful of those spots to turn the chambers red for the first time since the end of the Civil War. If they succeed, it will be another death knell for Southern Democrats and perhaps the beginning of a new Solid South — of the 11 states that made up the Confederacy, only Arkansas still has a Democratic chamber.
Using a bus tour across the state, AFP is making its case for smaller government. It is fighting tax increases and curbs on development and is leading the charge against the creation of a state health insurance exchange, a key part of President Obama’s health-care law.
“These policies start in Washington, D.C., but they come to us in the state of Arkansas,” the group’s state director, Teresa Oelke, told a crowd of about 30 gathered recently in Paragould. “That’s where they’re implemented and that’s how they move forward.”
Drawn by robo-calls and a promise of free barbecue, the crowd stood outside a gas station and a motorcycle-themed restaurant, next to a big green bus with two-foot-high lettering: “Obama’s Failing Agenda Tour.”
The presence of Americans for Prosperity in Arkansas this election season illustrates the ambitions of independent interest groups that are eager to leave a mark far beyond the presidential and congressional races.
Created in 2004 as a counterweight to unions’ grass-roots organizing, AFP is known for its hard-hitting TV ads attacking Obama and stirring tea party opposition to his policies. But it also is fully engaged in more local issues and races in 35 states, with a $100 million budget that is three times the 2010 figure.
In Virginia, the group fought the expansion of Metrorail service into Loudoun County. In Detroit, it is opposing construction of a new bridge to Canada, saying it is a poor use of taxpayer money.
AFP bolstered conservatives in Kansas when it helped defeat eight moderate Republican state senators this year. And it countered labor with door-to-door campaigning in Wisconsin to help Gov. Scott Walker (R) survive a recall attempt, at the same time advocating for a large new iron mine.
In Arkansas, Oelke and others are focusing their efforts against about a dozen Democratic state legislators who supported a proposed ballot measure to raise the tax on diesel fuel.
Among them is Robert Thompson, who represents Paragould in the state Senate and says the tax was never even put before voters. Such opposition is a new experience for Thompson, who ran unopposed in his last race here in northeastern Arkansas and faced only a primary opponent four years earlier.
“You didn’t have outside money coming in,” Thompson said, noting that a little money goes a long way in a state legislative race. “If any outside group comes in and spends $10,000, that’s a big chunk of what the candidates are going to spend.”
Arkansas Republicans need to win three seats in the Senate and five in the House to win both chambers. With such a tight balance of power, the new money coming in has created a spending arms race with the state Democratic Party and the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, whose officials said they hope to spend more than $500,000 in the state.
Here and nationwide, AFP recruits volunteers to work phone banks and canvass neighborhoods. That differs from many of the largest conservative political groups, which spend their budgets almost exclusively on mass media.
Detractors charge that AFP, far from grass-roots, is a well-funded “AstroTurf” organization shilling for its corporate patrons and rich donors. But it is impossible to determine that, because the group does not have to publicize its finances or donors. Oelke and other officials counter that the money spent here is raised in the state, and they point to grass-roots supporters, which Oelke numbers at 63,000 in Arkansas.
In Paragould, the anti-Obama tour was not crowded with volunteers, just five paid staff members, including the driver. When the bus stopped in Jonesboro, more than 100 people came out.
The group has made an impact on the state legislature: In the May primaries, two GOP senators lost their seats to conservatives after AFP helped mobilize opposition to moderate Republicans.