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Koch Brothers' Advocacy Group Pours Millions Into GOP Races

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Whether they win or lose the White House, Republicans really want to keep control of the Senate. That is the focus for many conservative donors, including some who have not embraced Donald Trump. Tim Phillips is here. He is the president of Americans for Prosperity. That's a conservative advocacy group founded and funded in part by the Koch brothers.

Welcome to the program, sir.

TIM PHILLIPS: Good morning. Good to be here.

INSKEEP: Glad you're in our studios for the first time. What are your prospects, or Republican prospects, let us say, for holding the Senate?

PHILLIPS: It's a challenging map this year. Twenty-four states are up that are Republican held, seven in states that Barack Obama carried twice. So it is a tough map, but it's doable. There's a path to do it.

INSKEEP: I'm looking at some of the states where I know your group is involved - Pennsylvania, Indiana, Wisconsin, Nevada, Ohio, Florida - a lot of close states there. But those are states you could imagine Hillary Clinton winning five of those.

PHILLIPS: Absolutely. It's just a tough ballot. Luck of the draw is tough this year. But the good news for Republicans - they have some good incumbents. Pat Toomey has been able to build a profile on Pennsylvania, a very tough, competitive state. So they have a chance to do it. Marco Rubio deciding to run for re-election - that was enormous boon...

INSKEEP: In Florida.

PHILLIPS: ...For Republicans. They were most likely going to lose that seat if it were an open seat. But Marco Rubio - I was just in Orlando last week. He's well thought of and can do it.

INSKEEP: You mentioned Pennsylvania. There's a state where, at the moment, Hillary Clinton is several...

PHILLIPS: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...Points ahead. And the race has been shifting lately, but she's been several points ahead. What is the effect on a Senate race, a Republican running for re-election, if the Republican candidate for president ends up losing by more than a couple points?

PHILLIPS: It can be significant. Barack Obama carried Pennsylvania by about 4.5 percentage points, over 400,000 votes, in 2012. If Hillary Clinton were to win by that margin, it's a challenge for a Senate candidate down-ballot to make those votes up. Ticket-splitting used to be, when I was young man - many years ago, by the way - ticket-splitting was a normal thing. It happened all the time, up and down the ballot...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

PHILLIPS: ...On federal and state offices, not so much anymore. We'll see if it comes back this year with two nominees who are pretty unpopular this year, according to the polling data.

INSKEEP: You're saying we are more rigidly partisan than we collectively used to be.

PHILLIPS: In the last 12 to 14 years, that has occurred, for sure. There's a lot of interest from both political folks and academic folks to see if a year when both nominees are upwards of 60 percent or higher disapproval, or unfavorable ratings, from the American people, will it come back almost as a check? You know, voters saying, I don't feel good about either of these candidates. I'm not sure if I trust them or like them. I'm going to vote, maybe, for the lesser of two evils perhaps. But I'm going to hedge with a Senate race or a House race down-ballot from a different party.

INSKEEP: OK. John McCain has explicitly done this. He's put out a video where he says - uses the phrase, I think, no blank check. Don't - but the meaning anyway is don't give a blank check to a President Hillary Clinton if there is one. I, Republican John McCain, can help you. Are you encouraging your Senate candidates, or are you, in your advertising, using that kind of messaging?

PHILLIPS: We're not. We're focusing on the philosophical differences on the issues that matter to us. So in Pennsylvania with Pat Toomey, we're focusing on Ms. McGinty's record on energy, where it's been cronyism and higher costs for energy. So it's issues for us. We're not making that. But there is precedent. You may remember 1996 when Bob Dole was struggling...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

PHILLIPS: ...Against Bill Clinton in the re-elect for Clinton that year. The RNC and Republicans explicitly made that point as well. So there is precedent for what McCain and others are doing.

INSKEEP: Because you're an independent group, let me play you a bit of tape. This is Ian Vandewalker. He works on campaign finance reform at New York University. And he's thinking about groups like yours.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IAN VANDEWALKER: One of the things that Citizens United assumes is that independent spending would create this open marketplace of ideas and bring new voices to the public. But what we're really seeing is the consolidation of the outside spending in a few groups, especially groups closely tied to party leadership.

INSKEEP: Is that happening among groups that spend independently, there are fewer and fewer groups that are more and more powerful?

PHILLIPS: No. There are more than ever before. There's more free speech than ever before. And we think free speech in the political arena - and, really, in every arena, is a good thing. I think we need more speech, not less. And it's concerning to us when groups are out there pushing for less free speech.

So no, I think there are more groups on the left and the right. You don't hear us decrying George Soros or others. We think every American has a right and a responsibility to be out there.

INSKEEP: How much are you spending on free speech this year?

PHILLIPS: We're going to be spending a couple hundred - almost a couple hundred million dollars as a network - within our broader network.

INSKEEP: Tim Phillips, thanks very much for coming by. He's with Americans for Prosperity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.