Billionaire industrialist and conservative political donor Charles Koch welcomed a group of roughly 450 like-minded fundraisers to one of his twice-annual conferences Saturday by challenging them to advocate for ending "corporate cronyism" - even if those policies help their businesses.
Koch, who along with brother David has long pressed for a federal government that collects fewer taxes and issues fewer regulation, said cutting back special treatment for business is the first step to ending a "two-tiered society" and encouraging "principled entrepreneurship"
"Where I believe we need to start in reforming welfare is eliminating welfare for the wealthy," Koch said. "This means stopping the subsidies, mandates and preferences for business that enrich the haves at the expense of the have nots."
Most recently, the Kochs have been strong advocates of the shutting down the federal Export-Import Bank, and their groups have spent money on advertisements and outreach to win senators and representatives over to their side on the issue.
The bank is a federal agency that helps U.S. companies sell products overseas by underwriting loans to foreign customers. Small-government activists have said it wastes taxpayer dollars to enrich the country's biggest companies.
The Koch brothers and their network of donors, many in attendance at the weekend event at a luxury resort south of Los Angeles, are preparing to spend $889 million to influence elections next year — much of it aimed at ushering a Republican to the White House. As such, among those in attendance were several of the GOP candidates for president, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former technology executive Carly Fiorina.
Walker compared the Koch donor conference with the tea party rallies of five years ago, saying both groups of people are motivated by the same frustration with politics and desire to see the country improved.
"I wish the whole world could see what goes on here," he told the donors, adding that he believes they're not giving to political candidates out of personal financial interests. "You're here because you love America."
Democrats would disagree, and have done so vehemently. The party has routinely portrayed the brothers — their Koch Industries is one of the largest private companies in the country — as greedy corporate tycoons whose work in politics is an end to padding their bank accounts. The brothers, who are billionaires many times over and rank among the wealthiest people in the world, dismiss the criticisms.
"We're doing all this to make more money? I mean, that is so ludicrous," Charles Koch said of his political involvement during a rare interview in April with USA Today.
Other GOP presidential candidates — Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz — were scheduled to address the group Sunday. Each is being interviewed separately by Mike Allen, a journalist at the Washington publication Politico. Other Republicans mingling with donors over cocktails on a lawn ringed with palm trees and decorative columns that overlooks the Pacific Ocean included Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey.
Asked about some of his Cabinet choices, should he be chosen as GOP nominee and elected next November, Walker named fellow hopefuls Fiorina and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, as well as former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who was also in attendance.
Leaders of two of the largest Koch-backed political entities, Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners, have said they will not spend money to influence the Republican presidential primary, instead holding back their resources to spend on defeating the Democratic nominee in November 2016.
Still, many of the men and women at the donor conference, including the Kochs themselves, have the ability to spend millions of dollars backing their preferred candidate. David Koch has said several times in recent months that Walker would make a great president, while asserting that he is not planning to formally endorse anyone.
The Koch brothers have hosted such gatherings of donors and politicians for years, but always in private. For the first time, this weekend's event includes a small number of reporters who were invited to hear the 2016 candidates and attend some other forums. As a condition of attending, reporters were not permitted to identify any of the donors in attendance.
The Kochs are protective of their fellow donors in other ways. Most of their contributions remain out of public view, as all but a few entities in the Koch network aren't legally required to name their contributors — even though they can spend money to influence politics, such as through issues advocacy ads. The groups may even promote specific candidates in limited ways.
Fundraising reports filed Friday with federal regulators show how important deep-pocketed donors have become.
About 60 donations of $1 million or more accounted for about one-third of the more than $380 million brought in so far for the 2016 presidential election, an Associated Press analysis found. The review included contributions to the official campaigns and the far larger gifts to outside groups called super PACs.
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