Do not mistake GOP mega-patrons Charles and David Koch or their political team for optimists. “For thousands of years, the human experience was full of misery, death, disease, abject poverty,” Charles Koch told allies at his annual conservative retreat on Sunday. “Across the world, ruling classes controlled everyone else.”
But the more immediate challenge? The 2018 midterm elections in which the GOP faces a challenge of historic proportions. “This will not be easy,” Charles Koch said, “but what we face is nothing compared to what our historical counterparts faced before us.”
The Koch brothers support and convene perhaps the most consequential hub of political and policy work that helps candidates on the right. With projects aimed at curbing gang violence, promoting school choice, combating the opioid epidemic and cutting regulations, the sweeping portfolio is almost unmatched in terms of advocacy and ambition.
But it’s the political work that commands so much power. The groups spent $20 million to back the Republican-passed tax cuts last year. Appearing in a video message to the group, House Speaker Paul Ryan, a favorite of this circuit, thanked the donors for funding groups that pressured Republicans to pass tax plan. “It’s our job to take these successes and build on that momentum,” Ryan said.
No one thinks it will be easy. Many think it will be impossible. Which is why pretty much everyone around the Kochs is trying to set expectations low. There are talks of Ronald Reagan’s 1982 first midterm elections and Bill Clinton’s disastrous first at-bat with voters in 1994. They’re all-too-aware of Barack Obama’s 2010 test, when Democrats lost a net of 63 seats in the House — thanks, in part, to Tea Party rabble-rousing amplified by the Koch-backed groups surrounding the libertarian billionaires. In short, the summit of 550 of their top deep-pocketed allies in the California desert was more an exercise in expectations lowering than imagination, a wake more than rallying cry.
“With politics, history is a great indicator in most cases,” says Americans for Prosperity chief Tim Phillips, who with a bit of pluck calls this year “a challenging environment at the federal and state level to protect some of the policy majorities.”
Democrats this November need to pick up a net of 24 seats in the House to claim the majority, a benchmark increasingly within reach as incumbent Republicans are heading to the door and President Donald Trump’s polling could be a drag on his party.
“I’m a numbers guy,” says Rep. Mark Meadows, the North Carolina Republican who leads the conservative Freedom Caucus. “I can make the case for losing 18 seats. I can make the case for losing 28 seats. At this point, it’s a long ways off. It depends on what we do between now and November.”
Meanwhile, the Senate, which is split 51-49 between Republicans and Democrats, is also a potential battleground, although Republicans are slightly more optimistic in the Upper Chamber.
“This midterm is going to be hard,” donor Gail Werner-Robertson told Charles Koch during one seminar. “We need everybody to help. We can’t lose the progress that you all have fought so hard for. Get ready to fight. Get ready to double down.”
The group also stands ready with $20 million more to dig the tax cuts out of their deep ditch of unpopularity, officials said. “I’m delighted that the network is going to be committed to telling that story,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the number-two Republican in the Senate, told the Koch groups over dinner on Saturday.
Mega-donor Art Pope put the task bluntly: “Persuading people that they have benefited from Republican policies.”
All told, the political and policy budget for these groups could reach $400 million this cycle, a record for off-year elections and a 60% boost from the 2016 allocation.
“Over the past 12 years we’ve seen this network grow from a little over 100 people to be one of the most powerful forces in American politics today,” said Frayda Levin, an early Koch donor and leader of Americans for Prosperity.
But there are doubts that it will be enough to defend the Republican majorities.
It’s clear the Koch organizations are ready to flex their power and are spoiling for a fight. Cornyn, a former head of Senate Republicans’ retention program, said his party planned to make the tax cuts central to his colleagues’ re-election bids. “Shame on us if we don’t make it an issue,” he said. “Our colleagues against the aisle voted against it in unison. … We have an opportunity to pick up seats, notwithstanding the historical trend.”
His optimism is rare here in the desert near Palm Springs. Despite the financial firepower, the Kochs and their friends are mostly pessimistic about the odds this November but doggedly leaving nothing to chance. The party that holds the White House typically loses seats; only once since World War II has that trend been broken, and that was 2002 in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“This network, we’re going big. We have to. To truly change the trajectory of this country is going to require millions [of activists],” said Brian Hooks, the president of the Charles Koch Foundation and a top lieutenant to the brothers’ growing hub of work.
At the same time, these well-heeled donors watched with a mix of disgust and disbelief as Donald Trump marched to the Republican Party’s presidential nomination and then to the White House. More recently, they have spent time reading polls that show a history all-but-predicting a slaughter, polling that shows public sour on Washington and Twitter account that could cause plenty of trouble.
“President Trump is President Trump. He’s not the Republican Party. He was the Republican nominee. He is a Republican President. He’s obviously a unique and historic President in and of himself. What President Trump does and says as President Trump is not necessarily reflecting the Republican Party,” says Pope, a North Carolina retail giant.
Others fret some favored lawmakers could fall victim to Trump’s drag on the party’s standing, or that Trump may redefine what it means to be a conservative. The Trump voters remain something of a curiosity for the Koch network, and it’s not clear that they will come out to vote in 2018 without Trump on the ballot.
To that end, Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance tried to explain the so-called “forgotten man” whom Trump championed. “People were wondering to themselves ‘who are these zoo animals, basically, who are voting for this guy?’ They’re my actually pretty nice people. They’re my family and friends and neighbors,” Vance said. “A lot of people are feeling remarkably disconnected from hope and opportunity.”
Among other heavyweights in the network, there are few hopes that anything meaningful will be achievable until at least 2019. “It’s increasingly difficult to get things done in Washington in an election year,” strategist James Davis said.
Which means the battle lines are now to be fought over what’s in the rearview mirror, not in what comes next. Despite the constant chatter about immigration and criminal justice overhauls in Koch-organized sessions, there is simply very little easy path for either to come in the next year. The real fight may be fought over the party’s record to this point.
In a speech that brought the donors to his feet, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin urged the Koch network to not yield, even in the face of tough odds. “(King George III) he wrote a letter to the head of the Tories in Boston. He said, ‘How much money does Mr. Hancock have?’” Bevin said. “Hancock had the means to ignore all that was going on and do just fine. But the King knew that if he got engaged, if he put his money where his sentiment was, the King would be in trouble. You’re the modern-day John Hancocks. You are. You’re a room full of them.”
The Kochs convene these summits twice a year, usually at resorts that are heavily secured and exclusive to donors who pony up at least $100,000. Reporters are invited to attend some sessions if they agree not to identify donors who wish their patronage to remain private.
(Disclosure: Time Inc., TIME’s parent company, has agreed to be acquired by Meredith Corp. in a deal partially financed by Koch Equity Development, a subsidiary of Koch Industries Inc.)
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the results of the 2016 Republican Iowa caucuses. Ted Cruz won, not Donald Trump.