INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Hundreds of the nation’s top conservative donors gathered at an exclusive resort in the California desert on Saturday to strategize ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
Senior officials from a network of groups affiliated with billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch acknowledged the stiff political headwinds facing Republicans in 2018 as they seek to protect majorities in the House and Senate.
The Koch network plans to spend more than $400 million this cycle to elect GOP candidates and promote conservative causes — its largest ever investment in an election cycle.
The groups will also run parallel efforts to promote the achievements of President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE and the Republican Congress, starting with a $20 million effort to tout the GOP’s tax bill. Other areas of focus will include promoting Trump’s judicial picks, the rolling back of regulations and the overhaul of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
And the nation’s premier group of conservative activists and donors will be pushing for new policies, knowing that the window for reforms could be short, with the midterm election only 10 months away.
Among the network’s priorities are an immigration bill that includes a pathway to citizenship for those protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and new programs aimed at lifting the poor and newly-released prisoners.
“Charles Koch challenged us to step things up by an order of magnitude … and that’s what we’re going to do,” said Brian Hooks, the co-chairman of the gathering.
The Koch network has attracted its biggest crowd of members ever to its winter seminar, with 550 conservative donors from around the country, including 160 first-timers, gathering at the swanky Renaissance Indian Wells Resort & Spa.
Members will hear from Charles Koch, as well as more than a half-dozen elected officials, including Sens. John CornynJohn CornynDemocrats make case to Senate parliamentarian for 8 million green cards Democrats to make pitch Friday for pathway to citizenship in spending bill Without major changes, more Americans could be victims of online crime MORE (R-Texas), Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisGOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization Without major changes, more Americans could be victims of online crime How to fix the semiconductor chip shortage (it's more than manufacturing) MORE (R-N.C.), and Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungHow to fix the semiconductor chip shortage (it's more than manufacturing) Senate Democrats try to defuse GOP budget drama The 19 GOP senators who voted for the T infrastructure bill MORE (R-Ind.); Reps. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnWarren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack Overnight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens US gymnasts offer scathing assessment of FBI MORE (R-Tenn.) and Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsAllies see rising prospect of Trump 2024 White House bid The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US prepares vaccine booster plan House panel probing Jan. 6 attack seeks Trump records MORE (R-N.C.); and Republican Govs. Doug Ducey of Arizona and Matt Bevin of Kentucky.
Election-year politics are on everyone’s mind, as many political observers believe Democrats are poised for a wave election that could deliver them the House.
The party in power historically suffers losses in a midterm election.
Generic ballot polling for the House shows Democrats with a double-digit lead and Trump’s historically low approval rating for a first-term president could be a drag on the party.
The GOP’s effort to hold on to the House has been complicated by a raft of retirements, and there are worries that an energized liberal base could send the GOP to substantial losses.
“The left is energized, there’s no question about that,” said Americans For Prosperity president Tim Phillips.
The $400 million the network has committed to this cycle is 60 percent greater than what it spent in the 2016 presidential cycle, when it spent heavily on Republican candidates and conservative causes but notably stayed out of the contest between Trump and Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAttorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation Durham seeking indictment of lawyer with ties to Democrats: reports Paul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book MORE.
“We’re all in, we know the challenges out there,” Phillips said.
While there is disappointment among Koch network members over the GOP’s failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, senior officials here believe they have more than enough accomplishments to take to the public and believe it is incumbent on them to sell voters on the merits of what Republicans have accomplished since sweeping into power in 2016.
The primary push here will be on tax reform. Conservatives believe they’ve weathered efforts by Democrats to sow doubts about the bill and that voters are slowly warming to it.
The Koch network spent $20 million to promote the bill before it was passed and is committing another $20 million to “connect people to the benefits of tax reform,” said James Davis, a spokesman for the Koch network.
“We’re hopeful,” said Phillips. “When you look at recent coverage of the public’s view of tax reform, it’s going up as they see pay raises.”
And Phillips said the GOP’s window of opportunity for substantial legislative achievements is not done.
“We’re urging [GOP lawmakers] to continue to go big,” he said.
Immigration reform that protects DACA recipients, often called "Dreamers," will be the network’s top legislative priority in 2018, supplanting the push to repeal and replace ObamaCare, which officials acknowledged is not likely to happen this year.
Network members described the White House’s immigration proposal as a good start — they support providing a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients — but are troubled by the administration’s proposal to scale back legal immigration.
“Immigrants are essential to the success of our country and addressing the plight of the Dreamers is a top priority for this network,” said Hooks. “We are committed to working with Congress and the White House to find a solution that does this without arbitrarily [reducing] the number of people who come here to contribute.”
While the midterms will serve as the backdrop to the weekend gathering, members will also focus on new conservative initiatives, including several aimed at providing opportunities for the poor.
The theme for the weekend retreat is “Breaking Barriers: Because Free People are Capable of Extraordinary Things,” and the network will be touting new initiatives aimed at reducing recidivism rates among former prisoners, among other things.
The network has worked closely with White House senior adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerHouse panel tees up Trump executive privilege fight in Jan. 6 probe The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US prepares vaccine booster plan House panel probing Jan. 6 attack seeks Trump records MORE on criminal justice reform, and there is hope they can make incremental movements here through executive actions.
The network has started a group called Safe Streets and Second Chances, which will use a $4 million infusion to launch a new pilot program aimed at reducing recidivism rates among former prisoners.
“Our system is miserable and it has failed us,” said Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden. “There are more people with criminal records than college degrees. Three million children have a parent or parents in prison, making them more likely to end up there ... and we spend more on locking people up than we do on K-12 education. Everything is completely out of whack.”
The network will dramatically ramp up its spending at universities and on initiatives meant to broaden educational opportunities, as well as in a group aimed at providing opportunities to poverty-stricken communities.
“We’re just getting started on that front,” Hooks said.