Attendee at Americans For Prosperity Foundation's Defending the American Dream Summit displays sign she prepared for AFP's "Hands Off My Health Care" rally, Aug. 3, 2012.
Photo Credit: A.M. Stan
Politics is an ugly business, the saying goes, and one aspect of that ugliness are the votes a devoted activist must cast for a candidate he doesn't much like. Take candidate Mitt Romney, for instance. But if the big-money donors of the right have anything to say about, those right-wing voters will be turning out for Mitt Romney on election day.
At a conference staged by David Koch's Americans For Prosperity Foundation, Tea Party activists from around the country gathered in Washington, D.C. last weekend to hear famous right-wingers harangue President Barack Obama, and to learn what part they can play in securing the president's defeat. This year, the anti-Obama rhetoric was typically sharp, while mentions of the Republican presidential candidate were few and far between.
As Stephen Moore
, columnist and member of the Wall Street Journal
editorial board, told a roomful of activists at a breakout session: "I'm not here to promote Mitt Romney; I think he's fine -- I don't think he's the world's greatest, most charismatic candidate...But I do think that this is such a critical, critical election...And none of us want to wake up on November 5th and think that we didn't do everything that we could to make sure that the community organizer goes back to community organizing."
It was a sentiment echoed by activists from around the country. Ken Aschenbrenner, a petrochemical salesman, rode a bus up from North Carolina, which is often described as a battleground state. I noted that the conference attendees didn't seem to be enthusiastic about Romney.
"No, they're not," he said. "And I'll be honest: he was not my first choice during the primary. However, he is who we have now, and we have to stand behind him. This election is not about electing Mitt Romney; it's about getting President Obama out and saving our country -- and recapturing our country."
Aschenbrenner, who is tall and thin, with a open face, would have preferred former U.S. senator Rick Santorum or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, both of whom sought to link Obama with encouraging dependence on the federal government, for a presidential candidate. Their candidacies may be over, but their words live on. A complaint heard more than once from the podiums at the conference was the administration's efforts to educate people on their eligibility for government assistance, especially food stamps.
Radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham complained that the president and his allies were trying to get Americans to sign on to "a declaration of dependence." "Food stamps, in this mindset, are not temporary help for the truly needy," she said, "food stamps are an economic stimulus."
The point wasn't lost on the activist. "I feel that the government is holding people down, and keeping them from what they need to do to get our economy going," Aschenbrenner said. "Because when's the last time you ever got a job from a poor person?"
But what's done is done, and asked if he'll be working hard to turn out the vote for Romney, the North Carolinian replied, "Oh, absolutely."
With a lackluster candidate in Mitt Romney, the right has little on which to drive the 2012 vote other than fear, loathing and outright hatred of Obama. So the conference line-up offered plenty of red meat from the main stage. Ingraham accused First Lady Michelle Obama of going to London, where she's been representing the U.S. at the Olympics, to collect "a gold medal in shameless self-promotion."
Radio talker Mark Levin invoked the specter of dark conspiracies, reprising the tropes about Obama as a man surrounded by "left-wing malcontents" and terrorists. Apparently unable to bring himself to say Romney's name, he chided "the Republican nominee" for "taking off the table" campaign narratives about former Weather Underground member William Ayers, or the Obamas' former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. "Nothing's off the table!" he shouted.
Conference-goers were treated to a trailer to the forthcoming film, "Atlas Shrugged Part II" that opens with a notice about a seemingly sinister health-care law and the introduction of a faceless "head of state" whose voice suddenly winds down when a second voice cuts in, saying, "Mr. Thompson will not be talking to you today. His time is up."
But the most virulent attack was delivered at the Friday night gala by Michelle Malkin, the blogging entrepreneur and Fox News analyist, who strode up to the podium to the strains of Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman," and delivered a perfect pot of venom. Obama and his administration were examples of "tyranny," she said, especially for the Consumer Safety Products Commission against the manufacturer of Bucky Balls, sets of ball-shaped magnets designed as desk toys for adults. Apparently, they have been getting into children's mouths, and 22 such episodes prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics to file a complaint with the CSPS. Malkin, of course, offered none of the backstory about real children being injured by the product, failing to mention the three-year-old who swallowed 37 magnets
, leading to surgery for perforated intestines.
Instead, Malkin made great hey of the product and its name, clicking a pair of magnets together in front of the microphone, saying, "America needs more balls."
She then veered into the populist right-wing trope that traces its roots back to Andrew Jackson, a narrative born of a philosophy that researcher Chip Berlet calls "producerism
." Malkin pared it down to the neat little rhyme that is its 21st-century manifestation: "the makers versus the takers." "Which side are you on?" she asked.
"And when are you going to stand up and fight back?" Malkin continued. "That's the message now from the people in this room to the people who are standing on the sidelines: Hold yourselves accountable. When they've got us by the balls, we've got to tell them to lay off. We've got to tell them to get their boots off our necks. We've to tell them to get their grubby fingers out of our pockets."
It is impossible to do Michelle Malkin justice in text, lacking the ability to convey the sneer-dripped tone in which every phrase is saturated.
At the conclusion of her rant, the Orbison song cranked up again, right at the part where he growls and says, "Mercy."
The Wisconsin Effect
As the 2012 election campaign advances to its most frenzied leg, the contest comes down to a handful of states, the vaunted "swing" states such as Aschenbrenner's Tar Heel haven, as well as Virginia, Florida and Wisconsin, and a few others.
Electoral map and polling experts tend to downplay Wisconsin in that mix, seeing as the polls show Obama ahead of Romney by more than the margin of error. (The most recent Public Policy Polling survey has Obama up by 6 points
But Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett was looking pretty good as the Dairy State's potential new governor in the recall election against Gov. Scott Walker, and he lost by a sizable margin. It's the kind of result that Americans For Prosperity, with allies such as Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition, hope to replicate across the nation on behalf of Mitt Romney in November.
At a breakout session titled "Battlefront Wisconsin: What Worked, and How to Repeat It," Luke Hilgemann, director of Americans For Prosperity's Wisconsin chapter, showed off the organization's winning ground strategy, which combined whiz-bang technology with the application of old-fashioned shoe leather, together with some tight messaging that was likely focus-group-tested.
AFP activists were outfitted with iPad-like tablet devices that featured artfully phrased survey questions respondents could answer on the tablet's touch screen. AFP foot soldiers took these tablets with them to households identified by the kind of micro-targeting strategies used by Web advertisers. (For more detail on these strategies, see our July report, Religious Right's Ralph Reed Field-Tests Plan to Defeat Obama
.) Using the tablet's GPS feature, activists are directed to particular homes in a given neighborhood, based on the micro-targeted voter database that AFP has assembled.
Hilgemann said that Americans For Prosperity activists knocked on 75,000 doors and made 50,000 calls in the days leading up to the recall election.
As Ralph Reed, a former business partner of Americans For Prosperity President Tim Phillips, explained to activists
at his Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in June, the polling that predicted a tight race in the recall election between Walker and Barrett was wrong because the polling models did not account for the uptick in right-wing turnout that vote-wranglers like Phillips and Reed made happen.
Phillips noted with pride that the AFP Wisconsin chapter now has "more grassroots activists than the Wisconsin teachers' union has members." And if Wisconsin activists could do all that, so could AFP activists around the country, officials told conference attendees throughout the two-day confab.
For many in attendance, the highlight of the weekend was a Friday night speech delivered by Scott Walker, whose career was shaped by Americans For Prosperity going back to the days when he was the elected executive of Milwaukee County. In his speech, Walker cast himself as a David against a labor-backed Goliath in the days when the state erupted in an uprising in February 2011, after Walker sent a bill to the legislature that effectively ended collective bargaining rights for the state's public employees.
The crowd cheered wildly.
Because of Walker's symbolic value as a dragon-slayer, the AFP audience loved him madly despite his limited talents as a speaker.
Of far greater talent was his warm-up act, the very conservative Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who won his seat with the help of Ralph Reed in 2010, just two years after Obama won the state by more than 6 points in the 2008 presidential election. (Progressives may recall McDonnell as the governor who backtracked on his initial support for a state bill that would have required women seeking abortions to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound. McDonnell ultimately signed a bill that required a medically unnecessary ultrasound, but not one that had to be administered with a vaginal probe.)
Virginia is being touted as the state that could determine the outcome of the 2012 presidential race, much as Ohio did in 2004, or Florida might have, had the Supreme Court allowed it, in 2000. But current polls that show a functional tie between Obama and Romney don't reflect a potentially treacherous glitch for Romney: a third-party run by the popular right-wing Virgil Goode, a former congressman from Virginia's 5th District, who also served for more than 20 years in the state legislature.
Goode is running on the ticket of the Christian Reconstructionist Constitution Party
, making him an attractive vehicle for a protest vote if, say, you're an evangelical Christian who thinks Mormonism is an anti-Christian cult. In a PPP poll released mid-July, Goode was polling at 9 percent
McDonnell, handsome and charming, is said to be short-listed as a potential running mate for Romney -- a move that could calm the itchy lever-fingers of Old Dominion's religious-right voters.
I caught McDonnell just after he delivered remarks to the AFP crowd at the Washington Hilton, as he left the hotel.
I asked if Goode's candidacy could harm Romney, McDonnell replied: "I'm sensing that the momentum is so clearly on the side of Mitt Romney that I don't think a few votes there will make a difference. Because this is a serious election. It's a serious time for our country. People are not gonna vote on who they like, or who sounds the best. But they're gonna vote on who they really believe can get results, to get the greatest country on earth out of debt and back to work -- that's the only thing that matters."
When asked if he would accept the vice presidential nomination if it was offered, McDonnell laughed, saying, "I can't answer that until I'm asked, so you'll have to talk with Mitt."
I pressed him a bit more: Had he been vetted?
"I'm not going to talk about that," McDonnell said. "They're goin' through the whole process right now, and it looks like the governor will have some announcements soon, and I'll wait to hear, too."
With that, turned to step into his waiting black SUV.
The next day, I asked activist John Corcoran, of Roanoke, Va., if he thought Goode could take advantage of anti-Mormon sentiment
towards Romney. "Any of these third-party people are basically are tryin' to be spoilers, and I don't think that they'll get enough," Corcoran, an exterminator in his 60s, said. "People are smart enough now that they know that they have to go with one of the major parties to really make their vote count...I think people are really focused on the economy. They're not really lookin' at Mormonism..."
He also thought that Romney's recent overseas trip did him good among Virginia voters, especially when Romney attributed the disparate economic fortunes of Israel and the Palestinian territories to difference of "culture."
The Chick-fil-A Factor
While the Americans For Prosperity foot soldiers, or "calvary" as they often refer to themselves, stand poised to do battle for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor always seems just shy of closing the deal. At the "Defending the American Dream" conference, activists embraced the cause of Chick-fil-A, the fast-food chain that came under fire by LGBT activists after CEO Dan Cathy told a Georgia radio host that legalizing same-sex marriage is to invite "God’s judgment on our nation." When the full scope of the Cathy family's anti-gay activities was exposed by LGBT activists (including investment in discredited "ex-gay therapies"), Boston Mayor Tom Menino and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel pledged to keep Chick-fil-A from opening stores in their cities -- effectively turning what had been a battle against bigotry into a cause celebre for business owners, who are well-represented in Tea Party outposts.
Every time Chick-fil-A was mentioned from a conference podium, a huge cheer when up from the crowd. At the Friday-night gala, blogging entrepreneur and Fox News analyst Michelle Malkin described the controversy this way: "This has been a good week for limited-government conservatism and activism. Thousands of people showed up to support a business under attack...the only criminal violent threats came from the tolerance bullies, who couldn't stand to see joyous people eating chicken."
In the exhibition hall at the conference, self-published author Barbara Bluefield packaged her anti-Obama book in Chick-fil-A bags, donated by the store in Crystal Lake, Md., where she purchased the $50 Chick-fil-A gift card she was raffling off at her book stall.
Yet Romney declined to take a position, telling reporters in Las Vegas on Friday that the Chick-fil-A controversy is one of those "things that are not part of my campaign," leading the Faith and Freedom Coalition's Ralph Reed to tell Politico
that Romney is making a mistake. Romney still hasn't closed the deal with the conservative base, Reed said.
But Reed's old buddy, Tim Phillips thinks he knows one thing that would help. "I would never presume to give advice to anyone who's running for president, but if you're looking for a running mate, I think Gov. Scott Walker or Gov. Bob McDonnell..." The rest of his sentence was drowned out by the roar of the crowd.
It's hard to see how Romney wins without the boots on the ground offered by Tim Phillips' Americans for Prosperity and the strategic expertise of Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition.
You can rest assured his running made will be Koch-approved.