Anti-government activists and petrochemical billionaires Charles and David Koch and their network of political organizations spent an estimated $300 million to push conservative candidates and causes in 2014 — and plan to spend almost $900 million to do the same thing in the 2016 cycle. But in an interview published Tuesday, Charles Koch dismissed claims that he has much political power as “ludicrous,” asking, “if I had all this power, why aren’t [the many things I would change] getting changed?”
His statement suggests that he lacks political power — but he and his brother have built and bankrolled a network of political organizations that rival the size of any political party.
The elder Koch made the argument in an exclusive interview with Washington Post national reporter Matea Gold, one of a small number of journalists invited to cover select portions of the brothers’ Freedom Partners conference for wealthy conservative donors and Republican presidential hopefuls this past weekend at the St. Regis Monarch Beach luxury resort in California.
Asked what he says to those “who believe you have too much influence,” Charles Koch told Gold, “wow, believe me, if I had too much, a lot of things would change. Just like the very things we’ve been talking about — this trend toward a two-tiered society and the trajectory we’re on that’s taking us there and criminal justice.”
But while Koch is correct that he does not personally control the entire government apparatus, he significantly understates his relative influence in the political system. In the 2012 elections — the most expensive in the nation’s history — the Democratic National Committee (about $319 million) and the Republican National Committee (about $404 million) combined to spend less than the Koch network’s promised 2016 budget. President Obama’s entire re-election campaign spent less than $684 million.
Through Freedom Partners, a tax-exempt “Chamber of Commerce,” and American Encore, formerly the Center to Protect Patient Rights, the Kochs helped distribute millions to bankroll conservative political groups. Indeed, part of the reason that the changes Charles Koch would like to see have not come to fruition could be that, seemingly in order to help elect Republican candidates, his groups have funded socially conservative causes that he and his brother claim they are against.
But the Kochs have also built an operation that in many ways rivals the official Republican Party infrastructure. Their Americans for Prosperity is working to create a “ground game” built around voter data, in the style of the vaunted Obama 2012 campaign. Their LIBRE Initiative is actively working to sell the Latino community on free market ideals, while opposing executive action to stop deportation of undocumented families. Their Generation Opportunity has catfished millions of millennials who liked abstract concepts like “being American” and “the Constitution” on Facebook. And their various entities spent heavily to defeat Democratic Senators in 2014 and give Republicans a majority in both chambers of Congress.
The brothers’ influence with Republican candidates is evident by the number of them who have flocked to Freedom Partners and Americans for Prosperity events, earnestly seeking their support. Now Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) promised a Koch group last year that if the GOP won a majority, it wouldn’t waste time debating “gosh darn” minimum wage increases. The chairman of the Senate Small Business committee has publicly hailed Charles and David Koch as among the “most patriotic Americans” ever.
And while President Obama, who the Kochs and their organizations spent millions to try to defeat in 2012, has provided a check against Koch-backed efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, deregulate fossil fuels, and tax cuts for the wealthy, the congressional majority the Kochs helped elect have already advanced the brothers’ agenda. Just last month, it allowed the expiration of the Export-Import Bank’s charter, at the urging of Freedom Partners and Americans for Prosperity. The latter group hailed it as “a major win for taxpayers.”