Home Politics How David Koch and His Brother Shaped American Politics – The New York Times

How David Koch and His Brother Shaped American Politics – The New York Times

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In 1980, David H. Koch, one of the two billionaire industrialist brothers at the center of a sprawling and powerful political network, served as the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential nominee. The ticket earned 1.1 percent.

But in the years since that failed run, Mr. Koch, who died on Friday, and his brother Charles, found far greater power and influence outside of elected office as they became two of the most prominent faces in a new era of megadonors in American politics, building a political apparatus that, at its peak, rivaled the Republican Party itself.

The Kochs and their network spent hundreds of millions of dollars in support of their particular brand of conservatism: One of limited government, more lenient immigration policy, free trade, free markets and limited corporate regulations — all while running Koch Industries, a conglomerate with annual revenues of $100 billion. But not long after they rose to become two of the most coveted political donors in America, they saw much of their worldview rejected by President Trump’s ascendant version of the Republican Party.

Because so much of their network’s money was funneled through an array of nonprofits, where full disclosure of finances is not required, it is near impossible to assess the full scope of their operations, but the influence is vast.

“The Koch brothers have been very strategically thinking about how best to shape politics over decades and at the same time they were amassing a fortune that would power whatever strategy they devised,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. She noted that they were especially effective working on narrow issues while pursuing a larger strategy.

“The Kochs,” she said, “have built an empire.”

“If not us, who? If not now, when?” opened a letter from Charles G. Koch to donors in 2010, inviting them to join what the Kochs called their semiannual “seminars,” gatherings of major contributors that would become the hallmark of the network.

The Koch-funded political operation would help propel the Tea Party takeover of Congress in 2010, spend an estimated $400 million on the 2012 campaign and fund heavily the Republican takeover of the Senate in 2014.

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CreditDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

Along the way, the Kochs took full advantage after the Supreme Court sided with Citizens United and other rulings loosened spending rules. They became the most feared, recognized and loathed (by the left) Republican donors in the nation, surpassing even Karl Rove, as the boogeyman of Republican big money. In a sign of the vitriol around him, the hashtag #DavidKochisDeadParty was trending on Twitter Friday.

Matt Schlapp, who oversaw federal affairs for Koch Industries during President George W. Bush’s second term and is now the chairman of the American Conservative Union, said the most lasting legacy of the Koch network will likely be its funding of a large network of think tanks and universities.

“I give the Kochs and their network high marks on understanding that if they don’t change hearts and minds and build institutions that can educate people in the nonprofit world then the world will drift to the left, the government will continue to grow,” Mr. Schlapp said.

He said their direct impact on politics was less pronounced. “The best judgment you can give it is mixed,” he said. Part of that mixed legacy is linked to the rise of Mr. Trump. Some prominent alumni of Koch-funded organizations do hold high-ranking positions in the Trump administration. But the Kochs’ approach to governance, beyond curbing business regulations and cutting taxes, has often been sidelined, if not rejected outright, by the Republican Party under President Trump, who dismissed the brothers as “a total joke” last year.

Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and the current president of the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group, said the true Koch legacy was having “diminished our democracy.”

“The Kochs changed two things. First, the system went from transparent spending to secret spending,” Mr. Potter said. “The second was they were an important part of the wave of billionaires who took campaign spending to an entirely different level in American politics.”

Both developments, he said, gave average Americans a deep sense of disenfranchisement.

Parts of the Koch network have at one point touched on nearly every facet of the conservative movement. There have been separate organizations for outreach to Latinos (the LIBRE Initiative), veterans (Concerned Veterans for America), younger voters (Generation Opportunity) and older voters (60 Plus Association), for instance. A national political group, Americans for Prosperity, established outposts in the majority of states across the country.

“David Koch helped design and implement the center-right, free enterprise, activist wing of the political spectrum,” said Scott Reed, the senior political strategist of the United States Chamber of Commerce. “And he became a historical power player.”

The agenda for the 2010 Koch seminar was revealing. It included fighting “climate change alarmism and the move to socialized health care,” as well as “the regulatory assault on energy” — issues that would recur over in the coming years.

In 2014, the Koch network was at the center of the successful Republican efforts to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats. A network of six Koch-linked nonprofits had paid to air nearly 44,000 television spots by August of that year, according to a study by the Center for Public Integrity.

Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was then the Senate majority leader, took to the Senate floor in early 2014 to declare that “Senate Republicans are addicted to Koch” (the name is pronounced coke), as the network’s television ads hammered Democrats in key races.

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CreditSpencer Platt/Getty Images

The sweeping Republican Senate victories that fall put Senator Mitch McConnell in power. He would use the majority to block some of President Obama’s final judicial appointments, most notably forcing a vacancy on the Supreme Court for nearly a year until it was filled by President Trump’s selection of Judge Neil Gorsuch in early 2017.

Environmental groups have denounced the Kochs, whose business empire includes oil operations, as “secretly funding the climate denial machine,” as Greenpeace put it, adding up to $127 million in such spending over two decades. Among the recent Koch brothers pursuits has been killing mass transit projects around the country.

“If someone has the freedom to go where they want, do what they want,” Tori Venable, Tennessee state director for Americans for Prosperity, told The New York Times last year, “they’re not going to choose public transit.”

The Kochs were perhaps at their peak in 2015, as the last Republican presidential primary was heating up. Koch officials outlined plans to spend as much as $900 million that cycle — possibly as much as the Republican Party itself. In a sign of their influence, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker and Carly Fiorina all trekked to a luxury hotel in Southern California to pitch the network’s donors in person that summer.

“I, for one, cannot wait to see who the Koch brothers pick,” President Obama joked at the White House Correspondents Association dinner that year.

But the Kochs did not get their pick. Instead, Mr. Trump would go on to win the nomination and redirect the party away from the Koch network’s brand of fiscal conservatism, and their preference for free trade and a more open immigration policy. (The Kochs did spend millions supporting Mr. Trump’s tax cut legislation.)

“Trump’s passion was clearly focused on stopping immigration and stopping free trade and that was pretty well unacceptable to the Kochs,” said David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that has longed received money from the brothers.

In mid-2018, Charles Koch, without naming Mr. Trump, warned of the “rise of protectionism” and those who were “doing whatever they can to close themselves off from the new, hold on to the past, and prevent change.”

Mr. Trump quickly responded. He attacked the brothers, saying they “have become a total joke in real Republican circles” with a “highly overrated” political network.

“Two nice guys with bad ideas,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter.

In a shift last year, the Koch network ran ads in support of a Democratic senator, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who was being challenged by a staunch Trump supporter, Kevin Cramer. Mr. Cramer won the election. This year, the network has signaled plans to stay out of the White House contest entirely.

Yet even as the Kochs have receded somewhat from electoral politics, alumni of their network continue to hold sway in Mr. Trump’s government. A former top Koch operative, Marc Short, for instance, served as Mr. Trump’s legislative affairs director and is now chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence. Mr. Schlapp’s wife, Mercedes, is a senior White House official. And a former director of communications for Koch Industries, Matt Lloyd, is a senior adviser at the State Department.

“It is really hard to quantify their impact,” Ms. Krumholz said of the Kochs. “It was enormous. It was pervasive.”

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