Every time Charles Koch indicates his distaste for Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump, media types run with a story that says Trump will receive no help from the vast network of non-profits and political donors overseen by Koch and his brother, David.
Don’t believe a word of it.
Just days ago at a gathering in Colorado Springs, Koch told some 80 Koch network donors that he and the network would not support Trump, despite the urging of some of the network’s backers. Conflicting reports emerged about whether a meeting between the Kochs and Trump had been or would be sought by either: The Wall Street Journal reported that one of the network’s donors, Doug Deason, was urging Charles Koch to meet with Trump, while Trump tweeted that he had turned down a meeting with the brothers, instructing them to meet with “the puppets of politics,” whatever that means.
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Yet Politico’s Kenneth P. Vogel reported on June 17 that Mark Holden, chief counsel for Koch Industries and chairman of the board of the Koch network’s Freedom Partners pass-through group, met with Trump’s top campaign staff.
While there is no love lost between the billionaire brothers and the GOP standard-bearer, Trump stands to benefit from their efforts in the 2016 election cycle, even if their focus is on elections other than the presidential. It’s as simple as this: If you get voters to the polls in order to vote for the Senate or House candidate of your choice, chances are good they’ll vote for the presidential candidate who appears on the same ticket.
The Koch network’s favored candidates are, of course, all Republicans.
Would things be better for Trump if the Koch network more explicitly backed him? Sure. With the brothers’ backing, he would likely receive more individual donations directly to his campaign. And canvassing or advertising in the presidential race by Koch network groups such as Americans for Prosperity or its retiree-focused 60 Plus Association could assuage the fears of Trump doubters who might otherwise find themselves voting for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson or simply not marking a box next to the name of a presidential candidate. Nonetheless, Trump will likely reap benefits from the network’s 2016 efforts.
Waste Not, Want Not
Earlier this year, as word emerged from Koch world that the network would focus on Senate and House elections rather than throwing its money at the presidential campaign, most mainstream media outlets ran with the narrative that this decision was based on Charles Koch’s dislike of Trump, allowing the chairman and CEO of Koch Industries to appear to be principled—or at least a bit genteel. There’s little doubt that Trump’s baldly stated racism and sexism is an embarrassment to some in the upper echelon of GOP donors. In addition, Trump’s rhetoric on immigration and trade deals runs counter to positions embraced by the neo-libertarian Kochs. But those concerns are secondary to the Kochs’ decision not to go all in on the presidential campaign.
The truth is that, after wasting some $400 million on the 2012 election cycle, the Koch brothers assessed those efforts and arrived at the conclusion that focusing on winning Congress was the way to go. As early as February 2013, Politico’s Vogel reported that the Koch network was poised to reposition itself in the 2016 cycle. Vogel wrote:
Americans for Prosperity spent roughly $140 million last year — its biggest annual budget by far — flooding swing state airwaves with anti-Obama ads and streets with paid canvassers, though AFP has always positioned itself as a nonpartisan organization that doesn’t measure its success or failure on the results of a single election.
Still, Charles Koch was overheard at a holiday party criticizing AFP’s 2012 effort, arguing it needed to be completely overhauled — and questioning whether it could be made effective at all.
In fact, Vogel reported, the brothers essentially “ordered up an audit” of the network’s efforts to elect Mitt Romney, and reconfigured their network’s workflow accordingly.
Strength in the States
In truth, the Koch network has always been a state-based operation. Think Wisconsin in 2011, when the network effectively elected Governor Scott Walker, who then did its bidding by all but ending collective bargaining by public employees.
Across the nation, the network’s efforts help elect the majority of the nation’s 31 Republican governors and turn or maintain Republican dominance of 30 state legislatures. These are the offices that control the shape of congressional districts, which largely accounts for how right-wing Republicans came to dominate the House of Representatives. Add to that the Koch network’s efforts to elect its favored candidates to the U.S. Senate, and you arrive at today’s divided government, with the presidency in Democratic hands, and Congress in Republicans’. (Unless Democrats manage to reclaim a majority of governors’ mansions and change the make-up of state legislatures by the time the next round of redistricting begins in 2020, the Republican right is likely to maintain its hold on the House.)
The Limits of Advertising
When you think of political spending, what likely comes to mind is the endless barrage of negative advertising that floods the television and radio airwaves, especially in presidential election years. But years of research into the effectiveness of these ads shows limited, if any, effect, a bit of information Charles Koch has likely considered.
As Andrew Cockburn reported for the June issue of Harper’s:
According to David Broockman, a political scientist at Stanford, multiple studies have demonstrated that such ads are essentially self-erasing. “There really is not much evidence that TV has a long-lasting effect on people’s views,” he told me. “Someone sees a TV ad on Monday afternoon, they change who they say they’ll vote for on a survey on Tuesday, but by Wednesday, their view has snapped back to what it was on Monday morning before they saw the ad, because they’ve just forgotten it.”
What does work? Intensive face-to-face conversations by political canvassers. This is what Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ ground-game operation, excels at. “[T]he effect,” writes Cockburn, “is infinitely more cost-effective than any traditional media-heavy approach.”
In this election cycle, AFP is deploying its canvassers with the aim of electing members of Congress, as well as U.S. Senate candidates in some key states on the Electoral College map: Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, to name a few.
The Washington Post’s Matea Gold tagged along with one AFP canvasser in Pennsylvania, and found that those canvassed because they were likely to vote for Republican Senator Pat Toomey if they made it to the polls were also likely to pull the lever, albeit reluctantly, for presidential candidate Donald Trump.
The canvasser would not engage on the question of the presidential race, but he didn’t have to. In Koch world, “Trump” may have become an unspeakable name, but that doesn’t mean he’s not being helped by the Koch ground game — which in Trump world, is pretty much the only game in town, since he never bothered to build a ground operation of his own.
Much as he has avoided spending money on advertising by marshaling the attention of media with outrageous and often despicable utterances, Trump knows the voter-turnout apparatus of the Koch network will be working for him despite protests to the contrary.
As one participant in the Kochs’ big July 30 donor summit told the Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Ballhaus: “Everybody’s here because of the presidential race, but there’s actually very little talk about that.”