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Koch Spending Presents a Challenge for Republicans, Too

The $889 million pledge to support conservative candidates and causes by conservative entrepreneurs causes heartburn for the Republican Party.
Image: Riverside County Sheriff's deputies in riot gear are seen behind Jodie Ivanes, of Venice Beach, Calif., left, and Ellen Sturtz, of West Los Angeles, right, during a protest dubbed the \"Koch Busters Rally\"
Crystal Chatham / AP

The $889 million pledge by wealthy entrepreneurs Charles and David Koch and their network for the 2016 presidential cycle will come as welcome news to Republican candidates and causes who are likely to see the benefit of the spending spree, but for the Republican Party apparatus, it causes a bit of heartburn.

Kirsten Kukowski, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, offered a muted response to the Koch revelation that they want to spend more than the RNC and its Democratic counterpart combined in 2012.

“While we are the only ones legally allowed to coordinate with the nominee, we hope they are successful in achieving their goal. The more conservatives we can reach the better off our team is,” Kukowski said.

The Koch organizations mostly operate behind the wall of transparency of campaign finance laws imposed on the political parties. More than a dozen organizations in the Koch network operate as nonprofits, registering as 501c4s with the IRS, allowing them to raise an unlimited amount of money and evade reporting criteria, including their donors and how the money is spent.

Political parties, meanwhile, face restrictions that the nonprofits don’t, including caps on the amount of money solicited from donors. Because the parameters the parties are confined too and the nonprofits are free from, both supporters and opponents of the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision that allowed for the current environment say that the political parties have lost power.

Democrats Angle To Compete With Koch Money

The parties are even losing brainpower to these outside political groups. Just this week Chuck DeFeo, the RNC’s chief digital officer, is leaving to work at i360, a Koch-funded group that developed a “data warehouse” for conservative politics that includes a voter database from all 50 states, Politico reported.

“I think it’s a problem for both parties,” said Brian Walsh, former communications director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who thinks lifting fundraising caps on the political parties would allow them to regain control of the system.

“If you’re a Republican or Democrat it puts a chill through the party system because anytime individuals can even come close to the spending of parties, then the party process is doomed,” said Bradley A. Blakeman, a Republican who has worked both for the Republican Party and for an outside group.

As head of the RNC, Reince Priebus attempted to clamp down on the role of outside groups. For instance, in an effort to better control the presidential nominating process, he limited the number of debates.

But less than a month after Priebus announced the debate schedule, three potential candidates appeared at a debate-like event in Palm Springs, CA, hosted by the Koch Brothers.

Dale Eisman, spokesperson for Common Cause, a group that wants to restrict the amount of money in politics, says the Koch news has “already changed the arena.”

“You’ve got a situation now where prospective candidates are gonna need and want to reach out to this network of people and cultivate them.”

Walsh, meanwhile, said the Koch organization has spent its money in the best way to help Republicans, but that could change since the party and the candidate have no say in what the nonprofits say or do.

While the Koch organization has backed Republicans that are approved by the establishment wing of the party and hasn’t posed primary threats against incumbents, Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed group, said at a news conference earlier in January that his group was going to start holding Republicans accountable.

Democratic criticism is expectantly more direct. “Are (candidates) going to listen to Reince Priebus or the Kochs?” Ben Ray, spokesperson for the Democratic opposition research group American Bridge, said.