Koch network restarts door-to-door canvasing for GOP candidates despite coronavirus pandemic

Charles Koch

Patrick T. Fallon | The Washington Post | Getty Images

The activist organization backed by libertarian billionaire Charles Koch is getting back to its ground game for their preferred candidates, while the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep across parts of the country. 

Americans for Prosperity Action, a super PAC tied to the larger Koch network, is reactivating its in-person door knocking with just under 100 days until the general election after shifting to a virtual campaign earlier in the year.

AFP Action is backing a wide array of contenders, including five Republican Sens. David Perdue, R-Ga., Steve Daines, R-Mont., Cory Gardner, R-Colo, Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and John Cornyn, R-Texas. 

Four of the five Senate races have been deemed toss-ups by the Cook Political Report, and in some cases, these Republicans incumbents are down in the polls. Their five states combined have had over 768,000 reported cases of the Covid-19, with most coming from the state of Texas. There are over 4 million confirmed cases nationwide and at least 152,000 deaths. 

AFP Action plans to unleash a seven figure digital ad buy in August that will include supportive spots for all five Senate candidates, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter. Another Koch linked outside group, Concerned Veterans for America Action, will launch separate digital ads next week backing Daines and Tillis. The overall buy will be spread across various social media platforms, connected TV and streaming services, these people added. They declined to be named as the decisions have yet to be made public. 

So far in the 2020 election cycle, AFP Action has spent nearly $4 million backing the five GOP lawmakers, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. 

Tim Phillips, American for Prosperity’s president, told CNBC in an interview that starting in late May he traveled to some of these states to see if the team could return to conducting in-person engagement with voters. Since then, he says, they’ve been “doubling down our on the ground effort” with a focus on swing state voters. 

Phillips says his teams have been following all of the state guidelines. When they go knock on doors, the volunteers practice social distancing, he says. In some states, though highly encouraged, people are not required by the state to wear a mask while walking outside and, Phillips noted, they do not always wear masks when they are speaking with voters outside their homes. They do encourage volunteers to wear masks while they are traveling together in a car. 

When they are in their offices, the activists follow the strict state guidelines for the number of people allowed simultaneously in a workspace and urge their representatives to wear masks while confined to that area. Phillips pointed to field offices in North Carolina as an example, where they are only allowing ten people indoors at a time. They often shift groups of 10 people through each office at different times in order to follow state rules. 

Once they determined voters were willing to engage with them again, AFP went back to work in late June and has since started framing the election on who is best to help bring back a sense of normalcy in the wake of the pandemic.

“More than any single issue, these swing voters are raising one question. And that question is: how do I get back to my normal life for me and the people I love?” Phillips said. Their job, he says, is to explain how their Senate candidates could help them get back to what they once had. 

The renewed efforts have led to AFP Action connect to nearly 6 million registered voters in targeted races across the country. They’ve knocked on at least 100,000 doors in those races. 

Through his own recent door knocking experience,  Phillips says swing state voters don’t appear to be settled on one candidate over the other and he defined the race as “fluid,” particularly as people struggle to overcome health and financial struggles due to Covid-19. He also senses that more people are paying attention to politics than he’s ever seen in his over three decades of experience, which could lead to a record turnout. 

“They are profoundly impacted and so they’re paying more attention to the news and to politics than they normally do by a wide margin,” he said. 

“I do believe that the swing voters are fluid where they are headed and I do think they are withholding judgement right now,” he added.

That does not mean voters should expect AFP Action spots on broadcast television over the next few months. Phillips told CNBC that they have no plans to air TV ads this cycle and are instead solely going to be airing digital spots. 

That too is a change as the group spent just over $2 million during the 2018 congressional midterm election on TV ads. 

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