AFP: Tennessee's Conservative Warriors

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Americans for Prosperity, or AFP, has been involved in some of the biggest issues in the Tennessee legislature during the last several years. In almost every case AFP came out on the winning end of each issue in which it chose to engage. A controversial $200 million mass transit program for Nashville called the AMP: defeated. Efforts by a Republican governor to expand Obamacare in Tennessee (with virtually unlimited funding from hospital groups, Chamber organizations, and others): killed - twice.  Common Core: stopped and now facing repeal. Ticketmaster's proposed legislation intended to hamper competitors like StubHub and Ebay: stopped cold. 

While any media mention of AFP's efforts in Tennessee always seems to include the line: "funded by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers", the reality is that AFP's recent successes in Tennessee have had as much to do with a solid grassroots organization and intense, concentrated policy agenda as they do with the source of operational funding. While Koch brother-funded AFP activities are taking place throughout the country, their repeated, tangible successes in Tennessee are increasingly attracting national attention. 

Critics of AFP success in Tennessee often toss around the phrase "out of state special interests." But Andrew Ogles, the Tennessee Director of AFP, was born and raised in the state and has long been active in local legislative and congressional races in Tennessee. In fact, during the 2012 election cycle he worked with a Tennessee PAC that helped win enough legislative races to move Republicans in Tennessee into super majorities in both the State House and State Senate. 

In July, 2013 Ogles was hired as Tennessee Director for Americans for Prosperity and charged with creating a lobbying and grassroots organization from scratch. Since that time the Tennessee operation has grown to seven staffers and become a major force to be reckoned with. Of those staffers, all received or are in the process or receiving degrees from Tennessee colleges and universities. The "out of state activists" tag for AFP falls short when legislators hear the AFP team's strong Tennessee accents. 

Political activism is about engaging grassroots on issues - and winning. In the summer of 2014 AFP-Tennessee's efforts focused on issue advocacy campaigns in 26 legislative and local districts - with successful outcomes in 24. 

With a super majority of Republicans in both Houses of the Tennessee General Assembly, and a Republican governor, political battles in Tennessee are increasingly a GOP intramural affair. Passing, or defeating, Republican initiatives means dealing with Republicans fighting Republicans in most cases. Some ruffled feathers and hurt feelings are inevitable. Nevertheless, AFP's Andrew Ogles has relied on heavy doses of Southern charm to navigate the rocky shoals of political infighting with limited scratches and bruises. One conservative commentator notes: "Legislative fights and elections are a zero-sum game, somebody wins and somebody loses. AFP's aggressive, winning record has definitely left a mark on some, but that track record also makes people think twice about whether they want to be next to take them on in a fight." 

Another lobbyist points out: "After the last two legislative sessions, people are increasing looking to see where AFP stands on an issue, or whether they will get engaged in an issue, when gauging the likelihood of success. They have been involved in both big and small matters, and are winning a lot more than their fair share." 

Ogles credits AFP's successes to his team of staff, activists and to the growing conservative base in the Tennessee legislature that is showing more willingness to confront the Establishment Republicans. "Most of our victories in the policy arena have come from simply encouraging legislators to do what they already believe in rather than having to change minds." Ogles notes. "Through our grassroots effort, the momentum we have created through conservative ideas becoming conservative policy is growing and will continue to do so," Ogles adds. 

Like hot young coaches in the wake of March Madness, Ogles' name is likely to be mentioned as new political opportunities open up after the current Tennessee legislative session draws to a close in the next few weeks. With the presidential election cycle looming there is speculation Ogles may soon hit the presidential campaign trail again; perhaps wishful thinking of his opponents. Or will the "conservative billionaire Koch brothers" find a way to move Ogles higher up the echelon at AFP to replicate the Tennessee success story in other states or regions? 

Ogles admits he has been approached but is currently focused on his priorities at the Capitol.  "We are in session at the Capitol and our mission focus.  We have a great team and I am confident that the political, policy and organizational success we have had will accelerate," Ogles says. "There are still taxes to be cut, bureaucracies to be streamlined, and the overreaching hand of government to slap back, so AFP-Tennessee still has plenty to do and the organization isn't going anywhere but back to the front lines."

Steve Gill 

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