Under normal circumstances, Republican control of Congress and the White House would be a dream situation for Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the conservative group that acts as the primary political arm for billionaire conservative donors Charles and David Koch.
But President Trump is unconventional by almost every measure and has refused to be restrained by traditional conservative ideology. He’s even at odds with some in his own party on certain fiscal issues. That dynamic has AFP striking a more cautious tone ahead of the budget battles that will soon begin on Capitol Hill.
Trump, for example, has explicitly stated that a balanced budget is not his top priority.
The budget Trump will present to Congress is expected to dramatically increase military spending and could include billions for the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The estimated costs for that controversial project continue to grow.
Trump is also at odds with AFP on trade and new immigration restrictions, including the temporary ban on travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries and all refugees. The president appears to have little interest in entitlement reform, which many Republicans view as the primary driver of the national debt.
That would seem to put GOP lawmakers in a tough spot — caught between their president and the budget hawks at AFP and other conservative interest groups that are champing at the bit to push through fiscal reforms before the midterm elections.
But for Phillips, the politics of the looming budget fights are simple.
When Republican lawmakers adhere to the fiscally conservative principles many of them campaigned on, they can count on having an ally in the massively influential AFP, which boasts about 1,000 staffers across 36 states and some 3 million affiliated activists nationwide.
The group will have a budget of tens of millions of dollars in 2018. AFP is emboldened by its 2016 showing, in which seven of the eight GOP Senate candidates they backed were victorious at the polls.
Conversely, when lawmakers cross the group, AFP will line up on the other side. Just ask former three-term Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), whose support for the Export-Import Bank was the final straw for AFP.
The group launched an all-out ground war against Ellmers in 2016. She lost in the Republican primary to George Holding, who now represents North Carolina’s 2nd District in her place.
“The spending we’re planning on for policy and politics is significant, and how we spend that is in part contingent on whether these members of Congress keep their word or break their word,” Phillips told The Hill.
“If they repeal ObamaCare, which they’ve promised to do in four consecutive elections — and we’re encouraged that they’re going to do that — then they’ll have an organization that has their back, that genuinely tells their story. … If they fail, though, if they break their word and fail, then their majority position will probably be short-lived. That’s just an analysis.”
GOP deficit hawks have seen this movie before.
Republicans last had a president in the White House and majorities in both chambers of Congress for four years under President George W. Bush, a time when many Republicans believe the party abandoned its fiscally conservative principles, leaving the nation in debt and saddled with new entitlement programs.
Now, with Republicans once again in total control, Phillips says AFP will hold lawmakers accountable for the promises they made on the campaign trail.
Still, Phillips prefers to focus on areas where he believes the party is headed in the right direction.
AFP has been encouraged by Trump’s commitment to rolling back regulations. And it’s thrilled by his Cabinet selections — most notably Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), budget hawk Mick Mulvaney to direct the Office of Management and Budget and Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education.
But the real test for the party, Phillips said, will be following through on the commitment to repeal and replace ObamaCare. Republicans voted to repeal the healthcare law dozens of times when President Obama was in the White House, but have yet to do so in the new administration.
Phillips is frustrated that talk has turned from “replace” to “repair.” It’s time for Republicans to follow through in full, Phillips said, noting that the party has made gains in four consecutive elections by running against the healthcare law.
“There’s not a Republican up there who stood back up for election saying this law is complicated and there are a lot of complications on it, so the next five to seven years we’ll tweak it a little bit,” Phillips said. “No one said that. And so we’re hopeful. It’s only been a few weeks in, and that’s important, but it’s time for some specific language. The trial balloons, they serve a purpose, but it’s time for specific language to be put forward.”
AFP’s other signature issue this cycle is opposing the “border adjustment tax” on imports, a lynchpin in the congressional GOP’s tax reform strategy that is not yet backed by Trump.
“We were surprised about the insistence on this approach,” Phillips said.
“I don’t think Republican House members are going to want to do that. … We’re determined to make that a decision point. There are some times when it is a shrug-your-shoulders-and-move-on issue. This is too important to do that.”
Like many special-interest groups, AFP is grappling with the new political terrain in the age of Trump.
While early reports suggested the Koch network was primed to unload hundreds of millions of dollars to take down Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonFive big Trump narratives to watch NBC: Russia setting up dossier on Trump Chelsea Clinton attends Muslim solidarity rally in NYC MORE, AFP sat on the sidelines of the presidential campaign in 2016 for the second time in the last three cycles.
AFP similarly did not back Sen. John McCainJohn McCainTrump names McMaster new national security adviser How does placing sanctions on Russia help America? THE MEMO: Trump's wild first month MORE (R-Ariz.) in 2008, citing his support for cap-and-trade policies.
There is still some personal tension between the Kochs and Trump. When the president kicked Trump biographer Harry Hurt III off his West Palm Beach, Fla., golf course on New Year’s Eve, Hurt’s golfing partner, David Koch, also had to go.
But former AFP staffers have steadily joined the ranks of the new administration, and Phillips said the lines of communication between the two are open.
Trump’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was AFP’s first state director in New Hampshire, running operations for the group in the Granite State.
Koch confidant Stephen Ford has been added to Vice President Pence’s office as a speechwriter. Marc Short, who ran the Koch-backed group Freedom Partners, is now Trump’s legislative director.
And AFP has worked closely with Pruitt for years. Myron Ebell, who led Trump’s EPA transition team, was the director for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, another Koch-backed group.
The “cross-pollination” is “a good thing,” Phillips said. But he added that AFP never wants to be “a Republican Party appendage.” Instead, its focus will be on holding Republicans accountable.
“They’re politicians, after all,” Phillips said.