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SALT LAKE CITY — There's now a Utah chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the main political advocacy group for the Koch brothers, billionaire industrialists playing an increasingly prominent role in Republican politics.
AFP Utah's goal is to build a grass-roots network to push for "sound economic principles," state director Evelyn Everton said. "These are already values Utahns are concerned with — free markets, lower taxes, limited government."
But she said the group likely won't be backing candidates because the national organization stays out of Republican primaries, and in GOP-dominated Utah, that's where many races are decided.
"To be honest, I have a hard time believing we'll really get involved in very many campaigns," Everton said. "We'll certainly be educating Utahns on the values and the issues we are concerned with, but that's not going to relate to an election."
Where AFP Utah will seek to have influence is on issues such as Medicaid expansion and tax increases, especially the recent gas tax hike that also gives local governments the option of asking voters to raise taxes for transportation needs.
"Just like any other state, there's always room for improvement, even though Utah is so great," Everton said. "Those are definitely things we'll be looking at, absolutely."
Just like any other state, there's always room for improvement, even though Utah is so great.
–Evelyn Everton, AFP Utah
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon questioned the need for the Koch brothers to try to extend their influence to the state.
"They won't make a lot of headway in the state of Utah. There aren't many of us left," Corroon said. "We already have a very conservative state with a very conservative Legislature. I don't think we need the Koch brothers."
He said "it would be scary if people think Republicans in Utah aren't conservative enough, if they're trying to make this state even more conservative and right-wing."
GOP political consultant LaVarr Webb, who publishes UtahPolicy.com and writes a column for the Deseret News, said Republicans in the state are already moving toward "more practical conservatism."
Webb said an outside group isn't going to slow that momentum.
"I would say welcome to the group. It's always good to have lots of different voices. But I don't think it'll have a lot of impact on Utah politics," Webb said. "It's hard to find targets for them."
He suggests one possible target could be GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, who has pushed hard for the Republican-controlled Legislature to accept his Healthy Utah alternative to Medicaid expansion, Webb said.
"It would be interesting if they went after Gov. Herbert," he said. "I don't think they would be successful."
Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa political science professor and active Republican, said the group may well be looking to "rein in some Republicans that they see are starting to drift."
We already have a very conservative state with a very conservative Legislature. I don't think we need the Koch brothers.
–Peter Corroon, Utah Democratic Party
Hagle said fighting taxes and big government programs as the AFP has done in Iowa and around the country helps more conservative candidates by holding other "Republicans' feet to the fire."
Politico reported last month that confidential donor briefing documents detailed plans to pay hundreds of staff across the country to prepare a get-out-the-vote effort for the 2016 election.
The plans, obtained by the online news source, reportedly called for the creation of new chapters in Utah, Alabama, Idaho and North Dakota as part of any effort to push "aggressive reforms" in strongly Republican states.
Everton said while David Koch is chairman of the AFP board, he and his brother, Charles, "really are only two of our 90,000 donors. We have 2.3 million activists across the country, so this is a much larger organization than just two people."
She said the Utah chapter is setting up an office in the Salt Lake area and expects to hire a full-time field director and three part-time associates. A similarly staffed office is expected to be opened later this year, possibly in Utah County.
Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said the group has a different role from the party.
"They have specific interests that they are trying to advance," Evans said. "Our interest is getting Republicans elected to office."