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Charles Koch’s Bipartisan Delusion

The billionaire leader of the powerful political network says he's willing to work with Democrats who share his values. Which values would those be?

Bo Rader/The Wichita Eagle via AP

One of the richest, most powerful forces in Republican politics has grown disappointed with the return on its investment. On Sunday, billionaire oil mogul Charles Koch said he regretted his vast political network’s past support of some GOP candidates who, since taking office, have not lived up to his libertarian ideals. “They say they’re going to be for these principles that we espouse and then they aren’t,” the 82-year-old told reporters at a three-day donor conference in Colorado. “So, we’re going to be much stricter,” he added. “We’re going to more directly deal with that and hold people responsible for these commitments.”

But Koch also said he would be “happy” to work with Democratic candidates who shared his values. I don’t care what initials are in front or after somebody’s name,” he said.

The announcement marks a significant shift for the Koch network, which includes influential groups like Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council. In January, it “pledged to invest more money in this midterm election cycle than any before, as much as $400 million, to support its policy objectives and help defend Republican majorities,” according to CNN. Now, “the network might now be less invested in the outcome of this election cycle. When asked Sunday whether the network would be comfortable with a Democratic majority in the House, Charles Koch suggested it would not matter to him what party controls Congress.”

The Koch network supports free trade and advocates for small government, so its lists of complaints include Trump’s trade war and a $1.3 trillion government spending bill, that adds $400 billion to the budget through 2019. On Tuesday, Trump, who was rebuffed by the Kochs in 2016, snapped at the “Koch Brothers” on Twitter, calling them a “total joke.” (Charles’s brother, David, stepped down from both the family business and political network earlier this year, prompting a rebranding away from “Koch Brothers.”)

“I know this is uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable for me, too,” Emily Seidel, Americans for Prosperity’s chief executive, said on a Sunday phone call with donors. “The fact that we’re willing to do this during an election year shows everyone that we’re dead serious.”

Dead serious, that is, about promoting the Kochs’ values. But what are these values, exactly, and is it reasonable to expect any modern Democrat to share them?

The political ideology of America’s second-richest family originated with the late Fred Koch. The family patriarch and founder of Koch Industries “was extraordinarily fearful of our government becoming much more socialistic and domineering,” David Koch explained to the Wichita Eagle in 2012. Fred feared a big government would hurt the family business, today the second-largest privately-held company in America. Koch Industries started as a crude oil company and became a manufacturing behemoth with subsidiaries involved in everything from oil refining to chemical production to commodities trading. Charles Koch is the chairman and CEO.

In theory, the Koch values amount to textbook libertarianism: “Lower taxes, less government regulation and economic prosperity for all,” as Americans for Prosperity puts it. In practice, however, their agenda has a hand in some of the most consequential policies in American society.

The Republican Party’s widespread denial of climate change, and thus refusal to take action on the problem, did not appear out of nowhere. It was “moved along by a campaign carefully crafted by fossil fuel industry players, most notably Charles D. and David H. Koch,” according to The New York Times. The Kochs have given at least $100 million to groups promoting climate denial since 1997, according to Greenpeace. Koch Industries is the twentieth-largest greenhouse gas polluter in the country, and thus stands to be hurt by climate change regulation.

Koch Industries is also the fourteenth-largest air polluter and tenth-largest water polluter in America, according to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. That may explain the political network’s long quest to dismantle Environmental Protection Agency regulations. That effort has paid off under Trump, as the network noted in an internal memo obtained by The Intercept in February: The Koch network took credit for Trump’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, his withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, his dismantling of rules protecting streams from coal waste, and his allowance of fracking on public lands.

A partial screenshot of a Koch network document.
The Intercept

Another Koch value: the right to spend on politics in secrecy. As the Associated Press noted on Saturday, “there’s no way to verify how or where the [network’s] money is spent because most of its organizations are registered as nonprofit groups, which aren’t required to detail their donors like traditional political action committees.” The Kochs have been “reliable, stalwart opponents of regulation of money in politics,” the Center for Public Integrity reported last year, explaining how the Koch family underwrote and supported the legal landscape that permits dark money in politics today.

The network also accomplished numerous policy changes at the state level last year. Due to advocacy campaigns backed by Koch-affiliated groups, several states “have reduced union power, scaled back regulations, cut taxes, blocked Medicaid expansion, promoted alternatives to public education, loosened criminal sentencing laws and eased requirements to get occupational licenses,” according to The Washington Post.

The network has also launched a nationwide crusade against public transportation projects, and has built a data service called i360 to help “identify and rally voters” to support that cause, according to the Times. Like most of the Kochs’ political efforts, the anti-public transportation campaign “stems from their longstanding free-market, libertarian philosophy [but] also dovetails with their financial interests, which benefit from automobiles and highways,” the Times reported.

The Kochs’ values, in other words, are anathema to most Democrats. So who on the left would the Koch network be willing to support?

So far, there appears to be one: Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a moderate from North Dakota. Last month, Americans for Prosperity released an ad campaign thanking Heitkamp for supporting a bill to loosen financial protection regulations on small- and medium-size banks. The Koch network hasn’t pledged to financially support Heitkamp, who is facing a touch re-election bid in November; but they have said they don’t plan to support her Republican opponent, Kevin Cramer.

There is at least one area where Koch values and Democrats values might align. In a 2015 op-ed titled “the Overcriminalization of America,” Charles Koch and his business associate Mark Holden called for sweeping criminal justice reform marked by the end of mass incarceration, which the left has been demanding for years. But some anti-prison advocates worry the Koch’s push for reform is, at its core, about making money. As The Nation reported in March, “These critics fear that the libertarian reformers are more interested in replacing the carceral state with a privatized carceral industry than they are in coming up with humane alternatives to prison.”

Trump is right about this much: The Koch network doesn’t have much direct influence in the White House. As Axios noted last month, many Republicans believed the Kochs “had lost their influence during the rise of Trump.” But the network has shown that it can wield tremendous influence over congressional races. In his overtures to Democrats and censure of Republicans, Charles Koch may be attempting to remind the GOP of that power—and reassert it. But if indeed his network is losing political influence, and continues to do so, it’s hard to imagine Democrats’ lending a hand to help them regain it.