WASHINGTON -- Conservative groups may have been embarrassed on the national stage by their failure to remove President Barack Obama from the White House, but they are becoming more entrenched and powerful than ever before in some of the states where they won in both 2010 and 2012.
On Thursday, when the incoming North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) announced that Art Pope, the state's single largest donor and a founding board member of the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity, would be in charge of his state's budget as deputy budget director.
Pope, the millionaire discount store chain owner, has spent years building a massive conservative infrastructure in the state in the mold of the national network funded by the billionaire Koch brothers. He has built think tanks, funded scholarship programs for conservatives, founded the North Carolina chapter of Americans for Prosperity and, in the past four years, pumped more than $3 million into political campaigns that have successfully flipped the state's government into full control of the most conservative elements of the state Republican Party.
Now, in his new position he will be able to tap the policy ideas constructed by think tanks that he has funded, including the John Locke Foundation and the Civitas Institute, and put them into action.
"There is no one outside of state government and very few inside of state government who know more about the budget and the process than Art Pope," says Frank DeLuca, the president of the conservative Civitas Institute. "So no one should be surprised."
Liberal groups, however, were surprised that McCrory would appoint the state's largest political donor into such a powerful position.
"People were surprised that he was appointed as a big part of McCrory's transition team, but at this one they're just shocked," says Chris Kromm, executive director of The Institute for Southern Studies. "It definitely underlines the importance that Pope has played for McCrory and Republican revival in North Carolina."
Pope's importance has been documented by both the Institute for Southern Studies over the years and in a New Yorker exposé by investigative journalist Jane Mayer. According to those reports, Pope and groups connected to him have spent $3.6 million on state elections in North Carolina in just the last two elections. That money helped to propel Republicans to control the state legislature for the first time in more than a century and then into the governor's mansion.
"More than any other single person he's responsible for the Republican resurgence in this state," Kromm said.
North Carolina Democratic Party spokesman Clay Pittman pointedly noted Pope's political contributions in a sharp statement, "It appears that a full-scale Pay-to-Play system has taken hold of the executive branch, where special interests, high-dollar donors, and the leaders of the right wing will have control of the Governor’s Mansion."
They are also concerned about the impact of the policies espoused by Pope and the groups that he funds on the state's most vulnerable citizens.
"The budget priorities of those folks are: eliminate early childhood programs, privatize public schools with vouchers, slash services to Medicaid recipients, turn Medicare into a voucher program, gut the remaining environmental protections in North Carolina. I mean, you just go down the list, it's just the libertarian, and to some extent the Tea Party agenda right down the line," said Chris Fitzsimon, the founder and executive director of the progressive non-profit North Carolina Public Policy Watch.
The policies Fitzsimon lists come from the ideas pronounced by Pope's think tanks. These include eliminating the state's Smart Start early education program, getting rid of the state's income and corporate tax rates, cutting spending on public schools and universities, opposition to urban rail transit and repealing the state's renewable energy standards.
As he takes the job as the governor's deputy budget director, Pope is stepping down from his positions on the board of the Civitas Institute, John Locke Foundation, Americans for Prosperity and the other organizations that he has founded and funded over the years. DeLuca states that Pope's priorities won't be those of these groups that he has funded, but rather he will follow the governor's lead.
"He will try to give Gov. McCrory the best advice possible to help Gov. McCrory shape his policies," said DeLuca.
But Pope has explained that he places the ideological agenda of the groups that he supports above that of the Republican Party. According to the New York Times, he did so at an event held by Americans for Prosperiy to honor both Pope and David Koch during the 2012 Republican National Convention, "I believe in the Republican Party. But the purpose of the Republican Party is to elect Republican candidates. The Democrat Party’s about the Democratic candidates. A.F.P. is about driving home the issues to ensure freedom and future prosperity and holding the elected officials of both parties accountable for how they stand on the issues.”
The direction of the state budget under Pope also will be viewed through the lens of this personal ideology. In the 1970s, he founded the state's Libertarian Party and states that he was heavily influenced by a summer program he attended at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank founded by the Koch brothers, for introducing him to the teachings of Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek.
As Mayer wrote in her New Yorker profile of Pope, "His favorite novelist was the science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein, whose book 'The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress' popularized an acronym that has become a rallying cry for young libertarians: 'TANSTAAFL,' which stands for 'There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.'"
"This really is an extreme view about what the role of government is, or shouldn't be, and this person's in the top spot for state budget policy now," Kromm said. "That's really a striking statement about the direction of North Carolina politics right now."
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