Billionaire Koch brothers network lays siege to Florida to push policy initiatives as midterms loom

Key Points
  • Billionaire industrialists Charles Koch and David Koch have been financing a political network that is focusing on the battleground state of Florida.
  • CNBC gets a look into the Orlando operation of Americans for Prosperity.
  • While the group says it is nonpartisan, its efforts reveal the potential policy hurdles for Democratic lawmakers, including those running for re-election in Florida in the 2018 congressional midterm elections.
Charles and David Koch
Miller Hawkins | MSNBC

Billionaire industrialists Charles Koch and David Koch have been financing a political network that is swamping the battleground state of Florida. And while the group says it is nonpartisan, its efforts reveal potential policy hurdles for Democratic lawmakers, including those running for re-election in Florida in the 2018 congressional midterm elections.

Americans for Prosperity runs 13 offices in the state of Florida. The group from the Orlando field office was out in full force on Saturday during their day of action in the 7th District, represented by Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat who is preparing for a primary election in August.

Brian Schwartz | CNBC

Murphy, a one-term congresswoman, is going up against fellow Democrat Chardo Richardson, an up-and-coming lawyer who's running on a more liberal platform. He has said he believes in having a universal health-care system, providing tuition-free education to anyone who meets the academic requirements and a transition away from fossil fuels.

Murphy, on the other hand, has become a moderate voice in Congress, with recent votes for a bill that increases criminal penalties for certain immigrants and a bill rolling back Dodd-Frank regulations that passed with bipartisan support.

If she gets through the primary, she will face one of three Republican challengers, including Scott Sturgill and Mike Miller. Both have embraced the conservative policies of President Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Sturgill has also been endorsed by former Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Trump associate Roger Stone.

While the state has been labeled as leaning Democrat by Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball, the district is split, with 183,000 registered Democrats, 171,000 Republicans and 150,000 independents, leaving Murphy in a potentially vulnerable position come November.

A spokesman for Murphy did not return a request for comment.

To reclaim the House majority, Democrats need to flip 24 seats. While all 435 seats are up for grabs, only 25 are in territories that Hillary Clinton won during the 2016 presidential election but where a GOP candidate won the House race. Clinton won Florida's 7th District over Trump by seven points.

On Saturday, in temperatures that at times reached 90 degrees, the AFP team gauged voters' opinions on two major policies of interest to the Koch network: tax reform and reducing government spending. Murphy did not back the conservative policies, and AFP is making sure voters know it.

On their days of action, the goal for the team is to knock on as many doors as possible and survey voters on whether they support the recently passed Republican tax reform bill. They will also ask if the federal government is spending too much.

Volunteers for Americans for Prosperity go door-to-door.
Brian Schwartz | CNBC

Chris Hudson, the AFP Florida state director, says canvassing is intended to educate people about free-market policies in the hope that if their congressional representative isn't following the network's policy initiatives the voters will pressure them either over the phone or at the ballot box.

"It's an information campaign to see what the deal is at the door, and it's about building community pressure," Hudson said in an interview. "We try to figure out who wants to stand side by side with us," he added. Hudson also noted that the hope is to have those who participate in the surveys go to the polls and vote based on policy, not their party affiliation.

Those who have been part of the effort since the Orlando operation was created in 2014 say the tax reform bill is popular among many of the voters they speak with and calls for spending cuts continue to grow.

"It's kind of interesting knowing that we have a lot of people who are starting to see the benefits of tax reform," said Durell Tootle, senior field director at the Orlando division. "We've got folks who have received bonuses and an increase in wages," he added.

Murphy, along with all her Democratic colleagues in the House, voted no on the Republican tax reform bill.

When it comes to government spending, Tootle has noticed that some believe both parties are responsible while others are placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.

"You will get people who are upset at both parties, and you will get people who aren't happy with Nelson because he's voted straight ticket on certain things," Tootle said. Nelson was one of 65 senators who voted yes on the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill in March, as did his colleague from across the aisle Sen. Marco Rubio.

Nelson is also up for re-election this year, and he's going up against former Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott. The race is neck and neck, with the Real Clear Politics poll showing Nelson with a one-point lead while Sabato's Crystal Ball calls the state's Senate race a toss-up.

Florida voters cheer tax reform and call for more spending cuts

For Murphy, her constituents' responses to the questions from Orlando's Americans for Prosperity could be of concern as she works to get re-elected.

A registered independent voter named Noel, who declined to give his last name, cheered on the tax reform bill and said that government spending has gone too far.

"Why wouldn't you want more money in your paycheck," Noel responded after being asked his take on tax reform. "Wasteful spending has gone too far in Washington on both sides, and our tax dollars need to start being spent wisely."

Another voter, who declined to be named but answered AFP's questions on her front lawn, called herself a Democrat but said she commonly votes for Republicans. She too said she appreciated the new tax law and also said her two senators, Rubio and Nelson, need to work on eliminating excessive spending.

Statewide, AFP finished the weekend with more than 80 volunteers knocking on more than 8,000 doors.

AFP downgrades Florida Democratic lawmakers

Murphy has had a mixed relationship with AFP.

Recently she was targeted in the six-figure advertising campaign criticizing politicians who voted for the spending bill.

She was one of seven Democrats who became targets of the network after backing the effort, including another Florida lawmaker, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The initiative is also going after 10 Republicans who supported the bill. On the other hand, the group did thank her for her vote on the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act, which rolled back Dodd-Frank regulations mostly on community banks.

Democratic lawmakers as a whole have not fared well under the watch of Americans for Prosperity.

According to AFP's scorecard, which ranks members of Congress based on their vote for what they dub "economic freedom," Florida Democrats have a score of 11 percent compared with Republicans, who score 85 percent.

Murphy's current grade is 26 percent, while Nelson has a lifetime average of 7 percent.

Democratic blue wave not a guarantee

These efforts by the network come as policies from both sides of the political spectrum are coming under scrutiny, with Democrats trying to pull off a blue wave across both chambers of Congress.

Recent polls have been mixed on the prospect of Democrats dominating the November elections.

A Gallup poll hit a historic 12-year high on Monday when it reported that 38 percent of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the United States.

Meanwhile, Trump's popularity is also starting to make a comeback, with the latest Gallup poll showing him with an uptick to 45 percent.

Goldman Sachs released an analysis on Monday concluding that the midterms will be closer than originally expected, with the prediction market-implied odds of Republicans maintaining their majority in the House at 44 percent, up from 32 percent two months ago. Odds of the GOP holding its majority in the Senate are 75 percent, up from 64 percent.

The Real Clear Politics congressional ballot still has Democrats in the lead by seven points.

AFP members working the streets of Orlando say they will continue to hold politicians' feet to the fire regardless of who wins.

"There's always a temptation for politicians to get greedy and corrupt. That's why we are here, to hold them accountable," said Demetrius Minor, director of AFP coalitions.