Koch brothers' humiliating secret: Why even their billions can't save the GOP from self-destruction

The brothers, plus Fox, are trying to cull the GOP field. But they can't make it avoid demographic catastrophe

Published May 26, 2015 3:03PM (EDT)

David Koch                                      (Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)
David Koch (Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)

Faced with the nightmare of up to 20-something GOP presidential candidates in 2016, Fox News last week announced its bid for sanity: It would limit its debate to the top 10 candidates in national polls. Now David Koch tells Larry Kudlow that he and brother Charles are likely to distribute some of the $900 million they’ve socked away for 2016 to “several" contenders, not just one Republican candidate.

Paul Waldman reads this as an attempt to cull the GOP field, and so do I.  The Kochs can spread the wealth, at least among Republicans, because the entire 2016 roster supports their tax-slashing, regulation-gutting, climate-change accelerating policies. Their real interest is having a limited debate among the “grown-ups” of the party and sending a strong candidate off to face the Democratic nominee, most likely Hillary Clinton.

Charles Koch said something similar last month to USA Today, specifically mentioning Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio.  "Those are the ones we have talked to the most and who seem to be the possible leaders," Koch said.

At the time, Charles’s comments were widely interpreted as cleaning up an earlier mess made by brother David, when he told New York GOP donors that the Kochs would only get involved “when the primaries are over and Scott Walker gets the nomination.” That was taken as a sign they backed the man who turned Wisconsin into an arm of Koch Industries.

When Charles Koch came out days later and said the brothers would in fact back “several” GOP candidates, I took it as evidence that they recognized that Walker had stumbled early and often in his first forays into national politics, and he shouldn't be their only bet.

Now I think it’s a sign of many things, none of them good for the GOP.

First, even though the Democrats’ 2014 effort to raise awareness of the Kochs’ control of the GOP was widely perceived as a failure, it succeeded in making the Kochs edgy about their public image. They don't want anybody IDed as the Kochs' man.

It's also a signal they don't see anyone who's a slam-dunk winner: Walker and Jeb Bush have matched each other for missteps all year, and the Kochs can’t afford to back a loser.

But it's also a sign that for all their influence with the GOP field, the Kochs can’t force a change in the top candidates’ political platform.  Despite their claims that they're still libertarian on abortion rights and marriage equality, and despite evidence they support comprehensive immigration reform, the brothers don't even pretend to be searching for a candidate who's moderate on any of those things.

Even the great and powerful Kochs can't force GOP moderation on those issues -- and they don't really care that much, because their political commitments are all about their bottom line, anyway.

While the Kochs look for a way to prop up “the possible leaders” of the GOP field, Fox will try to stage-manage the clown show. Fox’s decision to use national polls, rather than polling in key primary-state races, has the benefit of wider inclusion. Biographic and demographic curiosities like neurosurgeon Ben Carson and businesswoman Carly Fiorina, two “non-politicians” who don’t have a prayer of running serious, nationwide campaigns, will likely make the cut.

Thus the Fox debate stage will likely feature two Latinos (Cruz and Rubio), plus an African American and a woman, vying to lead a party in which white men make up the majority of voters.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported Friday that the Kochs’ efforts were eclipsing Karl Rove and his American Crossroads empire, which failed spectacularly in the 2012 cycle. Rove is suffering for his ties to the last, spectacularly unsuccessful GOP president, George W. Bush – but he doesn’t particularly get along with Bush’s brother. Not to worry: Crossroads seems to be carving out a role in attacking Hillary Clinton.

But Rove, too, was supposed to be seeking the great GOP moderate after Tea Party extremists hijacked his party and made it unelectable in presidential races. Neither Rove nor the Kochs seem able to steer the field away from demographically destructive policies on gay rights or immigration. Money can’t buy moderation on social issues, at least not yet, so the GOP’s best hopes involve trashing the Democratic nominee in 2016.

By Joan Walsh