NORTH ROYALTON, Ohio — As the Republican National Convention gathers in downtown Cleveland to celebrate Donald Trump, activists from the largest national conservative grassroots group are knocking on doors in Ohio and other battleground states — all while completely ignoring Trump.
“Hi, my name is Patrick. I’m just wondering if you’re planning on voting in the upcoming Senate election?” Patrick LaGuardia, 25, an Americans for Prosperity staffer, asked at door after door on a humid Sunday afternoon here. He’s canvassing for Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who's in a tight re-election battle against Democratic former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. But in an unprecedented move from one of the GOP’s biggest funders, LaGuardia and AFP activists in 35 states are reading scripts that do not once mention Trump.
AFP, the largest political arm of conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch's network, funneled $122 million into the 2012 race and told their donor network they’d spend even more in the 2016 contest. But now that Trump has the nomination, AFP plans to focus exclusively on down-ballot races.
It's an extraordinary snub from the Republican Party's wealthiest pair of donors — the two men Democrats have for years sought to cast as the party's most powerful and influential overlords.
Simply put, the Koch brothers don’t like Trump. His Muslim ban would “destroy our free society,” Charles Koch said, arguing in another interview that Trump’s attacks on an American-born judge for his Mexican heritage are “unacceptable” and “taking our country in the wrong direction.”
While their political nonprofit doesn’t endorse candidates as a rule, the Koch brothers eagerly enter the fray by targeting Democratic opponents — remember the $25 million ad buy against Obama in 2012? — so it’s their silence about the top of the ticket that’s so startling.
“Honestly, it does feel weird,” LaGuardia acknowledged.
Like much of America, the Koch brothers may be dissatisfied with both presidential choices, but they’re rejecting their own party’s nominee in a way that’s all but supporting his opponent. It’s “possible” that Hillary Clinton would make a better president than Trump, Charles Koch told ABC News in April.
LaGuardia, at the doors in North Royalton, stuck to the down-ballot script.
“Did you know [Strickland] left the state with a $6 billion deficit, 89 cents in our rainy day fund and raised taxes by $1.5 billion?” LaGuardia asked one woman in her driveway, logging every answer she gave him on the AFP iPad app that directs him to doors to knock on and which voters to reach in those houses. “Does that make you more or less likely to vote for Strickand?”
“I guess I’ll have to check out the pros and cons,” the woman responded. LaGuardia made a few quick clicks in his app and moved on to the next door.
It’s this mix of data-driven grassroots work and face-to-face advocacy that Barack Obama refined and powerfully mobilized starting in 2008, and it's the kind of infrastructure Trump doesn’t have. His campaign didn’t build a grassroots network leading into the general election and has indicated they’ll rely heavily on the national party instead of building their own army. But as the Associated Press reported this month, the GOP is struggling to put together the team Trump intends to rely on: They expected 220 paid staffers in Ohio by May, but in reality, there are just 50.
It’s a gap AFP could have helped the Trump campaign fill. Instead, all that firepower is geared toward down-ballot races.
“For years, the left had a decisive advantage on the ground," AFP President Tim Phillips told NBC News. "They had government employee unions, private sector unions, the environmental lobby. They had an army on the ground and infrastructure they could use. We’re determined to build that infrastructure.”
AFP activists are knocking on doors daily in 35 states and expanding their operations rapidly, organizers say. In Ohio they have six field offices that lead volunteers and staffers to knock on 9,000 doors a week. Field Director Micah Derry said he expects three more offices to open soon, which would double their reach.
With more than 500 staff members in the field nationwide right now, AFP says it’s the largest permanent grassroots force on the right, rivaled only by the Republican Party itself, which staffs up heavily in election years before slimming down in off years.
Phillips argued that building a grassroots army is a matter of viability for conservatives.
“We have found a diminishing return for television advertising. It’s still important, and we do a lot of it, but it does not move numbers the way it frankly used to move numbers — it just doesn’t,” he said in an interview. “The highest trust level is when you can be at someone’s door with local people — that’s where the local people and local field staff come in.”
It’s just not a trust level they’re willing to give Trump.
“Focusing on state and congressional races is really what is going to bring this country back together,” Field Director Colin Jackson, 25, said, pushing an idea — strikingly different from the GOP’s overall message this year — that most voters won’t be personally affected by the person in the White House.
“If Donald is president or if Hillary becomes president, it’s probably not going to affect your local school," Jackson said.
Jackson has a beaming smile and eyes that light up when he talks about conservative economics. But as a black man, Jackson said the cops are called repeatedly when he’s walking through white suburban neighborhoods knocking on doors.
“When the cops get called because I’m walking through a suburb?” he said while walking up a steep hill in the last neighborhood of the day. “That just tells me I need to knock some more doors so another black kid can live in that neighborhood.”