The biggest consequence of Donald Trump’s selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate may be this: it could unlock the Koch donor network that, until now, has largely been sitting on the sidelines of the 2016 presidential election.
Pence is an established favorite son of the Koch political donor network. His selection was likely vetted with that network as an effort to bring them into the presidential contest.
If Trump has promised to the GOP and business establishment that Pence will essentially serve as a chief operating officer running a Trump White House—which would appear to be the case—then it allows the Koch donor network to come off the sidelines and swing in behind the Trump campaign as a result of the Pence selection.
This sort of backstage maneuvering has likely been in the works for some time now, and would explain developments inside the Trump campaign recently.
For instance, representatives of the Koch campaign met with Trump several weeks ago. Neither camp publicly characterized the result of that meeting.
But about a week later, Trump fired his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who had left the Koch’s crown jewel third-party group, Americans for Prosperity, on uncertain terms. Shortly after that, Trump began actively courting Pence as a potential running mate.
Early in the primary cycle, Pence was one of just three potential GOP presidential contenders granted inner circle status with the Koch donor network. Until Pence stumbled badly when he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana, which critics said would allow businesses to refuse to serve LGBT patrons, he was well-positioned as the favorite son in the Koch network.
Pence fought the Kochs’ fights in the House of Representatives as the chairman of the House Republican Conference (the same springboard John Boehner used once to jump to House Speaker, with the support of the Kochs’ third-party allies like Americans for Prosperity’s precursor, Citizens for a Sound Economy).
Pence is a firebrand conservative on social issues like abortion and a respected political voice for evangelical Christians, but he is also an anti-tax conservative figure cut from the same cloth as Charles Koch.
Pence’s signature effort to date is a rollback in corporate tax rates that Americans for Prosperity’s leadership holds up as a model for other governors. The group’s president, Tim Phillips, likes to refer to Pence as “one of our favorite governors.”
But, more important, several key former Pence aides on his personal and conference staff from his House days ran the financial and political efforts at the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners.
Marc Short, who was Pence’s chief of staff on the Republican conference in the House, ran Freedom Partners, and was at the head of the table when hundreds of millions of dollars from the Koch donor network were spent in national election cycles. Initially, GOP political operatives had assumed that these moves were meant to prop Pence up. But the religious freedom fiasco may have ended those efforts.
Now, though, Trump has resurrected Pence on the national stage—and it could very well bring the Koch network back into the picture.
At a Fortune magazine event recently, Charles Koch described the choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton as a choice between “cancer and a heart attack”—implying that he wouldn’t support either.
Pence could very well change that equation—especially if Trump promises to treat him like a COO in some fashion at the White House. While vice presidents have traditionally had limited power, that has begun to change in the past few administrations.
If Trump signals that he’d give Pence the ability to run the day-to-day operations of the White House, it may be enough to bring the Kochs—and their political and donor network—back into the game.