Conservative Koch brothers' network to spend up to $400 million for the midterm election cycle – including $20 million to sell the GOP tax law

Key Points
  • Advocacy groups tied to conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch pledged to spend nearly $400 million this year on initiatives tied to the midterm election cycle.
  • That's an increase of 60 percent from the network's spending during the 2016 election cycle.
  • The Koch network will devote $20 million to pitch the GOP's recently passed tax plan to skeptical voters.
Watch Charles Koch's opening remarks at his private donor retreat in Palm Springs
Watch Charles Koch's opening remarks at his private donor retreat in Palm Springs

PALM SPRINGS, Calif.—One of the Republican Party's biggest donor groups is dramatically ramping up its political spending – and putting the recently passed tax plan front and center – as the GOP fights to preserve its congressional majorities in this year's hotly contested midterm elections.

The network of advocacy groups tied to billionaire industrialists Charles and pledged to spend close to $400 million on campaign contributions and policy initiatives in the lead-up to the vote in November, a 60 percent jump in spending from the 2016 election cycle, officials said. One of the hallmarks of that effort is a fresh influx of support for the Republican tax plan, with up to $20 million devoted to selling its benefits to voters this year.

The tax pitch will begin in a few weeks, just as companies begin to implement the new law and workers see changes in their paychecks. The Trump administration estimated that 90 percent would enjoy an increase in wages, and Republicans have touted recent announcements of bonuses and pay raises from businesses across a wide swath of industries.

"Part of our job is to make sure those benefits are burning through the clutter and the normal give-and-take of American politics," Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, said during a private meeting of donors and supporters Saturday in Palm Springs.

The Koch network was instrumental in helping Republicans score their biggest legislative victory last year. The group spent $20 million last year to encourage passage of the tax bill, running TV and digital campaigns, holding 100 town halls across 36 states and attending high-profile meetings at the White House to shape the final legislation.

Officials said the new sales campaign will adopt a similar approach, delivering a positive message that Republicans hope will resonate with an increasingly jaded constituency. Although polls generally show the bulk of Americans oppose the tax plan or do not believe they will benefit from it, recent surveys also indicate support is increasing.

"There is a healthy skepticism among a majority of Americans about politics in this country," Phillips said. "We do think the bar is a bit higher."

Prison and immigration reform

The group also identified additional priorities for 2018, including its ongoing work on prison reform. Mark Holden, general counsel at Koch Industries and co-chairman of its network, participated in a White House meeting on the issue earlier this month organized by Trump's senior aide and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Holden said he has discussed potential legislation and executive orders with the administration, and the Koch network last week launched a new initiative focused on preparing inmates to re-enter society.

"The federal system hasn't adapted at all," Holden said. "It's still using the same lock them up and throw away the key. It's inhumane."

The Koch brothers notably stayed on the sidelines during President Donald Trump's campaign, declining to deploy their deep pockets and extensive grassroots network. But officials said they are now working productively with the administration, pointing to their joint efforts on the tax plan as evidence.

Still, the Koch group demonstrated its willingness to break with the White House on Saturday. In a statement, it applauded the administration's framework on immigration reform for providing a pathway to citizenship for roughly 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children – but it warned against a provision that would limit family sponsorship, arguing it would lower overall rates of immigration.

"We cannot support arbitrary cuts to future legal immigration levels," said Daniel Garza, president of The LIBRE Initiative.

"We welcome a debate about whether our current legal immigration policy properly balances family and skills-based migration," Garza said. "But that broad debate should not distract from the immediate goal of providing certainty to Dreamers and enhancing security."

Setting the agenda

Republicans in the House and the Senate will hold a joint retreat next week in West Virginia amid looming deadlines to find a solution for those immigrants and keep the government opening beyond Feb. 8. More broadly, there is disagreement over what the legislative focus should be ahead of the midterm elections.

House Speaker Paul Ryan has signaled desire to tackle entitlement reform, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shot down the idea. Meanwhile, the White House is expected to release a plan for infrastructure investment, an idea that many Republicans are lukewarm about.

In California, Phillips said he is urging lawmakers not to let momentum from last year's victory on taxes slip away.

"We're urging them to continue going big," he said. "Go bold."