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Koch Brothers Put Price Tag On 2016: $889 Million

Americans for Prosperity Foundation Chairman David Koch speaks in Orlando, Fla., in August 2013.
Phelan M. Ebenhack
Americans for Prosperity Foundation Chairman David Koch speaks in Orlando, Fla., in August 2013.

The political network led by industrialists Charles and David Koch plans to spend $889 million for the 2016 elections. In modern politics, it's more than just a ton of money.

It's about as much as the entire national Republican Party spent in the last presidential election cycle, four years ago. And as Sheila Krumholz — director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks politicians and donors — pointed out in an interview, it's double what the Koch brothers and their network spent in 2012.

Krumholz summed it up: "It is staggering."

But not just staggering — it's also mostly secret. The Republican and Democratic political parties have to disclose their donors. The Koch network consists almost entirely of groups that don't register under the campaign finance laws and so don't publicly identify their donors.

"So much of their funding and operations are conducted in secret that we really don't know who else is behind this," Krumholz said.

The Koch organization unveiled the $889 million budget to several hundred donors at a private conference in Palm Springs, Calif., which concluded Monday. Donors were asked to pledge.

The conference featured Republican senators who were elected last fall with help from the Koch network, and their success stories colored the event.

No other outside money operation matches the Koch network in funding or organizational breadth. Various components of the network run TV ads, do grass-roots work and phone banking, develop voter data files, and reach out to veterans, women, Hispanic voters and young voters.

"Essentially we've created a new party. It's the party of conservative, rich activists," said political scientist Darrell West, author of Billionaires, a book about wealthy donors in politics. While the Republican and Democratic parties have big donor bases, West said, with the Koch donors, "you're talking about an incredibly tiny slice of Americans."

Before the pledging session at the Palm Springs conference, donors watched three likely GOP presidential candidates in a debate. Moderator Jonathan Karl, of ABC News, asked the three about the influence of wealthy donors.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said the real political corruption involves government contracts: "I haven't met one person since I've been here or as I travel around the country who's come up to me saying, 'Oh, I want a contract.' They simply wanna be left alone."

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said the real corruption was about special access, which wasn't happening with these donors. "I don't know a single person in this room who's ever been to my office, and I haven't seen everyone here today, but a single one who's been to my office asking from government any special access."

But it was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz who gave a full-throated endorsement of his hosts.

"Let me very clear. I admire Charles and David Koch," he said. "They are businessmen who have created hundreds of thousands of jobs."

Cruz paused for the audience to clap. "And they have stood up for free market principles and endured vilification, with equanimity and grace."

There's no word yet on whether the donors were dazzled. But the Koch network is showing interest in jumping into the presidential primary fight, something it's never done before.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.