NASHVILLE -- Republican Rep. Kevin Brooks of Cleveland says all he did in January was ask fellow GOP lawmakers to keep an open mind on Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's Insure Tennessee proposal.
But the House assistant majority leader quickly found himself under attack in his own back yard from a barrage of radio ads, courtesy of the Tennessee chapter of a powerful national group, Americans for Prosperity.
Nearly two years ago, AFP, associated with conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, planted roots in the Volunteer State, hiring a state director. The tree already had borne fruit in 2014 campaigns. And now, a hail of coconuts was raining down on the assistant leader's head.
Outside Influence series
This series of stories was reported and written by the Tennessee News Network, a cooperative of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Knoxville News Sentinel, the Tennessean of Nashville and The Commercial Appeal of Memphis.
* Out-of-state interests seek to influence Tennessee's legislators
* Outside interest groups wage battle over school vouchers in Tennessee
POLL: Do outside interests have too much pull in the Legislature?
A national organization tries to influence how laws are written in Tennessee.
"Kevin Brooks promised to fight against Obamacare," AFP's 60-second spot charged. "Now he's fighting for it. Why is Kevin Brooks betraying us?"
Brooks said all he was doing was asking fellow Republicans to keep their powder dry and let Haslam make his case. AFP, meanwhile, paid for Facebook ads criticizing Rep. Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson, and Rep. John Holsclaw, R-Elizabethton, because of the lawmakers' perceived support of Insure Tennessee. The group launched more generalized statewide ad blitzes in both January and March.
In the end, Haslam's proposal failed twice in this year's General Assembly. Once was in a Senate committee during a special session Haslam had called to consider his plan to use federal dollars and extend Medicaid health coverage to 280,000 low-income Tennesseans. It failed again when a bipartisan coalition sought to resurrect the plan during the regular session.
Insure Tennessee failed for a number of reasons, including late approval from the federal government and a lack of key information for lawmakers. In addition, the Medicaid expansion was part of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, which made it radioactive for many Republican lawmakers.
Still, long-time political consultant Tom Ingram, Haslam's top political adviser, said what happened also is Exhibit A for outside groups' growing influence on state politics and state government.
"To some degree the same thing is going on nationwide," said Ingram, who blames the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision that removed restrictions on independent political campaign spending by nonprofit organizations and corporations.
Groups like AFP are working both political campaigns and lobbying in a hand-in-glove approach, according to Ingram. The source of their money is often secret. They spend huge sums. And that's legal.
"They [AFP] have a full-time staff, they've poured in a lot of money indirectly and directly," said Ingram, who was registered to lobby last session for a pro-Insure Tennessee business group. "It's largely to push whatever agenda they have and influence, frankly, our elected officials, our issues, disproportionately more than any of us as individual voters can.
"I find something out of whack about that," Ingram added.
AFP's Tennessee Director Andrew Ogles doesn't. The group, he said, is often focused on pushing back against the federal government's intrusion into state affairs in areas ranging from health care to education. AFP presses what it considers to be free-market issues as well, he said.
"Our founding fathers wanted the states to be laboratories of solution and, again, that's why we've kind of pushed back on the federal overreach," Ogles said.
Comparing the political arena to a marketplace, Ogles said, "our job is to ... increase public discussion and debate."
Without groups like AFP, he said, "we just trust that what's going on at the state Capitol is in our best interest. And sometimes it's not."
The group, Ogles said, has some 40,000 Tennessee members. That's based on people who receive AFP's regular newsletter, he said.
In a show of force during the special session on Insure Tennessee, Ogles and his staff brought some 200 red-shirted AFP members to Legislative Plaza, and about half packed the Senate Health Committee where the bill died on its first vote.
And Ogles claims other victories, sometimes shared with other groups, during the past two legislative sessions. Besides Insure Tennessee, he says, AFP and other groups forced Haslam to re-evaluate Common Core education standards in K-12 education through a bill and won approval for another measure creating a mini-education voucher program that passed this year.
The latter allows parents with special-needs children to use taxpayer dollars to send the students outside their local public schools. Meanwhile, a general school voucher bill, which AFP-Tennessee backed, failed yet again. Ogles said AFP's hands were full on Insure Tennessee.
But some officials, including Haslam, maintain the influence of AFP and other groups is exaggerated when it comes to Insure Tennessee and other legislation.
"My sense is that oftentimes the outside groups' impact is a little overstated," Haslam told reporters last week. "I think [legislators] tend to come into that with their own impressions and then listen to the arguments, both sides."
Others with a longer history in state government disagree with Haslam about what's happening and say the threat of such spending is especially problematic for Republican legislators, who dominate the General Assembly. Lawmakers' concern is that they will be targeted in GOP primaries.
"Hell yes," Ingram, who has worked in Republican politics for four decades, said when asked whether Republicans feel intimidated by AFP. "Even if they're not intimidated, they're aggravated by it."
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who sponsored Insure Tennessee, said he felt AFP "very unfairly attacked Kevin Brooks in particular. He did not say anything publicly and so far as I know privately" about it.
Other than Brooks and the attacks on Holsclaw and Eldridge, McCormick said he felt "they did a pretty good job sticking with the facts and getting their argument out there."
McCormick draws distinctions between AFP and the National Rifle Association, noting the NRA "is a broad-based movement. I think they really do represent people. The AFP represents a small group of people and a small group of donors. They're not from Tennessee."
Most legislators do not vote based on fear, McCormick said.
"I think people vote their principles most of the time," he said. "They're not running around in fear of these groups. But you have to pay attention to groups that have millions of dollars to spend and are willing to do so in campaigns. You do have to get reelected in order to be effective.
"So," McCormick added, "I think people pay attention. But I don't think they lead us around by the nose."
One Republican lawmaker called AFP "overrated," saying the group came late to the Common Core education standards battle. And the group's quest to eliminate Tennessee's Hall Income Tax on interest and dividend income didn't succeed amid Haslam's opposition. But Republicans did lift exemptions, Ogles pointed out.
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said he sees concerns about the outside groups among Republican House members, especially with regard to AFP.
"I think they're having a tremendous impact on some of my colleagues who are doing a good job and want to continue doing a good job," said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, pointing to AFP's successful campaign attacks last year on then-Rep. Dennis "Coach" Roach, R-Rutledge. He noted the group was among several slamming Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, as well.
Both lawmakers, who had opposed school vouchers, lost at least in part as a result of a fusillade of AFP ads and direct mail. Fitzhugh said those defeats this year "flavored [Republicans'] approach because they see what happened ... They say, 'OK, there it is. You see what happened with a good legislator like Coach, and you'll be next.' I think it certainly has a chilling effect."
None of AFP's spending in political contests is reported in campaign disclosures required by the state. That's because AFP says they are issue ads and never expressly advocate for electing or defeating a candidate.
The group says nice things about candidates it supports and not-so-nice things about those it opposes. But while the ads urge people to vote, they never say vote for or against, Fitzhugh said. Therefore they don't have to be reported as independent expenditures.
But AFP's huge expenditures do show up in their lobbyist disclosures. Last year, the group reported to the state's ethic commission spending $1.1 million in "lobby-related" expenses in Tennessee.
Ogles acknowledged that in addition to its lobby operations at the state Capitol and maintaining a six-person staff, the expenditures include money the group spent in an unsuccessful effort to defeat three Democratic state Supreme Court justices, Roach, Johnson and attacks on Common Core education standards.
The three justices easily survived the onslaught by AFP and other groups. Roach and Johnson did not.
A Tennessee native, Ogles shrugged off the criticism about the influence of outside groups such as AFP.
"My comment is that for too long you've had Tennessee politics dominated in the shadows," he said. "Now we're taking it out to where the public can see it. As long as everyone is doing the right thing and following free-market principles they should have nothing to worry about."
In fact, Ogles argued, it's a better process than "smoke-filled backrooms. I'm sorry that [Ingram] is upset about it. But the public has the right to know the Medicaid expansion program is going to bankrupt Tennessee."
Fitzhugh, meanwhile, frets about what is happening as powerful national groups like AFP, often frustrated by their inability to make major changes at the federal level, instead rush into states. There they can achieve their goals on the cheap. And, Fitzhugh said, something may happen to the cherished concept of states as the "laboratories" of democracy.
What happens if the same groups with their undisclosed sources of funding are writing the same formulas for all 50 states to follow? he asked.
"There's good laboratories and bad laboratories," Fitzhugh noted. "In some of the horror movies you've seen bad things come out."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.