How the Koch Brothers hijacked the GOP: "I'm not sure they actually could do anything if they wanted to"

Three experts tell Salon how the right-wing billionaires have exploited the political process to devastating effect

Published February 13, 2016 7:00PM (EST)

Charles and David Koch   (MSNBC/AP/Evan Agostini/Photo montage by Salon)
Charles and David Koch (MSNBC/AP/Evan Agostini/Photo montage by Salon)

During 2015 the Koch Network (a network of donors that is organized by the Koch Brothers) spent nearly $400 million to influence politics. That compares to the $404 million spent by the RNC and the $319 million spent by the DNC during the entire 2012 cycle. Increasingly, the Koch Network resembles a political party, with its own research and mobilization operations, as well as sophisticated data analytics that many candidates believe to be superior to the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) data capabilities. In addition, the Koch Network has begun vetting, cultivating and supporting candidates to run for office, fulfilling more party-like aspects.

To gain deeper insights on the Koch Brothers, who have been active in politics for more than three decades, and their network, I interviewed three distinguished political scientists. Alex Hertel-Fernandez has spent years studying the Koch Network with Harvard Professor Theda Skocpol. Brian Schaffner is a professor of political science at U-Mass Amherst and is considered a leading expert on campaign finance. His latest book, "Campaign Finance and Political Polarization: When Purists Prevail" is discussed here. Heath Brown is an assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. He previously authored a book "The Tea Party Divided: The Hidden Diversity of a Maturing Movement," about the origins of the Tea Party, and has an upcoming book on money in the political system.

Together we discuss the long-term strategy of the Koch Brothers, how the decline of the GOP has strengthened Trump and how to reduce the influence of money in politics.

Alex, could you lay out the three-pronged strategy of the Koch brothers, their overarching strategy to push their agenda?

Alex Hertel-Fernandez: I think an important thing to know is that the strategy has changed over time. They started off much more interested in ideas and funding think-tanks and academics through organizations like Cato and the Mercatus Center in the 1970s and ’80s. Then they switched gears to focus more on policy advocacy during the Clinton administration with organizations like Citizens for a Sound Economy and, later, at the 60 Plus Association and the Center to Protect Patient Rights. Then you've seen kind of a new innovation in the form of AFP [Americans For Prosperity], which was spun off of Citizens for a Sound Economy, where they're not just lobbying in D.C., but they actually had a federated grassroots presence across the state. We think this is a really key innovation on the part of the Koch Network. They're able to have this centrally directed organization, where the priorities are set from above, from the Koch's inner circle of political leaders, but they have grassroots members in these chapters across the states and paid staffers at both the state and the regional levels, so they have the capacity to intervene both in state and national politics in that way.

I think the final move that the Kochs have made that's important to know is moving to coordinating donors. They've moved from giving simply their own money into politics into corralling other wealthy conservative donors to give to their network and supporting organizations that they've created and are maintaining over time. These are the twice-yearly Koch seminars that now are putting together several hundred millionaires and billionaires who are right-leaning.

And where we've seen policy shifts at the state level coming from the Kochs? Where would their big wins be?

A.H.F.: I think two areas that I can speak to are Medicaid expansion as part of the Affordable Care Act, and then labor policies, which are two areas I've looked at with Theda and with another co-author in the case of Medicaid. We looked at these battles of whether or not the state would expand Medicaid to cover newly uninsured adults who were previously ineligible for the program and, it turns out, that Americans for Prosperity has been one of the key organizations pushing back against expansion in the state. What's remarkable is that, in many cases, they're lobbying precisely the GOPers that they helped to elect. I think Tennessee gives us a good example of this. Andrew Ogles is the AFP director there, who worked to elect many of the state's legislative GOP members in the past electoral cycle and then immediately pivoted to joining the AFP and pushing them to reject expansion of Medicaid. That's one area where you've seen [policy shifts], because that network's been ineffective at pushing the state-level policy. The other one is right-to-work law as another measure to cut back public sector labor unions. We found that one of the best predictors of where you saw these cuts in 2011 passing legislatures was where AFP had the stronger presence and where they really made public sector labor unions a priority.

Right. Brian, I'm actually curious about your research on the state level. Do you think that there are big impacts coming from campaign contributions at the state level? Has the environment changed in the last few years with wealthy people mobilizing? What are your thoughts there, in terms of what we can gain from the research that you've done and other people have done?

Brian Schaffner: Yes. We can look at that several-decades time span in our book. Issue groups played significant roles in terms of campaign contributions but they were actually relatively small group compared to business interest, union interest and parties. In the more recent periods, the more recent decade, the issue groups like the Koch Brothers and other kinds of organizations like that have started giving more money in the state races. They tend to get to more extreme candidates and, also, the independent spending by these groups has taken off quite a bit and it's been quite pronounced in a lot of states.

Does that spending correlate with wins? That is, are the Koch brothers getting a return on their investment? I'm specifically thinking of 2010 and 2014, this has been crippling for the Democrats. We expect losses off-cycle, but is there any possibility that the massive amount of spending has exacerbated those losses? What's your read on the literature there?

B.S.: Well, I mean, it's hard to say to what extent that matters compared to the simple changes of turnout and redistricting and another kinds of things that were happening at the same times. I hesitate to say that this is all the result of any one given force.

You think there's evidence that this has had an impact?

B.S.: Sure. There are races, marginal races, in which these investments have I'm sure had to play some role in terms of moving a few legislative districts or a few state races that might've gone the other way.

Heath, you have studied the Tea Party and there's sort of a running debate as to whether the Tea Party is a grassroots movement or a very corporate donor-class movement, driven by people like the Koch brothers, and your take is that it’s both; what is your read on the Tea Party and how it's affecting politics?

Heath Brown: Well, I think your take is right. What I found in the book is what others have found, that there have been these two things going on. The Tea Party is sort of a name that we call a certain dimension of a much longer tradition that goes back to maybe the 1940s or so. The Koch brothers, in some way, have entered into the Tea Party phenomenon in 2009, 2010, 2011. But they were around, funding groups that preceded the Tea Party, that supported the Tea Party and will last past when the Tea Party is no longer called the Tea Party. That, I think, is going on but, at the very same time, the grassroots work that has very little association with big money, has very little association with the Koch brothers, it's also a very real phenomenon.

They just so happen to use a lot of the intellectual stuff that's been created by organizations like Cato and all the others that are around them. In that way, even if the grassroots, or grassroots organizations, and grassroots activists who have never received a dollar from any of the Koch brothers’ associated organizations, they still have been deeply influenced by the intellectual infrastructure that has been built over the last 30 to 40, even longer, years. I think that influence can be absorbed in tangible ways with dollars given to organizations, but also in much less tangible ways with simply the array of policies that have been a part of the Tea Party agenda since 2009.

Right. For this next part, I want to focus on the Koch brothers and the GOP. We're seeing divides, but also a lot of cooperation here. Alex, I can see both arguments in your research. The GOP hates the Koch brothers because they can't control the Koch brothers, and they create their own movements and sometimes publicly go against the GOP. But at the same time, the GOP should like the Koch brothers because they're spending tons and tons of money to get Republicans elected. What do you think the relationship is between the Koch brothers and the GOP? Who's gaining power? Who's losing it? What's going on there?

A.H.F.: It's a tricky thing to wrap your head around. We struggled with it ourselves, because on the one hand, as you noted, the Koch Network has at this point built its own parallel operation that in many ways looks like the GOP and on some metrics is even larger than the GOP when it comes to staffers across the state at this point. It’s spending across all of its activities in the next electoral cycle, grassroots advocates who are on the ground and on the states on which AFP is operating and so on, so forth.

But on the other hand, as you mentioned, they are working with the GOP in order to advance their agenda, so the way we described it is as a force-field operating to the right of the GOP, pressuring them and pushing them further to the right, while taking advantage of this intertwined infrastructure. One thing that we noted about the Koch Network and AFP in particular is that many of the people who staffed the Koch Network have come from posts at the GOP. A large proportion of the people who are serving as directors of state chapters at AFP have previously served for state Republican lawmakers, on campaigns and whatnot, and will go back into GOP politics. These are closely intertwined organizations, and I think that's a source of strength for the Koch Network. As I mentioned in the previous example of Tennessee, when this Andrew Ogles was tapped to lead the opposition to the Medicaid expansion, he knew exactly where to push because he had been helping elect all of the GOP folks in the legislature in the previous cycle. It's a source of strength for the Kochs.

But from the perspective of the GOP, it's a problem because it's weakening their capacity to set agendas, defied candidates that they support, independently of these party groups. As we show in the changing organizational resources work that we've done, I think you stated that in the other piece, we were talking about that. The GOP does simply control fewer resources to direct towards politics than it once did, and a big, big part of that is that more money is flowing through the Koch Network.

Are we going see more outright antagonism between the GOP and the Koch Network? Or are we just starting to see it?

B.S.: I think the point of pressure that you're going to see is not between the Koch Network and the institutional GOP per se, but it's between the Koch Network and other longstanding members of the GOP coalition. Business, for instance. The Chamber of Commerce by all accounts is quite conservative; it's taken really a hard right turn since the 1990s and yet it's finding itself increasingly in tension with the Koch Network. The Koch Network has opposed things like a farm bill, infrastructure spending, export-import bank most recently, and these are all things that Chamber, however conservative, is supportive of. These are things that businesses want and need to maintain their revenues. I think you're going to see more tensions like that where, especially in the business community, part of their folks were opposing the sort of priorities that the Kochs are pushing.

Right. Brian, can you sort of give me an overview of what you see has happened to the parties in the last few years and how your book shows that campaign finance has really been interwoven into the story?

B.S.: The parties have really taken quite a hit in the last several years, but I think part of that is that these Supreme Court decisions have really opened up pathways for money to come in in every way except through parties. So all the parties continue to be highly regulated, in terms of both disclosure and limitations on what they can support or how much money they can raise -- these other groups are able to do almost whatever they want, and so it's not surprising then to find that you're getting a parallel party organization built alongside the Republican party that's sometimes cooperating with the party, but sometimes fighting against the party. It's really been to the detriment of the mainstream party and, as we argue, the ability of parties to compromise, because when the money comes in through outside groups, those groups are primarily interested in particular policy being passed, whereas the parties are, first and foremost, interested in [winning] elections so they're willing to compromise what they think is going to be some of the electoral benefits from it.

But what we find, the groups run by, for example, the Koch brothers are not very interested in compromise. They're very interested in seeing their policies pass. So, I think that's been a huge deal in terms of both undermining the party organization and ultimately undermining compromise in terms of political process.

Heath, I want to direct this one to you. Brian, you can jump in too because you're a big party partisan, you're a fan of parties. I think political scientists really like parties, but most people don’t understand this. The idea that parties have to respond to voters and the Koch brothers don't; at the end of the day, the Koch brothers have to run candidates who win primaries, right? When I'm reading Jane Mayer, most of what they do is they run ads, very bad ads, very deceiving ads. At the end of the day, they can still claim, if they want to, "Hey, all we're doing is running candidates and winning elections." Why do you think that we should be worried about the rise of extra-party organizations that are owned and operated by a very powerful billionaire network?

H.B.: I would say a couple of things. To me, one of the pieces of this is the question of political transparency, and it seems like, as much as anything else, the Koch brothers have gone and exposed the big gap, the regulatory gap that exists in how we think about disclosure of political money. Many of the ways in which the Koch brothers and others seek out influence is through the least transparent possible ways. Campaign contributions seems to be just one small part of the way in which they seek influence, and most of the other ways that they seek influence are highly non-transparent. I think that would be one of the reasons why I would be worried, is that the way in which they're seeking out power really stands outside of the ways we have thought about tracking influence and tracking money. That would be one of the things that I would raise.

One of the others is going back to one of the earlier points, about some of the overlap between the parties in the ways in which certain social conservatives and Christian conservatives have found it very difficult to find common cause with some of the platforms that the Koch brothers have backed. Marijuana legalization, gay rights, reproductive rights, are all either not part of the agenda that they have been pushing or, in some ways, have been counter to the longstanding positions of Christian conservatives. I think that's another way in which Republican Party politics has had to struggle with the rise of the Koch brothers' institutions.


B.S.: Can I just emphasize one of Heath's points, which is that I think one of the really critical and key differences is that parties can be held accountable in the way that these third-party groups cannot be. Parties are enduring institutions and they're uniquely on the ballot in every election. If you think about the research, for example, on attack ads: if a candidate attacks another candidate with an ad, there's the possibility that they themselves will be punished for being too negative or too harsh. The Koch brothers don't have to worry about that. They're not on the ballot. They can do things, be harsh, they can attack, they can be deceitful without any kind of electoral recourse because they can hide behind the guise that they're not the candidate, they’re not on the ballot. Whereas parties are on the ballot so they can be openly held accountable for the ways in which they raise or spend campaign [funds], the things they do during campaigns.

A.H.F.: That's a great point. I'd also say that, in addition to not being on the ballot, elections aren't the only thing that they care about, as Heath mentioned. This is one in a long list of goals that they hope to achieve. They're active both in the election but then after the election as well, with whoever is elected, pushing them to adopt the policies they prefer. It's not just about elections for them.

Definitely. I want to conclude with the question of what do you do about the Kochs? What policies should we pursue? Do we need more journalists investigating this? Would disclosure also help with that? Alex, if you had to say, given the current composition of the Supreme Court, where do you think the best push is? If I wanted something that's really politically possible. Where can we make inroads on the influence of big money in politics?

A.H.F.: Given the present political realities of the Supreme Court and of Congress right now, it seems like the best hope would be for people who disagree with the Koch Network to organize in the same ways that the Kochs have organized. A key leverage point for the Koch Network has been, at the state level, progressives and left-leaning groups have traditionally lacked a lot of capacity to lobby across the states simultaneously. I think that's one clear area where a stronger progressive organizational push could really pay off well. If you can't pass legislation, the other alternative is just to out-organize.

Brian, I think I know what your solution is, but what do you think the solution to a problem like the Kochs is?

B.S.: We argued in the book that giving the parties more of the ability to compete on a level playing field would be a good start. Removing or increasing the contribution limits to and from parties would at least help them kind of play at the same game. The parties also have to feel a little more bold themselves. The political parties generally try to stay out of things like primaries. In some states they're in fact mandated to do so. But if they want to really push back against these groups, I think they're going to have to get more involved earlier in the election cycle to encourage the right candidates to run and try and get their preferred candidate on the general election ballot. We're kind of seeing how this plays out when the party doesn't get very involved, right now, in the Republican side of the presidential election.

Yes. That was actually the question I was going to ask. Is the Trump phenomenon the result of weaker parties? Whenever I read "The Party Decides" literature, they're like "The party, the elites decide the nominee." How? How do elites control the process? Is it just that the parties are too weak to make their will decide the nomination that we're seeing with Trump?

B.S.: I think, on the Republican side of things, actually what you have now is a party whose influence has been so eroded by the kind of presence of things like the Tea Party and the Koch brothers, that they're too scared to get involved, like the elites are too scared to try to influence this in any way. Either through endorsements, getting together, or whatever. It's not clear to me that it would actually matter anyway because the perception of the Republican party amongst conservatives is so poisoned, I think, the last four or five years, that most conservatives think the party is a big sellout to moderation and that it's the Tea Party and these other groups that are really holding forth the conservative ideals. I'm not even sure the party at this point, because they let their power erode so much, I'm not sure they actually could do anything if they wanted to, but they're certainly not trying.

Just to finish it up, Heath. What do you think is the solution to the Koch brothers, big money in politics? What would you see as the first steps?

H.B.: My sense is that the Koch brothers aren't all that interested in democratic politics. I think their ideology and their strategy is just that they are as interested in the inside baseball side of government as much as they are in the very public side of election campaigns. What I would think of as a first step is much more attention to the hidden side, to the policymaking process that most people don’t see, because there isn’t a whole lot of attention given to it compared to the amount of attention given to the electoral cycle.

One of the things that I said in the presidential transition, that the process, that day after the election ends and everybody goes home, attention shifts away from politics to all sorts of other things. I think I would want to pay a lot of attention to that time period because I suspect that a group, I think institutions like the Koch brothers, would realize whoever ultimately wins, they can influence policy outcome if they could influence that process and that process, and that process is a whole lot more predictable then the vagaries of elections. I would want much more attention and much more transparency around some of the hidden ways that policies are made because the most visible, public ways may not go as far to determine the outcome of politics and also the interests of the Koch Brothers. That's partially the role the media might play and also has to do with the information that is collected about politics.

By Sean McElwee

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

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