Politics & Policy

Inside the Koch Brothers’ SoCal Confab

Scott Walker (File photo: Scott Olson/Getty)
2016 candidates convene to audition before some of the GOP's top donors.

Dana Point, Calif. — Imagine paradise, and the image you conjure in your head is probably something like the St. Regis Monarch Beach resort here in Southern California, minus the dozen or so protestors milling languidly at the entrance. 

It’s not often, probably, that the resort itself is rented to a private group, but this weekend the Koch brothers, Charles and David, and their principle membership organization, the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, have overtaken the grounds. Here, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, they’ve gathered 450 of the Republican party’s top donors — a $100,000 contribution to the broader Koch network is required to score an invite — as well as over a dozen GOP lawmakers and five of the party’s presidential nominees. 

It’s a lavish three-day affair. So it was surprising to hear Charles Koch on Saturday evening, surrounded by some of the wealthiest men and women in the nation, take the stage to assail big bank bailouts and government handouts for the rich. Charles Koch is the more press-shy of the Koch duo, who together run one of the country’s largest privately held companies, Koch Industries. Doing away with crony capitalism might hurt some of the individuals in attendance, Koch said, and it would certainly hurt Koch Industries, but over the long term, it would revitalize the economy and benefit all parties. Bailing out the big banks, he said, had not only created a culture of dependency at the top, but crushed small community banks at the bottom.

“We need to start by eliminating welfare for the rich,” he said. “Physician, heal thyself.” 

Koch’s remarks underscore the extent to which these gatherings, which have taken place in private since 2004 — they were opened to the press for the first time this winter — are moored by an ideological vision based in conservative economic principles. The Kochs’ philanthropic efforts, which began with the funding of libertarian think tanks from the Cato Institute to the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, now extend to groups that mobilize the grassroots, like Americans for Prosperity, and to those that play a more direct role in elections, spending massively on political advertising. In total, the network is aiming to raise $889 million this year; according to top sources within the network, about a third of that will be spent on overtly political projects, with the rest going to educational and grassroots projects. 

As the Kochs have applied their well-known entrepreneurial skills to the realm of politics, what has emerged is less a group of billionaires plotting the destruction of Hillary Clinton under the cover of dark than a shadow Republican party that attends to the vast array of issues conservatives today are concerned about, from preserving free speech on college campuses to improving the data and technology available to candidates and their campaigns. Koch world is a center of gravity, and the GOP’s top candidates now clamor to come into its orbit. 

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Two of them, Scott Walker and Carly Fiorina, did so today in conversations with Politico’s Mike Allen, who moderated back-to-back 25-minute Q&A sessions with them. On deck tomorrow: Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio.

Walker raised eyebrows when he told Allen that he remains unsure whether President Obama is a Christian; Walker sparked a media firestorm when he told the Washington Post in February that he doesn’t know whether Obama is a Christian. “I don’t presume to know someone’s beliefs about whether they follow Christ or not if I haven’t talked to them,” Walker said.

Pressed to defend the consistency of his views on issues from immigration to abortion, which have appeared to shift throughout the campaign season, Walker said he’s been “fairly consistent.” On immigration, to which Allen alluded, Walker said he changed his views after visiting the Texas border. “I acknowledged that I didn’t really have much of a position before, this is one where I actually listened to the American people, looked at the facts, and took a position,” he said. 

Audiences love hearing Walker talk about his will to fight and win, and he has a deep reservoir of goodwill among conservatives for having emerged from repeated combat seemingly unscathed. In front of large, well-heeled crowds, though, Walker exudes a sort of anti-charisma that focuses the mind elsewhere. He sparks interest when challenged because he bristles, and one is instantly aware not only of that, but of the mental process by which he is straining to find the words to acquit himself, since — as on the matter of his ideological consistency — he is often caught red-handed.

Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who preceded Walker on stage, is his opposite in that regard. Stanford students — Fiorina was one — are often described as ducks: projecting the appearance of effortlessly gliding while paddling furiously beneath the surface. Fiorina never looks fazed. 

Is it good to be seen as an attack dog? “I don’t know that that’s how people know me,” she says. But come the general election, Hillary Clinton will have to come under attack, and Fiorina won’t shy away from delivering a punch. “If there’s another nominee I will attack them on their record,” she said. 

#related#A question for one of the other candidates in the race? Given the slew of problems that have beset Washington over the past two decades, she offered: “My question to Jeb Bush would be, ‘Why do you think you are the Bush who can change that?’”

Even her interlocutor Allen seemed impressed. “You may get my job,” he said. 

And what’s her path to the nomination? “I have the lowest name ID of anyone running, over half the nation has never heard my name,” she said. “That’s because I’m not a professional politician.” But, she added, to much applause, “I guarantee that virtually everybody in this audience would love to see me debate Hillary Clinton.” 

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