Koch network donors appear divided on how to take on President Trump as leaders suggest they could back Democrats

  • President Donald Trump is in a war of words with the conservative billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch over their attacks on some key administration policies.
  • Yet, while the Koch brothers and their organization's leaders are willing to fight back against the president when their priorities collide, Koch network donors appear divided on how far they should go to take on Trump.
  • The divisions come at an especially crucial time for conservatives and Republicans. There are under 100 days before this November's midterm elections
Charles Koch
Patrick T. Fallon | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Charles Koch

President Donald Trump is in a war of words with the conservative billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch over their attacks on some key administration policies.

Yet, while the Koch brothers and their organization's leaders are willing to fight back against the president when their priorities collide, Koch network donors appear divided on how far they should go to take on Trump.

The divisions come at an especially crucial time for conservatives and Republicans. There are under 100 days before this November's midterm elections, and Democrats have broadened the battleground in their pursuit for majorities in the House and Senate.

Trade war blues

Trade is one of the biggest sticking points between Trump and the Koch's, who traditionally support Republican candidates. At a Koch summit in Colorado Springs over the past weekend, many donors griped about the Trump administration's tariffs and the negative impact they could have on the U.S. economy.

Still, they generally didn't appear to want to go as far as pledging to support Democratic candidates this fall. On the other hand, Americans for Prosperity, one of the key groups in the larger Koch political organization, has suggested it could do just that.

At a Sunday reception for donors attending the summit, Chris Wright, CEO of Denver based Liberty Oilfield Services, and his wife Liz, agreed that Republican candidates should lose support of the network if they back Trump's tariffs. But they laughed off the idea of Democrats taking over the House of Representatives.

"Liz has pointed out humorously recently the one good thing about all of this is how Democrats have become pro free trade," Chris Wright said. "But do we think Democrats taking control of the House is going to help the advance of free trade?" he asked.

"Absolutely not," Liz Wright interjected.

Art Pope, the CEO of privately held Variety Wholesalers and a longtime seminar attendee, claimed the administration's trade policies have left him "less personally satisfied with President Trump" compared with a year ago.

But he said he disagrees with recent Senate legislation that would curb the president's authority over trade policy. The groups within the Koch political network, on the other hand, wrote a letter in June calling on congressional lawmakers to support a bill introduced by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, that would scale back Trump's trade authority.

"I would rather persuade President Trump that his policies aren't going to accomplish his goals," Pope said when he was asked about the bill.

Pushing for divided government

Others within the network's donor circle took a more combative stance against the president.

Real estate executive Paul Jost said he is supporting Democratic candidates this year because he is frustrated with Trump and the Republican Party.

"We support a divided government. We think Tip O'Neil and Ronald Reagan worked well together. We think Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich worked well together," he said. "It's time for a change. The country needs to reverse course.

Federal Election Commission records for this year show that Jost has backed Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa.; Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala.; and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

But Jost knows he's in the minority in the Koch network, and he said he doesn't think the organization will start backing Democrats because "they might have a revolt from their donors."

Pro-Trump donors

Then there are the donors who are largely pro-Trump, particularly when it comes to his trade policies. They disagree with the network's tactics.

Doug Deason, the president of brokerage firm Deason Capital Services, cheered on Trump's tariffs by calling them a "negotiating ploy."

"He's a business man and he's negotiating. The problem is when networks like this and Republican politicians so imminently question him, they undermine the negotiating process," Deason said. He later noted he doesn't always agree with the president.

Still, the finance executive criticized how the network handled the release of a recent digital ad thanking Sen. Heidi Heitkamp D-N.D., for co-sponsoring a bill that eased Dodd-Frank financial regulations.

"They should've sent out a warning ahead of time at least to the big donors, and we would have been fine with that," Deason said. "A lot of people are still pissed off about that, and some people didn't come because they were so pissed off."

When confronted with Deason's claim that some donors did not show up because of the roll out of the Heitkamp ad, a spokesman for the network said the summit had record attendance.

"We've had the largest summer seminar attendance ever," James Davis said. Later he said he was not aware of donors boycotting the event.

The gathering drew 500 financiers to the Colorado Springs event. Each was expected to pony up $100,000 to enter.

New priorities for the Kochs

Deason's comments came before Koch network officials announced they would not support GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer's attempt to unseat Heitkamp in November. Dan Eberhart, a CEO of a Denver-based drilling services company and a prolific Koch donor, told The Wall Street Journal he was "floored" by the decision to not support Cramer.

The split in the donor ranks was evident during a summit filled with announcements describing a shift in priorities for the political juggernaut despite the laundry list of wins delivered by Trump administration, including the tax reform, conservative Supreme Court nominees and extensive deregulation.

Beyond abandoning Cramer's candidacy, the summit provided plenty of other moments that suggested the Kochs are distancing themselves from Trump and several Republicans on certain issues.

"I know this is uncomfortable," Emily Seidel, chief executive officer of Americans for Prosperity told a group of donors on Sunday. "If you are a Democrat and stand up to [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren to corral enough votes for financial reform that breaks barriers for community banks and families, you're darn right we will work with you."

"If you are a Republican who sits on the committee that wrote the worst spending bill in our country's history and you voted for it, you're darn right we will hold you accountable," she added.

Charles Koch himself told reporters that he hopes to see people in power who will back policies that will "move toward a society [of] mutual benefit, equal rights, where everybody has the opportunity to realize their full potential."

"I don't care what initials are in front or after somebody's name," he added.