COLORADO SPRINGS — Billionaire conservative businessman Charles Koch’s political network is freezing out Republicans that it believes have violated its fiscally conservative principles, and is, at least for now, only supporting four Senate GOP candidates in the fall.
The Koch network is backing GOP Senate candidates in Wisconsin, Missouri, Tennessee and Florida, signaling it will be selective in where it engages as Republicans seek to retain or grow their narrow 51-49 majority.
At a Monday presentation to about 500 of the network’s top donors at a five-star resort in the Rocky Mountains, Americans for Prosperity president Tim Phillips made an example out of Rep. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerDemocrats face scaled-back agenda after setbacks Wicker: Biden comments on Ukraine caused 'distress' for both parties Biden huddles with group of senators on Ukraine-Russia tensions MORE (R-N.D.), who is seeking to oust incumbent Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn Heitkamp11 former Democratic senators call for 'meaningful reform to Senate rules' Harry Reid, political pugilist and longtime Senate majority leader, dies Virginia loss lays bare Democrats' struggle with rural voters MORE (D-N.D.) in a state Trump carried by more than 30 points.
Phillips announced that the network would not endorse Cramer’s bid against Heitkamp, who is among the most vulnerable Senate Democrats up for reelection. Phillips cited Cramer’s support for the Export Import Bank, the farm bill and the $1.3 trillion spending package.
“He’s inconsistent across the board on these issues,” Phillips said. “We can’t support him at this time and we’ve met with his team, explained this and lobbied them on this.”
Officials stressed that the network continues to evaluate the candidates and the competitiveness of Senate races across the country. It's actively supporting scores of GOP House and gubernatorial candidates and could jump into some of the remaining Senate races after the primaries or if its views on the candidates change.
The Koch network will spend about $400 million this cycle on politics and policy, most of it aimed at electing Republicans or promoting conservative policies.
But donors and senior officials spent the weekend expressing deep frustration with President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dead at 77 Biden, Democrats losing ground with independent and suburban voters: poll Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE and the GOP-held Congress over spending and trade. The flashpoint for many was the $1.3 trillion spending bill Congress passed and Trump signed into law in March.
At the Monday donor presentation, Americans for Prosperity CEO Emily Seidel cited a GOP lawmaker who was overheard boasting to colleagues that the Koch network would back them no matter how they voted.
“We’re raising the bar and raising expectations,” she said.
A major theme at the donor summit this weekend has been the network’s growing anger at GOP lawmakers, many of whom they helped to elect.
The Koch network's political arm has so far gone after 10 House Republicans and two GOP senators for supporting the spending package or voting against spending clawbacks. They've run ads on wasteful spending against Rep. Lou BarlettaLouis (Lou) James BarlettaPennsylvania state senator to run for governor, joining crowded GOP primary field Josh Shapiro officially launches Pennsylvania gubernatorial campaign Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro enters governor's race MORE (R-Pa.), who is challenging Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyOn the Money — Inflation hits highest level in decades Pressures aligning on Biden, Democrats to forgive student loans Senate Democrats grow less confident in Manchin MORE Jr. (D-Pa.) in another state Trump won in 2016.
“The fact that we're doing this in an election year shows we're darn serious,” said Seidel.
In a rare interview here on Sunday, Charles Koch said his groups would be more aggressive in targeting Republicans who break with his free-market worldview.
“I regret some of the [lawmakers] we have supported,” Koch said. “We’re gonna more directly deal with that and hold people accountable.”
Donors to the network are primarily conservatives or libertarians. While most support Republican candidates, few are driven primarily by party identity.
The Hill interviewed more than a half-dozen of the network’s largest donors and found broad support for targeting or freezing out Republicans they view as fiscally irresponsible — even if it costs the party the House and Senate in the fall.
“The Koch network is not an auxiliary for the Republican Party,” said Art Pope, a businessman from North Carolina. “It’s not a booster club for Republicans. We’re based on principles … if there is short-term pain for long-term gain, it might be unfortunate but it’s necessary.”
Koch said he’s eager to find areas of compromise with Democrats, who are in a good position to win a majority in the House in November.
The network has spent money this cycle on ads and mailers thanking Democrats who have voted with them on key issues. AFP ran digital ads thanking Heitkamp for supporting bank reform and they’ve sent out mailers on behalf of nearly a half-dozen House Democrats who support criminal justice reform or so-called right to try experimental drug laws.
“I don’t care what initials are in front or after somebody’s name,” Koch said. “I’d like there to be many more politicians who would embrace and have the courage to run on a platform like this.”
The Koch network is seeking Democratic partners on some of its top legislative priorities, such as criminal justice reform and a pathway to citizenship for "Dreamers."
“I’m happy and our organization is happy to support anyone and we’d love there to be more Democrats that support these values and these issues,” Koch said.
Koch also signaled that the network might not spend as much on elections in the future, and instead might look to ramp up spending on higher-education programs or philanthropy in local communities.
“We’ll engage in politics to the degree it moves our overall agenda,” he said.