The policy and political network led by billionaires Charles and David Koch plans to increase spending over the next two years, with officials telling donors on Saturday that their tab could soar to $400 million heading into the 2018 midterm elections.
It was the latest sign that, even with Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress and Donald Trump in the White House, these ultra-rich activists are not ready to be yes-men for lawmakers in Washington and plan to combat moves that run afoul of their policy goals. For instance, officials said they were prepared to fight with fellow Republicans if they move ahead with tax reform that includes a border tax or drag their feet in scrapping President Obama’s health care law.
“We should use this as an opportunity to help us really move forward in advancing the country toward a brighter future, now, while the opportunity is available,” Charles Koch told friends who are spending three days at a resort near Palm Springs, Calif., just as the President finishes his first week in the White House “We may not have an opportunity again like we have today.”
Officials from the Koch network, officials known as Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, told reporters invited to the Indian Wells summit that the sprawling network of Koch groups was looking at spending between $300 million and $400 million in the next two years to shape policy and politics. Officials also said that they hit their two-year spending goal for 2016. They had projected about $250 million on projects designed to shape the outcome of last year’s elections—even though they sat out the White House race because neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton excited the billionaires.
“We couldn’t get comfortable with either candidate,” said Mark Holden, a longtime Koch aide who leads the policy and political network.
That’s not to say the Koch allies didn’t help Trump’s campaign. Take, for instance, Wisconsin, where the Koch groups worked tirelessly to help Sen. Ron Johnson win re-election in the state that Trump narrowly won, as well. On the eve of the election, Johnson’s Democratic challenger sent a memo to supporters praising them for calling or knocking on doors of 299,000 voters. The Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity hit 3 million and many were presumably straight-ticket Republican voters.
In seven of the eight up-for-grabs U.S. Senate races last year, the Koch-backed candidate won. In all, Koch-backed candidates at all levels of races prevailed 96% of the time—a record any outside group would covet.
About 550 donors—including 200 first-time seminar guests—were plotting their next two-year plan, including how to keep Trump and his congressional allies accountable. The groups they support include some of the most effective players in Republican politics, including the grassroots juggernaut Americans for Prosperity, the Latino-focused Libre Initiative and the data powerhouse i360. Koch-backed groups have staff on the ground in 36 states.
“It’s been defense for our side,” Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips said of recent years. “Trying to stop bad things from happening, or at least mitigate some of the bad things.” That was unlikely to change despite sitting in power.
Reporters were allowed to attend some sessions if they agreed not to identify donors who chose to remain anonymous. Only donors who elected to speak with reporters were to be named. Donors to these causes can generally keep their names out of public disclosures because the Kochs organize their groups under a part of the tax code specifically designed to be a trade association, a nonprofit or other apolitical headings.
The Koch-backed groups also plan to continue their work outside of the electoral space, including millions for minority scholarships, community development programs and innovation programs in at-risk areas. Criminal justice reform remains a priority, especially for Charles and David Koch personally, and donors are supporting programs on more than 300 college campuses.
“The American dream is about where you’re going. Not where you came from,” said Chris Wright, a donor who led a briefing on the groups’ philanthropic focus. “That’s not true for too many folks born in the wrong ZIP code.”
But that doesn’t mean the Koch networks are ready to transform into an all-out opposition party any time soon. Charles Koch welcomed donors to the retreat, under palm trees and with the mountains behind him, and made no mention of the President. “There are limits to what the parties can and should do,” said Art Pope, a megadonor from North Carolina. And when asked about Trump’s move to cut off immigration from countries with Muslim majorities, top official Brian Hooks dodged.
“Give us some time to take a look at it,” he said. Pressed, he hinted that such a ban isn’t one that the Kochs were considering. “The best way to keep communities safe is to bring people together.”