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It’s no surprise when a conservative advocacy group like Americans for Prosperity targets Democrats. But last month the Florida chapter launched a $250,000 media blitz against three veteran Republican state legislators. Their beef: The senators weren’t conservative enough on the group’s top policy priorities.
The advertising campaign was directed at state Sens. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, and Greg Evers, R-Baker, and it included YouTube videos, mailers, TV advertising and social media.
In the videos, Americans for Prosperity said that each of the three legislators "got a failing grade from conservatives." The group says this claim referred to the organization’s "Economic Freedom Scorecard" for 2013, which grades state legislators on how they voted on 20 amendments and bills.
While the ads make identical statements about Detert, Dean and Evers, Detert is the only one of those legislators to receive an actual F on the organization’s scorecard. The group gave Dean and Evers D's. (The AFP also gave D’s to Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Sen. Miguel de la Portilla, R-Coral Gables, although they weren’t targeted in the AFP blitz.)
The fact that only one of the three targeted legislators got an F raised an immediate question for us. We also wondered whether there were other vote ratings from conservative groups that might have come to different conclusions. So we took a closer look.
First, some background. Americans for Prosperity, or AFP, was started in 2004 partly by the billionaire libertarian industrialists, David and Charles Koch. David Koch is the chairman of the board for the AFP Foundation.
The ad blast comes nearly a year before the November elections; so far, Detert and Evers are running unopposed, while Dean is termed out in 2016. Slade O’Brien, AFP’s Florida director, told the Tampa Bay Times in November, that "we’re not going to make much progress with these three. But we’re putting the rest of the Legislature on notice. We’re letting them know that there is a group in Florida that is holding them accountable."
The AFP scorecard gave legislators a point for each vote in support of its position and extra votes for actions like sponsoring a bill, rather than just voting for it. Points were deducted for sponsorship of a bill the group opposed.
The voting scorecard weighed such issues as the Internet sales tax, reduced regulation of agricultural lands and local regulatory transparency. But the AFP’s media blast focused on a few specific legislative votes by Dean, Detert and Evers -- on pension reform, professional sports facilities and parent empowerment for ailing schools, which is also known as the parent trigger bill.
When we looked into other conservative, free-market or pro-business groups that had rated Florida legislators, we found that only AFP issued a failing grade to any of these three senators.
The clearest example of a conservative vote scorecard in Florida comes from the American Conservative Union, which gave Detert, Dean and Evers each a score of 70 percent on nine issues that included pension reform, medical malpractice reform and the parent trigger bill.
Several pro-business groups also gave the three legislators ratings that were well above "failing." While these groups are officially nonpartisan, their positions are often in tune with conservative priorities.
• The Florida Chamber of Commerce gave Detert an 85, Dean a 90 and Evers an 82.
• The Associated Industries of Florida, which promotes business and free enterprise, gave Dean 98 percent, Detert 93 percent and Evers 94 percent.
• The Foundation for Florida's Future, which supported the parent trigger or parent empowerment bill and was founded by former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, gave Detert and Evers 78 percent and Dean 83 percent.
AFP said that Sens. Evers, Detert and Dean "got a failing grade from conservatives." Detert did receive an F from the group, but the others received Ds -- a grade that, while not very good, usually suggests barely passing rather than "failing." Meanwhile, the American Conservative Union gave all three a rating higher than F. On balance, we rate the claim Mostly False.
YouTube video, Dec. 3, 2013
Phone interview, Sen. Greg Evers, Jan. 2, 2013
Phone interview, Sen. Charles Dean, Jan. 3, 2013
Phone interview, Sen. Nancy Detert, Dec. 17, 2013
Phone interview, Abigail MacIver, director of policy and external affairs for Americans for Prosperity’s Florida chapter, Dec. 18 and Jan. 2, 2014
Phone interview, Joe Gruters, chairman of the Senate Republican Party, Jan. 23, 2014
Phone interview, Henry Kelley, Fort Walton Beach Tea Party activist, Jan. 18, 2014
Phone interview, Edie Ousley, vice president of public affairs, Florida Chamber of Commerce, Jan. 6, 2014
Americans for Prosperity website, Jan. 24, 2014, Dec. 18, 2013
Americans for Prosperity, "2013 Legislative Economic Freedom Scorecard," June 25, 2013
Florida Chamber of Commerce, "2013 Legislative Report Card Executive Summary," May 22, 2013
Associated Industries of Florida’s "Historic Florida Legislature Voting Records on Key Business Issues," May 29, 2013
The American Conservative Union, "State Legislative Ratings Guide," Nov. 5, 2013
Foundation for Florida’s Future, "Florida’s Education Report Card 2013," June 2013
Tampa Bay Times, "Koch brothers group targets GOP state senators with attack ads," Nov. 13, 2013
Sarasota Herald Tribune, "Detert attacked by AFP," Nov. 11, 2013
Sarasota Herald Tribune, "Gruters tells groups to back off," Nov. 17, 2013
Miami Herald, "Senate kills parent trigger bill in dramatic 20-20 vote," April 30, 2013
Tampa Bay Times, "Speaker Will Weatherford loses Senate showdown over Florida pensions," April 30, 2013
Miami Herald, "Florida lawmakers reject Miami Dolphins stadium referendum bill," May 3, 2013
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