News & Politics

RNC Declares War on the Kochs

Charles G. Koch (AP Images)

On Thursday afternoon, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel sent a memo to donors, urging them to avoid bankrolling the libertarian network of Charles and David Koch.

“This week, the Koch Network announced they will no longer support only Republicans running for office, and that moving forward they will support candidates that fit their agenda — even if they are Democrats,” McDaniel wrote.

Her memo did not explicitly tell RNC donors to stop funding the Koch Network, but it did suggest their dollars would be better spent with the Republican Party arm. “The most important thing to know is the President Trump has continually made very clear that the RNC is his political arm and he has put his faith in the RNC as the entity that he works with to elect Republicans,” she wrote.

McDaniel admitted that the Koch-affiliated data platform i360 has amassed an impressive political data operation, but countered that the RNC’s own data firm is more reliable.

“From the beginning, the RNC had concerns about any outside entity building a data operation to compete with ours because we knew they could potentially weaponize that data against Republicans if their business interests conflicted with electing Republicans,” McDaniel confided. “Sadly, our concerns were recently proven true.”

“In closing I want to be very clear: the RNC proved in 2014 and 2016 that the Party is the only entity which can be trusted with the data Republicans candidates need to win up and down the ballot — and this week proves why it is NECESSARY that the Party keep building on our successful operation,” she concluded.

Indeed, this past weekend, Charles Koch said his network would go after Republicans who have not adhered to free market principles. “I regret some of the [lawmakers] we have supported,” Koch confided. “We’re gonna more directly deal with that and hold people accountable.”

Also this past weekend, Americans for Prosperity (AFP) President Tim Phillips announced that the network would not back Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) in his race against incumbent Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.).

“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.” Specifically, Phillips mentioned Cramer’s support for the Export-Import Bank (which the network has long opposed as a symbol of corporate welfare), the farm bill, and the $1.3 trillion spending package.

Despite this high profile move, the Koch Network in general and AFP in particular are still strong allies of the Republican Party, pushing similar goals of deregulation, tax cuts, and free market policies. AFP’s efforts arguably proved instrumental in the Republican takeover of the Senate in 2014. AFP is firmly backing Trump’s Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh.

The RNC’s move echoes President Donald Trump’s criticism of the Koch network on Tuesday. He attacked the Koch brothers as “globalist,” adding that “their network is highly overrated, I have beaten them at every turn. They want to protect their companies outside the U.S. from being taxed, I’m for America First & the American Worker – a puppet for no one. Two nice guys with bad ideas. Make America Great Again!”

President Trump arguably went too far when he attacked the Koch network as “highly overrated” and “a total joke,” but it is certainly true that he is no Koch puppet. Indeed, Trump attacked Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the 2016 primary as the Koch puppet.

While the RNC’s letter to donors may chip off a few contributions from the Koch network, to some degree it may be a good thing for the Koch brothers and their libertarian efforts.

The network is not staunchly Republican, and this battle might remind liberals and Democrats that there is a difference between free market libertarian stalwarts and Republican partisans. The image of the “evil Koch Brothers” behind the Republican Party should be firmly excised from their conspiratorial imaginations.

Interestingly, the Koch network has long opposed the Export-Import Bank, and this issue has enabled them to briefly agree with the most unlikely politician — open socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). When Sanders opposed the bank in 2016, the Koch group Freedom Partners launched an ad agreeing with him, causing a stir at a Democratic Party debate.

The network has long stood for free markets and limited government, and often finds itself at odds with the Republican Party because of its pure free-market stances. Last year, Americans for Prosperity (AFP) — the largest grassroots arm of the network — opposed the Republican bills to repeal Obamacare, despite the network’s strong stance against Obama’s signature health care law. Like the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth, they opposed the repeal efforts because they fell short of full repeal.

The Koch network is and always has been independent, and it forms an imperfect ally for Republicans. Ronna Romney McDaniel is right to say the group cannot be trusted to always fall in line with the party, and the network would say that is a good thing. The network aims to hold the party accountable to libertarian free market principles.

It may be a mistake for McDaniel to attack the network this strongly, but the move may oddly benefit both sides: making it clear that the network is not a branch of the Republican Party, and highlighting the fact that Republicans often do align with their principles, but not always.