How to defeat the Koch brothers: Here's what it could take to end their right-wing stranglehold

The billionaires have created a political machine that more and more resembles its own party. What can be done?

Published January 31, 2016 5:00PM (EST)

Charles and David Koch   (MSNBC/AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack/Photo montage by Salon)
Charles and David Koch (MSNBC/AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack/Photo montage by Salon)

Over the last decade, the Koch brothers have taken an increasingly important role in American politics. Recent reporting as well as academic research suggests that the Kochs now control a network that will likely outspend the Republican National Committee in 2016, and has sophisticated data analytic capacities, as well as a surveillance operation. The Kochs fund organizations that create model bills, run get-out-the-vote operations and recruit candidates. That is, the Koch network shares all of the things a traditional party does, without being accountable to voters. The remedy, say two political scientists, is to shift the campaign finance landscape to strengthen parties. But any reform must include public financing.

The rise of the Kochs

Though they have been involved in politics for more than four decades, the Koch brothers only recently began participating directly in electoral politics. However, their operations have expanded quickly. A recent Politico report finds,

Koch and his brother David Koch have quietly assembled, piece by piece, a privatized political and policy advocacy operation like no other in American history that today includes hundreds of donors and employs 1,200 full-time, year-round staffers in 107 offices nationwide. That’s about 3½ times as many employees as the Republican National Committee and its congressional campaign arms had on their main payrolls last month, according to POLITICO’s analysis of tax and campaign documents and interviews with sources familiar with the network.

At the same time as the Koch brothers have expanded into electoral politics, traditional party organizations have become weaker. Political scientists Theda Skocpol and Alex Hertel-Fernandez, who have studied organizations on the left and right extensively, find funding non-party organizations have increased dramatically on the right while the Republican Party has become weaker (see chart).



Hertel-Fernandez tells me,

“Political resources are now far less likely to flow through the official Republican committees than they were a decade ago. Instead, contributions are increasingly likely to go through outside groups. By far, the most prominent of these extra party funders is the array of groups directed by the Koch brothers.”

Their research aligns with extensive work by journalists. In his 2014 book, "Big Money," Kenneth Vogel writes of the Koch network,

“Intentionally or not, this new system has eroded the power of the official parties that have rigidly controlled modern politics for decades… The result is the privatization of a system that we’d always thought of as public-a hi-jacking of American politics by the ultra-rich.”

Dan Balz notes that,

“When W. Clement Stone, an insurance magnate and philanthropist, gave $2 million to Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 campaign, it caused public outrage and contributed to a movement that produced the post-Watergate reforms in campaign financing. Accounting for inflation, that $2 million would equal about $11 million in today’s dollars.”

In 2015, the Koch brothers revealed a spending goal of $889 million for their network, nearly 81 times more than Stone, and far more than the $657 million that the Republican Party spent in 2012. In her book "Dark Money," Jane Mayer argues that this has long been a goal for some on the right, writing that Karl Rove “had long dreamed of creating a conservative political machine outside the traditional parties’ control that could be funded by virtually unlimited private fortunes.”

But Rove’s goal may soon become a nightmare. While most people have focused on the part of the GOP's post-election autopsy that worried about its overwhelmingly white base, a more important nugget may well be its discussion of the increasing power of donors. The document reads,

“The current campaign finance environment has led to a handful of friends and allied groups dominating our side’s efforts. This is not healthy. A lot of centralized authority in the hand of a few people at these outside organizations is dangerous for our party.”

Take the Medicaid expansion, which has been stunted by powerful political interests, despite rather strong public support. Hertel-Fernandez, Theda Skocpol and Daniel Lynch find that while GOP governors and business groups were favorable to the Medicaid expansion, Koch-backed groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and AFP (Americans for Prosperity) fought vigorously against it (I’ve discussed this work here). As the Koch brothers grow stronger, there will be more fights between the GOP and this increasingly powerful and unaccountable family.

Meanwhile, Ken Vogel reports that in 2014, the Chamber of Commerce “considered wading into the 2014 Republican primary in a major way.” Their goal: “ousting tea party conservatives and replacing them with more business-friendly pragmatists.” Vogel cites Club for Growth president Chris Chocola who criticizes former Gov. Haley Barbour because,

“Haley wants every Republican to win, regardless of how they vote for office. The Club for Growth PAC helps elect candidates who support limited government and free markets. Unfortunately, the two goals coincide less often than the Republican Establishment cares to admit.” [emphasis mine]

Quotes like this indicate that there will be increasingly fraught relationships between outside groups and the GOP establishment.

Could the solution be stronger parties?

What, then, can be done? In their book, "Campaign Finance and Political Polarization," political scientists Brian Schaffner and Ray La Raja use a vast amount of state-level data to argue that stronger parties lead to less ideological candidates. As the chart below from their book shows, the distribution of party money favors more moderate candidates, while issue groups like the Koch network favor more extreme candidates, and business groups favor the right. It’s also worth noting that these data suggest an asymmetry in the parties, with Republicans more likely to support candidates further to the extreme than Democrats (thus the rightward tilt of the “party money” graph). Their extensive analysis of state-level data, over a long historical period, suggests, “In states where parties face more restrictive campaign finance laws, legislators are further from the center than in states where parties are financially unconstrained.”


Although La Raja and Schaffner focus on polarization, a recent report by Daniel Weiner and Ian Vandewalker of the Brennan Center for Justice makes a different argument: Stronger parties could actually strengthen democracy. They write,

“Targeted measures to strengthen political parties, including public financing and a relaxing of certain campaign finance regulations, could help produce a more inclusive and transparent politics.”

Their core argument is that parties are accountable to voters, while donors are not. They compare two of the biggest spenders in 2014: the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), a party organization, and the Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC. They note that,

“the Senate Majority PAC. The DSCC took in 44 percent of its contributions from small donors of $200 or less, while Senate Majority PAC received less than one tenth of one percent of its funds from small donors.”


“Of the $46 million that Senate Majority PAC spent in total, $36 million came from just 23 donors who each gave half a million dollars or more, according to FEC data.”

They also note that parties are more transparent than PACs, so stronger parties would bring more sunlight to the democratic process.

Though they approach the argument from different angles, the Brennan Center Report and the La Raja/Schaffner book share in common the proposal that public financing should be available to parties and that limits on party contributions to candidates should be reduced or eliminated. Brian explained his thinking to me thusly:

“While the Mitch McConnells and John Boehners of the world are certainly not moderates, they are not nearly as polarized or uncompromising as super PAC funders like the the Kochs and Adelson. And it's the fear of backlash from those outside forces which is working against any kind of compromise in Washington."

He adds, "The Koch network now has many of the aspects of a political party -- GOTV, complex data analytics, candidate selection -- without the accountability to voters."

Political scientist Seth Masket notes that the proposal to strengthen parties had quite a bit of support at a Brookings event he attended. He argues for a system in which parties can funnel public money to preferred campaigns. However, political scientist Lee Drutman is highly skeptical, at least of the idea that unlimited funding would decrease polarization. He argues that there are t0o few competitive districts and little incentive from parties to run moderates if there were. He also notes, correctly, that it’s unlikely small donors would increase political polarization.


Because the current composition of the Supreme Court makes reform difficult, progressives have good reasons to be supportive of proposals to strengthen parties, but also good reasons to be wary. The reason to support such a campaign is, somewhat ironically, that as the Republican Party has become weaker, even more right-wing forces have become stronger. The rise of extreme candidates like Trump can certainly be explained in part by the weakness of the GOP compared to outside donors. The negative side is that the Democratic Party has never been particularly kind to economic progressivism, and that big money is inherently anti-democratic, whichever channel it flows through.

On the issue of public financing, there is mutual agreement: La Raja tells me, “I think reformers should be focused more on how the money is raised than on how it is spent. That is why some form of public financing makes sense.” He argues that campaigns should be seen as a public good (because they raise awareness, knowledge and mobilization) and therefore supported by public funds. Empowering small donors means empowering average Americans and bolstering independent political power for progressives and people of color, who currently make up a vanishing share of the donor class. Even more fundamentally, it’s obvious that tackling economic inequality is essential to tackling political inequality. As Louis Brandeis writes (in a quote Jane Mayer uses for the epigraph of her book), “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we can’t have both.”

By Sean McElwee

Sean McElwee is founding executive director of Data for Progress. He tweets at @seanmcelwee.

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