Koch network spreads the wealth

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The most popular presidential candidates among the Koch brothers’ conservative donor network are Jeb Bush and Marco RubioMarco RubioRubio: I hope I can trust whoever wins with the nuclear codes Rubio faces Trump-like challenger in primary Rubio on VP: 'It's too late for that' MORE, who each received contributions from more than 12 percent of 190 donors and their families in records analyzed by The Hill.

Carly Fiorina, Ted CruzTed CruzO'Malley gives Trump a nickname: 'Chicken Donald' Va. GOP delegate files lawsuit over bound convention votes Our most toxic export: American politick MORE and Scott Walker — who quit the race in September — are the next three most popular, respectively.

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Billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, who oversee the most influential group of conservative donors and activists in the United States, will have a significant impact on the 2016 presidential election, but that is the only certainty so far about the network’s sway on the race.

An examination of the latest donation records and interviews with people close to the Kochs show that the powerful network is not close to settling on a candidate for president and that members of the group are supporting Republicans across a wide swath of the ideological spectrum.

The closest the Koch network comes to a consensus is a distaste for billionaire front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMcConnell: Trump needs to 'catch up fast' on fundraising Rubio: I hope I can trust whoever wins with the nuclear codes O'Malley: Trump is a 'racist' and a 'bigot' MORE, who accused Republicans attending the Kochs’ summer donor retreat of being “puppets” of their wealthy masters.

Members of the Koch network, which the brothers used to foment the growth of the Tea Party, plan to spend at least $300 million in the 2016 election cycle. They have so far spent more than $22 million supporting everyone from foreign policy hawks Rubio and Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamGun-control supporters plan next steps versus NRA Bipartisan gun measure survives test vote Senate Republicans may defy NRA on guns MORE to Medicare-defender Mike Huckabee to establishment candidate Bush and Tea Party favorites Cruz and Rand PaulRand PaulRepublicans question Trump's trip to Scotland Hate TV customer service? So does your senator Overnight Cybersecurity: Senate narrowly rejects expanding FBI surveillance powers MORE

Paul, whose libertarian views hew closest to the Kochs’ advocacy for smaller government and an anti-interventionist foreign policy, received support from just 2 percent of the Koch donors. That indicates he is far less popular in the network than Bush and Rubio, who support muscular U.S. action in the Middle East.

In terms of total money spent, Cruz, Walker and Huckabee, in that order, received the most, but their totals are skewed by generous single donors.

New York hedge fund manager Robert Mercer gave Cruz’s super-PAC $11 million, Wisconsin roofing billionaire Diane Hendricks gave Walker’s super-PAC $5 million and Arkansas poultry tycoon Ronald Cameron spent $3 million on Huckabee.

Koch donor Chris Rufer, a 66-year-old libertarian who runs a tomato processing business in California, has spent $150,000 so far on Paul. He says he’s not surprised that there is little ideological consistency among the network’s donations.

“There’s a number of solid classical liberals, libertarians, but the vast majority [of Koch network donors] I’d say are more along the traditional conservative line,” Rufer said.

But the “common thread” between the donors, Rufer said, is that they “don’t need another dime” and support the Koch ventures out of a selfless desire to help more Americans achieve happiness and take control of their own lives.

More than $500,000 in Koch donor money has gone to individual campaigns in the 2016 race so far, and more than $22 million has gone to independent super-PACs that can spend unlimited amounts of money to help candidates get elected.

But total Koch network donations are likely far higher than these disclosed amounts. The American public will have to wait until January to see how much money millionaires and billionaires have spent since July 1 on super-PACs.

Neither Koch brother has spent a penny supporting a 2016 candidate so far. When The Hill found in the federal records what appeared to be a $5,000 donation this year from Koch Industries’s PAC to Rubio’s presidential campaign, a company spokesman was quick to clarify via email that the donation “was given to his Senate reelection campaign fund. The amount was subsequently transferred to his presidential campaign fund.”

Records show the Kochs have previously supported Paul, Cruz and Fiorina in Senate campaigns.

Sources familiar with the Koch network’s thinking say the group’s leaders originally narrowed its preferences to five candidates: Walker, Rubio, Cruz, Paul and Bush. 

All five were invited to the Koch summer retreat in California and to address Koch-backed groups including Hispanic outreach organization LIBRE, Concerned Veterans for America and Americans for Prosperity.

Sources say it would be wrong to assume anything is settled in the network’s 2016 calculations. 

Much has changed in the race since Trump’s disruptive entrance.

Not a single contribution to Trump’s campaign could be found in the donation records of the 190 attendees of Koch donor conferences. Several expressed grave reservations about Trump’s temperament and his business record.  

“I’m sure Donald is obviously a very accomplished individual,” Rufer said. “But I personally guarantee, and I don’t have to, all loans that I have to the company, and they’re hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Rufer suggested he was troubled that Trump could “seem to say without any remorse” that he had used American bankruptcy laws to his benefit in Atlantic City.

Another Koch donor, Minnesota billionaire Stanley Hubbard, said he worries about Trump’s fitness for high office and is uncomfortable with the real estate mogul’s self-funded campaign.

“This idea of ‘I don’t need to have any funding, I’ll fund myself,’ that scares the hell out of me,” Hubbard said.

“That’s like a dictator. I think that any politician should have to answer to their constituents. … I don’t think it’s healthy to have somebody who doesn’t answer to anybody.”

Hubbard, who gave $50,000 to Walker’s super-PAC before he dropped out, is now funding the presidential aspirations of Fiorina, Bush and Rubio, as well as Chris Christie and Ben Carson.

Rufer regrets the “shadowy” motives ascribed by the media and Democrats to the Kochs. He says that if only the public could see inside Koch donor events, they would no longer hold such negative opinions about the brothers’ influence on American politics.  

“If [the biannual donor conference] was televised, people would have tears in their eyes, [because of] what is trying to happen and what his motivations are.”

The Koch network’s central goal, despite the disparate views held within the group, is to stop the centralization of power, Rufer said.

“All of those arguments about collectivism end up being — guess what — the person promoting them being in charge,” Rufer added. 

“Being Lenin, Hitler or Hillary or Bush. … It all ends up with the power being in these few elites. Charles [Koch] is against elites.”