COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The leadership of the Koch brothers’ network is brushing off its occasionally chilly attitude toward President Donald Trump, trying to nudge the administration in its direction as the group’s annual summit began Saturday just after Charles Koch met with Vice President Mike Pence.
The network of conservative donors announced Saturday it plans to spend between $300 million and $400 million on politics and policy during the 2018 cycle.
“When we look at our budget for politics and policy, it’s our largest we’ve ever had,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, the network’s grassroots organizing arm with chapters in dozens of states.
The Koch network, led by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, rivals the Republican National Committee in size, scope and budget. The alliance of conservative donors has worked for decades to move both electoral politics and the country at large in a libertarian direction with everything from political ad buys to donations to universities.
The millions from the Koch network and its wealthy allies will boost the Trump administration on some key priorities, especially tax reform and rolling back regulations. It also will help push back against others — especially Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ desire to implement tough-on-crime policies — and working to make Obamacare repeal efforts more conservative. And they could prove critical to Republican efforts to retain the House and expand a majority in the Senate.
“We’ve made tremendous progress on the federal level that we haven’t been able to make in the last ten years,” said James Davis, a top network official.
Pence has longstanding ties to the Koch network, while Charles Koch has been openly critical of the vice president’s boss since the early days of the Republican primary campaign. Through Pence, the group’s allies have established a beachhead in the administration. Pence and Koch spoke Friday night for about 45 minutes about tax reform, legislation Trump signed on Friday to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs and other topics.
The meeting included Marc Short, Trump’s director of legislative affairs and a former Koch network official, Pence staffer Marty Obst and several current top Koch officials, including Mark Holden and Phillips, the Americans for Prosperity president.
The Koch network’s annual seminar, as the group dubbed it, began Saturday at the Broadmoor Resort here and continues until Monday. Officials said the seminar included more donors than ever, and more new donors than ever.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens were set to speak to donors Saturday night, with Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a frequent Trump critic, scheduled to deliver a speech Sunday. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey will discuss education policy on Monday, and another group of lawmakers is set to discuss tax reform.
Tax reform is arguably the area where the network seems most pleased with the Trump administration. Phillips said AFP plans to hold grassroots rallies in 36 states around the country to push for a tax overhaul. Officials also gave sterling reviews to Trump’s judicial appointments and efforts to roll back regulations.
But they were openly disappointed with GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare. “At the end of the day, this bill is not going to fix health care,” Davis said.
Phillips added: “We’ve been disappointed that this has not been more dramatic. We’re seeking to make it better. We’re not walking away. This is too important an issue for too many Americans.”
The officials said the proposal needs to do more roll back Medicaid expansion, arguing the program didn’t do enough to make health care more affordable for poor people or improve health outcomes. The Senate could vote on its Obamacare repeal before the July 4 recess, and it’s unclear whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be able to round up the required 50 votes for the plan.
Phillips acknowledged they discussed the proposal with Pence. “It was a cordial discussion of issues,” he said. “But there was not any kind of ask by either side.”
Of the four conservative senators who announced their opposition to the health care plan, two — Texas’ Ted Cruz and Utah’s Mike Lee — are attending the seminar, as is NRSC Chair Cory Gardner of Colorado, vulnerable Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the GOP’s number two in the Senate.
A host of House Freedom Caucus members, including Reps. Justin Amash, Dave Brat, Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows, showed up. Two potential contenders for Florida governor — state House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Rep. Ron DeSantis — are in attendance, along with Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, the likely GOP nominee for Nevada governor.
The network officials were relentlessly critical of Sessions’ directive to return to harsh sentencing guidelines and continue the war on drugs, with Marc Holden, a top network official who has served as the Kochs’ criminal justice guru, calling the order a “failed, big government, top-down approach.”
“We had a war on drugs,” Holden said. “Drugs won.”
Democrats, especially former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, have turned the Kochs into a liberal boogeyman and frequent star of online fundraising efforts and argue their conservative policy goals serve the billionaires’ business interests. The group spent tens of millions on television ads and other political activities during the 2016 cycle, but stayed out of the presidential race.
The group opened the weekend by announcing a plan to team up with National Football League Hall of Famer Deion Sanders to raise $21 million for non-profit organizations helping low-income families in Dallas.
“We’re going to provoke so much change and put a flashlight on so many things the light needs to shine on,” Sanders said of the new group.
Sanders, at a press conference, went out of his way to defend the Koch family.
“He could be on an island that he owns, but he’s instead thinking of ways to make this country a better place, including the inner city,” said Sanders, who recently traveled to Wichita to meet with Charles Koch.