CORALVILLE, Iowa (AP) — No election may be too small or too local for the independent political groups vying for influence in the United States.
That's the impression some people in Coralville, Iowa, have gotten since Americans for Prosperity, the organization backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, jumped into their sleepy municipal election and turned it into a referendum on government spending and borrowing.
Residents in the community of 19,000, a neighbor of college-town Iowa City, say they've never seen such an outside effort in a local vote, let alone by a conservative group in the state's most Democratic county.
AFP has targeted residents with home visits, phone calls, mailings and Twitter and Facebook ads calling the city's $280 million debt a public crisis. One flier hitting mailboxes this week features pictures of urban blight and says Coralville, with a debt of $14,000 per resident, is on its way to becoming bankrupt like Detroit.
The group blasts the city for owning a hotel that has struggled, for borrowing money to help finance a brewery, and for using millions of dollars in incentives to lure a department store from five miles away.
Sen. Bob Dvorsky, a Coralville Democrat, called the group a "Frankenstein monster" created by lax campaign finance regulations that is now spreading its agenda even at the most local level.
"I think they are a corrosive force in the body politic here," he said.
Mark Lucas, AFP's state director, said local elections are fair game for the organization, if not exactly common.
AFP and other independent advocacy organizations have become bigger players in elections in recent years, but their spending has traditionally focused on state and national races. AFP spent $36 million in federal elections in 2012, mostly to oppose Democrats and support Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The group's Iowa affiliate, which was created last year, said it was investing "significant resources" in Coralville because of the fiscal issues at stake, but won't say how much.
Lucas, who lives in Iowa City, said the campaign is educating voters who will elect a new mayor for the first time in two decades and three city council members in Tuesday's nonpartisan ballot. During the last similar municipal election in 2009, fewer than 1,300 residents voted.
"You don't have to change a lot of minds to change the results," AFP field coordinator Drew Klein said Wednesday as the group's volunteers knocked on doors in a steady rain. He said the group was targeting voters identified as conservative on fiscal issues.
Coralville is a fast-growing, upper-middle class city where many residents work at the University of Iowa and live in subdivisions built in the last 20 years. Residents have overwhelmingly voted to approve borrowing for projects designed to improve the quality of life, such as a new library and aquatics center.
But in the most controversial effort, city leaders have spent years and millions of dollars to convert a once-contaminated tract along the Iowa River into a development called Iowa River Landing. The project features a Von Maur department store subsidized by the city, a new brewery whose owners are paying off a city-backed loan, and a city-owned Marriott Hotel and convention center.
Supporters say the investment will pay big dividends in the long run but critics complain that city government has gotten too involved in private ventures. The credit agency Moody's has repeatedly downgraded Coralville's bond rating. City leaders insist that current plans will cut the debt in half within a decade.
Mayor Pro Tem John Lundell, a university researcher who defends the city's role in development, is backed by many Democrats in the mayor's race. Challenger Matt Adam, an attorney who was involved in a lawsuit that unsuccessfully challenged the Von Maur subsidies, has criticized the city's spending and debt. Two others are on the ballot.
AFP fliers are urging residents to contact Lundell and two council members up for re-election, Tom Gill and Bill Hoeft, to tell them to "STOP making bad deals with OUR money." The ads stop short of endorsing anyone, and the candidates have distanced themselves from the group.
AFP's involvement is a bold contrast in a campaign otherwise playing out at friendly candidate debates, meet-and-greets at the library and yard signs declaring allegiances.
Some residents, of both political parties, have complained about the door-to-door canvassing, phone bank calls and fliers. "It's become a distraction," said council candidate Laurie Goodrich, a Republican.
Lucas acknowledged that in a small community such tactics "may be unpopular" for people who aren't used to them, but said they were justified to fight city spending policies.
Rod Sullivan, a Democratic Johnson County supervisor who has been critical of Coralville's use of tax incentives for economic development, said the group's involvement was "extremely counterproductive."
"You're seeing a backlash," he said. "People don't want outside money influencing their local election."