Politics & Policy

The Koch Brothers: Selling Freedom, Collecting Data

(Dreamstime)
The wealthy activist siblings recruit Hispanics for libertarian causes as they compile a massive voter database.

Las Vegas, Nev. — For years, Ronnie Najarro was a sports anchor at the local Univision affiliate in Las Vegas. He joined the station as a college intern and rose to become sports anchor and then host of the news special “8 Rounds con Oscar de la Hoya,” which won an Emmy in 2007.   

He was laid off amidst the economic recession in 2008.

Last week, on a warm Thursday morning, Najarro was dropping in on volunteers with the Libre Initiative who were manning tables at a handful of Vegas-area colleges. Brochures, bracelets, sunglasses, and pens were spread across the tables. They were recruiting attendees for a policy forum with Jeb Bush set to take place this Wednesday. It was billed as an opportunity “for the Hispanic community and others to pose questions about key issues to an influential policymaker.”

“How’s it going?” Najarro asks. He’s the group’s regional press secretary.

“Besides people walking away when they hear Jeb Bush?” his volunteer asks.

RELATED: Will 2016 Be the Year Republicans Finally Make an Appeal to Hispanics?

That’s what the Libre Initiative is trying to change. The group was founded by the Koch brothers’ donor network ahead of the 2012 presidential election, in which Mitt Romney would win just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. Romney’s abysmal showing sparked an ongoing conversation within the Republican party about how to approach and persuade Hispanic voters. Libre’s answer is something of a give-and-take, or a give-and-persuade. The group, which has a presence now in ten states, including Texas, Colorado, and Florida, provides dozens of community services at no cost. It also promotes self-reliance, free markets, and measures that “decrease dependency.”

‘We need to have the Hispanic community know there is an alternative to big-government policies, [ways of] growing the economy without so much government involvement.’

– Ronnie Najarro

Perhaps most important, those signing up to see Jeb Bush (or for the driving classes, tax-preparation help, or health checkups that Libre offers) provide their names and contact information. That flows back into an enormous voter database owned and controlled by another Koch group, i360, which the donor network hopes will replace the Republican National Committee’s data trove. Many say it already has. Data collected from canvassing conducted by other groups in the network — Americans for Prosperity, Concerned Veterans for America, Concerned Women for America — flows back to the same place, and i360 is amassing detailed voter profiles and developing the sort of technological wherewithal that propelled President Obama to victory in both 2008 and 2012.

Najarro says he was drawn to the Libre Initiative’s “message of economic freedom” — “their ideas on why so many folks were losing their homes, why so many folks were getting laid off like I was.”

RELATED: The GOP’s Hispanic Opportunity

Those subjects, he says, were simply “not being talked about in the Hispanic community,” which accounts for over 25 percent of Nevada’s population. The intention is to start conversations about them by bringing politicians like Bush to the state, as well as Kentucky senator Rand Paul and Florida senator Marco Rubio, who have also participated in Libre events, and to introduce ideas that might be new. Libre’s brochure, printed in both English and Spanish, details how the quality of life for Hispanics has declined over the past several years: Nearly one in four live in poverty; one in ten have a family member who is unemployed; and their families will pay at least $2,085 in tax penalties under the Affordable Care Act.

“The progressive message has really been dominating the Hispanic community, so we need to have the Hispanic community know there is an alternative to big-government policies, [ways of] growing the economy without so much government involvement,” Najarro says.

#share#Libre is still in its infancy, and its goal is to make inroads into local communities across the country over the long term. The bulk of the Koch network’s political activism is conducted through Americans for Prosperity, which has been around for nearly a dozen years and has chapters in 35 states. The group has been part of free-market initiatives ranging from a successful effort to reduce the federal excise tax on cigarettes to the high-profile attempt to abolish the Export-Import bank.

At its Nevada headquarters on South Durango Blvd. in Las Vegas, Kelsey Tueller, an AFP field director, prepares to send a group out to canvass voters. First she distributes iPads preloaded with i360’s applications — one for walking neighborhoods, another for calling.

RELATED: Hispanics and the American Dream

“All right, you guys excited to walk today?” she asks. Her employees are dispersed throughout the office’s back room — playing Ping-Pong, watching television, eating Popeye’s chicken. AFP’s state director, Adam Jones, a veteran of half a dozen GOP campaigns, surveys the scene. His dog, a labradoodle named Victory, struts across the room.

“A little more enthusiasm: You guys excited to walk today?” She gets some cheers.

Preloaded in the i360 “walk” application are so-called “walkbooks,” house-by-house guides to various neighborhoods. The houses pre-identified by i360’s data scientists as homes worth visiting — a home, say, in which the resident hasn’t voted in Democratic primaries for the past three decades — are marked. Pull up the home, and its residents are listed by name and age.

RELATED: With Mega-Donor’s Technology, Cruz Campaign Promises to Turn Out More GOP Voters than Ever Before

AFP’s canvassers set out to survey them. How do they define themselves politically? Do they approve or disapprove of the Affordable Care Act? Do they mark their home ‘No Soliciting’? You can mark that down, too. All the information is sent back into the i360 database to further refine their existing information.

“Having done canvassing and worked in the political and non-profit sectors, the technology that we’re using here is the best that I’ve ever seen, hands down,” says Jones.

Tueller has some parting advice for her troops. “Kind of as a side note,” she says, “don’t be super close to the door, okay? That scares people, you know, because you guys are . . . guys. So once you knock, step back, you want to look super friendly, have a smile on your face. Any questions?”

The Koch network has been both an ally and a rival to the GOP. In recent years, the two camps have warred over voter data.

The application tracks door knockers as they walk neighborhoods and can see where information on each home was entered. “So, if somebody comes back to me and says they completed 50 surveys, I can pull it up on GPS and say, ‘Well, all of these surveys were completed at the bar at Excalibur, so, we’ve got a problem,’” says Jones.

As trust in traditional institutions is crumbling, libertarians and conservatives have looked outside the traditional party structure even as many have scrambled to shore it up. In this process, the Koch network has been both an ally and a rival to the GOP. In the 1990s and during the Bush era, when it was far easier to find big-government conservatives in Washington, D.C., the Koch network helped make them an endangered species. In recent years, the two camps have warred over voter data, which many at the Republican National Committee believe should be controlled by the party rather than by an independent entity. Yahoo’s Jon Ward has chronicled the struggle between them, and now that a data-sharing agreement has gone south, many on both sides are openly hostile about each other.

Jones doesn’t say much when I ask about the RNC’s footprint in Nevada ahead of the caucuses next year. “I’ve heard they’ve been complaining that we’re taking to all of their people,” he says.

If the network at large can do meaningful work to win over Hispanics and others to the conservative cause, perhaps those complaints will abate.

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