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How the Koch brothers can save the Republican Party

Recently, no less a Republican Party icon than Karl Rove canonized Charles and David Koch: “Bless them for all they do,” he wrote in Time magazine.

Rove’s blessing is the clearest sign yet that the brothers have been granted admission to the inner sanctum of Republican power. Yet for many years the Kochs were enemies of the GOP, whose political primacy they challenged through the libertarian movement. Writing in 1978 in a magazine he owned called Libertarian Review, Charles Koch called the GOP “the party of ‘business’ in the worst sense” and blasted Republicans for advancing a doomed strategy that “has failed so miserably.”

It seems hard to fathom now, but the Republican establishment once viewed the Kochs as a threat. In the late 1970s, National Review – now a reliable defender of the brothers – devoted a series of articles to eviscerating the libertarian movement and its angel investor, Charles Koch, whom the magazine described as “a man whose wealth and devotion to privacy are straight out of the Howard Hughes legend.”

Now the Koch brothers, thanks to their sprawling political and fundraising network, are the toast of the GOP, while Democrats have taken up the cause of demonizing them, even placing them at the center of their midterm election strategy. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, recently suggested that Senate Republicans should “wear Koch insignias to denote their sponsorship.” The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, meanwhile, has rolled out a website proclaiming that the “GOP is addicted to Koch.”

But their fiercest critics on the left may be surprised to learn that the Kochs actually share a host of views with them, particularly on social issues (though emphatically not on economic ones). And now that the brothers wield significant influence within the Republican Party, they have an opportunity to push it closer to the center on issues that have caused members of many key voting blocs – women, Latinos, youth – to shun the GOP.

For a party undergoing an identity crisis, a Koch-style makeover may not be such a bad thing.

Left of the GOP

The brothers have achieved political infamy for bankrolling the Tea Party movement, leading the charge against Obamacare, stoking skepticism about climate change and carpet-bombing the airwaves with ads targeting vulnerable Democratic lawmakers via their advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. But lesser known are the issues on which they are at odds with the conservative mainstream.

The Kochs generally disapprove of foreign military interventions and were no fans of the Iraq war. As a young man, Charles strongly opposed the Vietnam War, even though this position was highly unpopular in his home town of Wichita, headquarters of military contractors such as Beech and Cessna that supplied the war effort. His activism so angered the leadership of the conservative John Birch Society, which his father had played a role in founding and where Charles was a member, that he was forced to part ways with the group in the late 1960s after placing an antiwar ad in the local newspaper.

David has criticized U.S. drug policy and victimless-crime laws. “I have friends who smoke pot. I know many homosexuals. It’s ridiculous to treat them as criminals,” he said in 1980. He supports same-sex marriage and abortion rights – positions that risk his standing in the GOP. Charles seemingly shares these views. “What a spectacle it is for the same people who preach freedom in voluntary economic activities to call for the full force of the law against voluntary sexual or other personal activities!” he wrote in his 1978 jeremiad. “What else can the public conclude but that the free-market rhetoric is a sham – that business only cares about freedom for itself, and doesn’t give a damn about freedom for the individual?”

The Kochs have largely remained quiet on these issues in recent decades, but David made headlines at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, when he told Politico, “I believe in gay marriage.” His remark came just days after the GOP had officially hammered out a platform calling for a federal ban on gay marriage.

New clout

The libertarian movement, in which Charles and David Koch were leading figures, attempted to forge an alliance with the political left by highlighting the issues on which they could agree, such as robust civil liberties, a non-interventionist foreign policy, reproductive rights and the elimination of corporate subsides. It sought to demolish “the two-party monopoly,” as David put it when he accepted the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential nomination in 1979. But the fractious movement imploded in the wake of the 1980 election, after David and his running mate claimed 1 percent of the popular vote but came under fire from within the libertarian ranks for diluting the movement’s radical agenda on the campaign trail. (They had, for instance, committed the heresy of failing to call for the full eradication of the income tax.)

The Kochs ultimately abandoned the Libertarian Party, though not its core beliefs, once the futility of challenging the two-party system became clear. Thus began their three-decade climb from libertarian gadflies to Republican power brokers. The question now is what they will do with their newly acquired clout within the GOP.

The brothers have focused their advocacy largely on economic issues, such as blocking passage of 2009’s climate bill and pushing for steep decreases in state and federal spending, but there have been subtle signs that they are trying to influence other political battles. Charles dipped a toe into last year’s immigration reform debate when his institute co-sponsored a forum on the subject with BuzzFeed. His organization has lately waded into criminal justice reform, highlighting troubling racial disparities in the system and convening an event that featured a chapter president of the NAACP – an organization that in the past has condemned the political activities of the Koch brothers.

That’s a start, but there are other ways the Kochs could nudge the Republican Party to a more moderate place. The brothers have traditionally avoided bankrolling advocacy on controversial social issues, but they would certainly throw a curveball to their opponents on the left (not to mention their supporters on the right) by actively backing the causes of marriage equality or reproductive rights. They could take a page from hedge-fund manager Paul Singer, a member of their donor network, who has emerged as a top backer of same-sex marriage.

The Kochs may fear jeopardizing their newfound power by actively supporting issues that could rile the GOP base.

By challenging the Republican Party on some of its most entrenched positions, they would surely risk alienating allies, yet they stand to more than make up for that with new supporters whom the GOP has traditionally turned off or written off. But it all depends on whether Charles and David Koch are willing to take on the Republican Party once again, this time as insiders.

(Daniel Schulman is a senior editor in the Washington bureau of “Mother Jones” magazine and the author of “Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty.”)

Legacy Comments13

Quite an interesting article on the brother's and their views. A different perspective and insight into the world of political high finance. However at the end of the day one thing is true, and that is money is power. Whether it's the Koch brother's or George Soros, you don't funnel millions of $$$ to any party without an agenda. Regardless of the party, we are allowing money to play too great a roll in our political lives. Money is the determining factor of just who will be the candidate. Whether it's super PAC's and their anonymous backers, special interest groups, wealthy individuals, GOP, or Democrat. We have put our nation in the position to have the best politicians that money can buy, when what we need is leadership.

support the repeal of the 17th amendment to get money out of politics

I think if you study the history of the amendment, you'll find that's exactly why the 17th was passed. Corruption at the state level was rampant as candidates vied for a senatorial post.

The only motive the Kochs have is to save their oil and fracking profits from taxes and regulations. They have no higher ideals than that and for any progressive to believe different, means their propaganda machine is starting to work.

Seek help for your Kochderangement syndrome

This is awkward: Tillie demonizes the Kochs, BPR comes to their defense, even after he just read how their LEFT of center . . . BWA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!!!!!

like lemmings off a cliff a liberal believes anything a Mother Jones rag publishes

KO2CH = Potassium Formate. May cause irritation of respiratory tract. May cause allergic skin reaction. Avoid contact with eyes. Harmful if swallowed, especially hook, line, and sinker. If allowed to dump in waterways, will cause H2 woes. http://www.BestPuns.Com

Koch derrangement syndrome is sweeping the country. Act Blue donates more to Democrats than the Koch brothers could ever donate to Republicans. The real issue here is that Democrats are having to compete after having a monopoly in the press, with unions and every special interest group. The don't like it and they are painting the Koch brothers as the boogey men and enemies. Typical Alinsky tactic.

Your claim apparently originates with the WSJ, but is inaccurate. It includes only direct campaign contributions. When dark money--which does not have to be reported--is included, the Kochs spend as much as 10x what unions spend. "By focusing on direct contributions to the parties and the candidates, [WSJ columnist Kimberly Strassel] did what conservatives defending the Koch brothers almost always do. She severely downplayed the primary way the Kochs influence politics—through unregulated, indirect financing of conservative political organizations. According to research by Robert Maguire, a researcher who pieced together the Koch money trail from disparate Internal Revenue Service and Federal Election Commission reports, conservative nonprofit organizations that received large grants from Koch-backed intermediaries spent $170 million during the 2012 election cycle. Unions spent just $24 million." Here's another take on the numbers: "For the last election, Koch PAC spent $4.9 million in disclosed contributions (figures that appear on the chart referenced by Strassel). But they also spent over $407 million on undisclosed campaign entities, which does not show up in the CRP chart. Republic Report broke down the figures for the last election and found that Koch groups alone spent more than double the combined political spending (including to undisclosed group) for the top ten unions combined." - See more at:

...and how this different than Lweis and Soros, "Lewis also made donations of $3 million and $2.5 million (both of which were reportedly matched by billionaire activist George Soros) to America Coming Together (a liberal political action group which has since disbanded), and (a progressive/liberal political action committee and public policy group) in 2004.:

That was interesting...I was not aware of most of the points in this article.

Reference: " (They had, for instance, committed the heresy of failing to call for the full eradication of the income tax.) " What most people emphasize is that of the word: "collect" in the 16th Amendment phrase of "to lay and collect". What they should be looking at is the word: lay, of either to apply or impose. To impose is to levy, and to apply is to request. Thus I go by the more citizen-friendly word and when the I.R.S. agent asks for $x, I quote Nancy Reagan of: "Just Say No!" (;-)

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