Clutching Samsung tablets filled with interactive maps, eight conservative activists gathered in a Food Lion parking lot here on a sweltering summer afternoon to get their marching orders: Knock on doors in this Raleigh suburb and identify residents opposed to President Obama's health care law and his stewardship of the economy -- all part of an ambitious voter-outreach campaign by Americans for Prosperity, a non-profit backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch that is emerging as one of biggest outside forces of the 2012 election.
The Kochs, who own an oil, chemical and textile conglomerate that Forbes magazine pegs as the nation's second-largest private company, have become the country's leading figures of libertarian activism. The Koch duo (pronounced "coke") have injected millions into an array of foundations, think tanks and political groups to spread their small-government, anti-regulation philosophy, which their critics argue matches their economic interests.
Obama targeted them in the first TV ad of his re-election campaign as "secretive oil billionaires." And Hollywood has joined in: A new comedy, The Campaign, features the fictional Motch brothers, business titans who try to rig the election to advance their corporate agenda.
"It's almost like Kochs have created an alternative to the Republican Party that pushes their brand of conservatism -- an economy with less regulation and one in which the government intervenes far less than it does now," said Bill Allison of the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation, which tracks political money. "I don't think we've seen anything like this before, and a lot of it is under the radar."
Americans for Prosperity (AFP) has been at the forefront of the libertarian attacks on Obama, blistering him with $25 million worth of commercials this month. The first round focused on the nation's rising debt and a call for Obama's ouster. AFP officials stress, however, that their goal isn't to elect Democrats or Republicans but to educate voters on the candidates' positions and build a cadre of activists willing to hold elected officials accountable after Election Day.
The group is well on its way to amassing more than $100 million this year, AFP President Tim Phillips said, but he notes that less than half of the money will be spent on ads. Instead, most of the activity will happen far from the spotlight as the group taps an army of 2.1 million activists to reach voters in swing states such as North Carolina, which Obama won by 14,177 votes in 2008 and where he'll be renominated for the presidency next month at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
AFP's goal: to reach about 8.5 million voters in more than a dozen battleground states. The group's ramped-up activity highlights the ways independent political groups of all stripes and political allegiances -- often funded by a handful of wealthy donors -- are racing to shape national policy. And it points to an aggressive expansion by Republican independent groups into voter-mobilization efforts that were once the province of candidates and the parties.
Know the voter
AFP's voter-canvassing is a precise operation -- distilling information culled from a massive voter data warehouse, also created with the Kochs' financial backing. Conservatives say they took their cue from Democratic-aligned groups, who used a vast voter databank funded with help from billionaire financier George Soros to identify and turn out voters in 2004 and again in 2008.
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