It is time to stop talking about the Koch brothers and instead talk about the Koch Party, the nation’s third largest political network that is a full-blown but privatepolitical operation. The Koch Party has come into view in 2014, as some of the country’s best investigative reporters have traced and exposed various elements of their operation.
The Koch Party is not as large as the Democrats or the Republicans, but is still unprecedented in size, scope and reach. Like other political parties, it has a platform, donors and constituents, electoral and advertising strategies, voter data, and—after the 2014 midterms—members of Congress ready to shepherd its pro-corporate, anti-regulatory agenda.
But unlike the Democrats and Republicans, the Koch Party is not public. It doesn’t have national political conventions attended by the media and delegates. Instead it has secretive getaways for mega-millionaires and billionaires in posh gated resorts where the public and press are neither invited nor allowed.
If you want to see how super-wealthy citizens and private corporations are using private money and secretive tactics to gain and consolidate their power and influence, pushing agendas that often prey on middle- and working-class Americans—look no further. Here are nine hallmarks of the Koch Party.
1. America’s third-biggest political operation: Last June, the Washington Post compared the number of employees at Americans for Prosperity, the best-known Koch-funded group, to the Democratic and Republican Parties. The Post noted that AFP had 240 employees in 32 states, compared to 250 field staffers for Republicans (and another 150 at the GOP’s national headquarters), while the Democrats said they would have 4,000 campaign staffers nationwide. It turns out that the Post vastly underestimated AFP’s size; Politico.com recently reported that AFO had 550 paid staff and spent $130 million in 2014.
There are other big-picture metrics. The Sunlight Foundation, which tracks spending on political ads by reviewing advertising buy records at every major market television station,found that in the 2012 presidential election, the Koch Party bought 18 percent of all political TV ads in eastern Iowa, the state’s top media market. In Charlotte, North Carolina, it bought 11 percent of the ads in the same period. This shows that the operation is not merely a libertarian lobby, but a national political party.
2. Better voter data than the GOP: One of the most significant political developments in recent years has been the way political parties have created vast files about voters, rivaling what private-sector giants like Google and Facebook offer their advertisers. But on the political right, there has been a data-gathering war between the Koch Party and Karl Rove’s Republican National Committee.
The Koch Party “has developed in-house expertise in polling, message-testing, fact-checking, advertising, media buying, dial groups and donor maintenance,” Politico recently reported. “Add mastery of election law, a corporate-minded aggressiveness and years of patient experimentation — plus seemingly limitless cash — and the Koch operation actually exceeds the RNC’s data operation in many important respects.”
The Koch Party has bankrolled a voter data firm called i-360.com. Politico said the firm helped to identify nearly 300,000 Colorado voters who were inclined to skip the recent midterms—until they were bombarded with messaging on why they should elect Republican Cory Gardner as their next U.S. senator. Gardner won, and he was one of a handful of incoming freshman senators who were secretly taped thanking Koch Party donors during a private gathering at a California resort months before Election Day.
3. Lesser-known but sizeable party operations: Americans for Prosperity gets most of the press, but the rest of the operation is massive, starting with its political money-laundering non-profit Freedom Partners, which was created in 2012. Because it is a non-profit, as opposed to a political action committee, Freedom Partners does not have to reveal donors and evades campaign contribution limits. In the 2012 cycle, it “raised and spent roughly $250 million,” Politico reported, drawing on its tax returns.
Some of Freedom Partners’ money, as investigative reporters have documented, has gone to a who’s who of front groups intended to appeal to specific constituencies. There is the Koch-funded LIBRE Initiative, based in Arlington, Virginia, with a national staff of 80, aimed at Hispanics. There is Generation Opportunity, a grassroots effort with 30 full-time staffers in 10 states, trying to organize 18- to 34-year-olds. Another group, Concerned Veterans of America, has 60 staffers in 14 states, and is dedicated to attacking the Obama administration’s foreign policies and treatment of veterans.
4. A private political party’s profit-centered platform: Like all political parties, Koch has its own platform, or agenda, that begins with an ideology and ends with a to-do list. Put broadly, most people know that the Koch brothers are longtime libertarian industrialists who made billions in oil and gas. But their profit-centered agenda goes far beyond attacking environmental regulations, casting doubt on the scientific consensus on carbon-causing climate change, and attacking oil-and-gas competitors like wind energy.
The Koch Party is viciously anti-union. Its minions, from a right-wing governor to AFP to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), are behind a new and expanded union-busting effort in Wisconsin. Panelists at private Koch donor summits have said that raising the minimum wage will cause domestic terrorism. Leaders at AFP have called for cutting social safety net programs such as Medicare, Social Security and Obamacare. And their school reform efforts have included changing textbooks to promote unfettered and unregulated capitalism, as well as cut funds for public schools.
5. Koch candidates and junket-taking judges in office: A successful party elects officeholders across the various branches of government. Three of the newest Republican senators credited the Koch Party for giving their campaigns the needed early boost that resulted in wins last month. Incoming senators Joni Ernst of Iowa, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Cory Gardner of Colorado, were secretly taped last summer at a Koch donor retreat gushing over the network’s crucial backing.
But successful parties also cement their power in subtler ways. Ernst’s new chief of staff is Lisa Goeas, the vice-president for political and grassroots operations at the National Federation of Independent Businesses. NFIB, which has been bankrolled by the Kochs and other pro-corporate foundations for years, claims it represents the small-scale entrepreneur, yet it consistently lobbies for policies like tax cuts that would benefit large corporations and the wealthy.
The Koch Party also hosts junkets for judges, encouraging members of the judiciary to rule under libertarian principles that would benefit their candidates and operations. There is no better example than Wisconsin’s Rudolph Randa, a federal judge who shut down a campaign money laundering investigation involving GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s top aides and allies from other Koch-funded groups in the state.
6. Parties raise money and spend, spend, spend: The Koch Party’s record of raising and spending vast sums on political campaigns, especially television ads, is staggering, even as they’ve tried to hide its scope. This fall, Freedom Partners raised the most money of any so-called super PAC in America, $15 million, for the quarter ending October 15, the Sunlight Foundation reported. Earlier this summer, Sunlight found party groups bought political TV ads on 106 stations from Florida to Alaska.
The party’s spending is split between field operations and advertising. On the advertising side, Sunlight found that the Kochs bought 18 percent of all political ads on TV in eastern Iowa in the last presidential election. In that same period in Charlotte, North Carolina, the figure was 11 percent. In 2014, the party spent heavily on ads early in the cycle—before campaign finance disclosure laws would have required them to report their activity—but then stopped at that pre-Election Day threshold, Sunlight reported.
7. The Koch Party likes to be stealthy: There has been no shortage of political coverage of so-called dark money groups in recent elections, thanks to a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that led to the creation of new loopholes that can hide the identities of those who are bankrolling campaigns. The Koch brothers themselves are well known, but theirdonors aren’t, because entities like Freedom Partners are chartered as non-profits and are not required to disclose donors.
Beyond that ruse, the party uses a wide matrix of front groups, which present themselves to local and state media as grassroots groups when the reality is they often are reciting a national script and promoting a nationwide agenda—such as NFIB endorsing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s re-election. In that same election, another Koch-funded group, American Future Fund, ran ads to support Walker, including one from a Libertarian candidate encouraging potheads to get stoned and vote for him instead of Democratic nominee Mary Burke, as the Center for Media and Democracy reported.
8. Being stealthy also means flouting campaign finance laws: There’s a legal dimension to the Koch Party’s political skullduggery—the stretching or breaking of campaign finance laws. This party, like the Democrats and Republicans, employs attorneys who are always looking for new ways to raise and spend money without having to fully disclose those activities. Political money laundering isn’t new, but these days it almost always escapes legal accountability—or, if accountability comes, it’s inevitably long after Election Day and when winners are seated.
Until this past summer, the campaign money laundering scandal surrounding Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was considered a top example, as a handful of Koch-backed groups, supported by a Koch junket-attending federal judge, were removed from a special prosecutor’s sights. But that very local example pales when compared to the media’s discovery of Freedom Partners, which investigative reporters learned early this year had secretly raised and spent $250 million in the last presidential campaign. And that wasn’t even everything spent by the party. An investigation by the Washington Post and the Center for Responsive Politics found that the private Koch network raised and spent $400 million in the 2012 cycle.
Meanwhile, there is a long list of right-wing think tanks that keep fighting new laws that would require political groups to disclose their spending. They claim that the millionaire and billionare donors might be targeted by the public for their political activities, which is a complete double-standard because these individuals and corporations have no qualms about imposing their views in political ad barrages. Even more maddening is that many of the donations to politicized non-profits are tax-deductible.
9. This what plutocracy looks like: American democracy has been dying a death by a thousand cuts for years. Every successive federal election in recent memory brings new ways for smaller numbers of super-rich people and institutions to have more power and influence. Small-donor funded campaigns pale in comparison.
But what makes the Koch Party so pernicious is that it does not even try to be a public political party. It is imbued with the Libertarian ethos of living by its own rules, for its own economic and political benefit, regardless of the consequences for everyday Americans and the nation’s supposedly democratic and constitutionally created institutions.
Simply put, the Koch Party is not what democracy looks like; it's what rule by a corporate economic elite looks like. And this party is not alone, as many other super-rich Americans are going their own way in politics, bankrolling candidates and single-issue campaigns. That overall trend is why Republicans and Democrats agreed to vastly increase campaign contribution caps in the recent 2015 federal budget bill. However, no other group of private citizens has gone so far as to create a private, parallel pathway to political power, seeking to turn the government into agents for their own private gain and agendas.