DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is a big political year in Iowa and not because 2016 presidential hopefuls have been visiting the state. There's a big U.S. Senate race. A seat that's been held by a Democrat for 30 years is up for grabs. The Republican Party has opened 11 field offices statewide as they try to reclaim it. But there's a new team on the ground. Like everyone else they were politicking at the Iowa State Fair earlier this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGNING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Lineup, lineup, limited government, lower taxes.

GREENE: What you're hearing there is the Iowa Chapter of Americans For Prosperity - AFP - and other nonprofit groups, affiliated with billionaires David and Charles Koch, are campaigning against the Democrat running for that Iowa Senate seat. And what they're doing looks a lot like what political party would do. Here's NPR's Peter Overby.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Americans For Prosperity made its reputation in 2010 and 2012 with thousands of TV ads attacking Democratic candidates. This election AFP is adding a new element - mobilizing the grassroots. It has paid staff at work in 33 states. At the Iowa State Fair Drew Klein was running the Americans For Prosperity booth. He's the state deputy director. AFP had a sweepstakes going.

DREW KLEIN: So people are signing up today, are trying to win a TV or one of four iPads that we'll give away right after the fair ends.

OVERBY: The names of those people go into the AFP database. Klein is in Iowa native. He said, the goal is to get Iowans engaged, contacting state legislators about issues and with the election coming...

KLEIN: Those are also the people that are helping us knock doors and make phone calls across the state right now as well.

OVERBY: If that sounds like what a political party does, well, it is. AFP started building its Iowa grassroots operation in 2013. Now it has six field offices there. But AFP is a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization. Legally limited as to how much it can engage in electoral politics. When people ask which candidates AFP supports, Drew Klein has already answered.

KLEIN: We're a nonpartisan organization. We don't have a dog in that fight. What we do want to make sure that we do is we want hold people accountable for the things that they've done. And so in that sense, you know, we're certainly happy to highlight Congressman Braley's record.

OVERBY: That's Bruce Braley, the Democrat running for that open Senate seat. Americans For Prosperity has a lot to say about him. In February, AFP Iowa set out to visit all 99 counties in a bus, The Big Government Braley Tour. Iowans have been seeing anti-Braley TV ads since January.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Tell Congressman Braley Obamacare is hurting Iowa families.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Call Bruce Braley, tell him - stand with Iowa, stop supporting Obamacare.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Tell Bruce Braley reform and fix the PA.

OVERBY: Those are from AFP and two other Koch-affiliated groups. Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce and Concerned Veterans for America. At the Republican Victory Office in Urbandale, Iowa, Jeff Patch emphasizes the wall between AFP and the party.

JEFF PATCH: That is completely separate from what we're doing.

OVERBY: Is it a benefit?

PATCH: We, you know, we think it can complement our efforts, but we - we're not able to coordinate with them. And I think they're a savvy enough group that they know what they're doing.

OVERBY: And savvy enough to go on TV when the state party was nearly broke. Braley's allies are hitting back. Senate Majority PAC, the biggest spender, runs ads tying Republican candidate Joni Ernst to the Koch brothers. But there is one big difference between Senate Majority PAC and Americans For Prosperity - as a super PAC, Senate Majority PAC, must disclose its donors. AFP doesn't have to do that. None of the Koch affiliated groups do. Tim Phillips, president of National Americans For Prosperity, says, it differs from a political party in that it pushes issues rather than candidates. But then again...

TIM PHILLIPS: It is similar in that we seek to build a long-term infrastructure with full-time staff - a strong local knowledge that goes out and recruits volunteer activists to help deliver our message and set the tone in a community or in the state.

OVERBY: Election Law professor Daniel Tokaji at Ohio State University is co-author of a book about the rise of non-party groups. It's called "The New Soft Money." Tokaji recalls his conversations with political consultants.

DANIEL TOKAJI: The overriding theme was that the state and local parties are just not the important players that they used to be in federal elections. And in some occasions we got, you know, laughs or chuckles when we even mentioned state or local parties.

OVERBY: He says, the outside groups have begun doing what state parties used to do - especially the TV advertising. In Iowa and other states the Koch network is going beyond that as it recruits its own legions of activists. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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