The influential Koch brothers and their powerful donor network plan to pour money into Wisconsin this fall to keep Gov. Scott Walker in the statehouse and replace U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
The Koch network’s chief lieutenants renewed their vow this weekend to spend up to $400 million on politics and policy to shape November’s midterm elections nationwide.
That’s more than the combined resources spent by the Republican National Committee, the National Rifle Association and the Chamber of Commerce in the 2016 election cycle.
They outlined plans Monday to spend big on political advertising now through the end of July on as many as 14 key Senate races and 15 gubernatorial elections — including those in Wisconsin. Their goal: Flood the airwaves with political messaging early to help shape voters’ opinions long before the election season’s final months.
“We need to be on offense starting now,” said Emily Seidel, CEO of the Kochs’ political arm, Americans for Prosperity.
She said the network has already decided to spend money in Senate contests in Wisconsin, Indiana, Missouri and Florida — all seats held by Democrats. They expect to be active in many more. And on governor’s races, they’re targeting Wisconsin, Nevada, Illinois, Michigan and Florida to start.
The investment includes $20 million to help sell the recently adopted tax overhaul to a skeptical American public through a series of public rallies, phone banking and paid advertising.
Baldwin’s campaign Monday cited the Koch brothers’ plans and asked supporters for money.
“Tammy is a go-to target of special interest groups — already they’ve spent more against her than all of the other Democratic Senators up for reelection combined,” the fundraising letter said. “Now it looks like a lot more cash is going to come flowing into Wisconsin from the Koch network. Tammy doesn’t kowtow to large corporations and millionaires and billionaires, and it’s becoming clear that they’re going to spend whatever it takes to replace her.”
In a statement, Walker campaign spokesman Nathan Craft said: “As a half-dozen big government special interests direct tens of millions of dollars to undo Governor Walker’s bold reforms and take Wisconsin backward, the campaign is working vigorously to protect the positive things the Wisconsin comeback is delivering for hard-working families.”
Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin has already taken an unusually active role in state politics this year, spending more than $100,000 in the Senate District 10 race in northwestern Wisconsin. The group backed the Republican candidate, the first time it has endorsed in a state Senate race, but he lost in a surprise upset that changed the district to Democratic control for the first time in 18 years.
Challenges for conservatives
Despite the extraordinary investment, the men and women who filled the luxury resort outside Palm Springs for a three-day Koch brothers retreat that ended Monday acknowledged a difficult road ahead.
Some worried aloud that Republican President Donald Trump’s undisciplined behavior is clouding his achievements — and making it harder for the GOP to protect its grip on Congress heading into the 2018 midterms.
“President Trump is not helping get many Republicans elected,” said Tom Shepherd, a Cincinnati-based businessman who joined roughly 550 Koch donors at the private retreat. “I think he’s doing more harm than good because he’s distracting people from the good work which is happening, which is either happening because of him or in spite of him.”
Others blamed history more than the regular distractions from Trump. The party in the White House traditionally struggles in the first midterm election of a new presidency.
“It’s a challenge regardless of the president,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity.
But the donors who pledged at least $100,000 this year to the Koch network were less cautious when asked about the president’s leadership.
Many opposed his candidacy before the 2016 election. The Kochs refused to endorse Trump, fearing that his style and policies might undermine conservative priorities.
“I didn’t support him,” said Frank Baxter, a retired investment banker from California who served as the ambassador to Uruguay under former President George W. Bush. “The results are kind of changing my mind.”
Like others, he praised the tax overhaul, Trump’s judicial appointments and regulatory cuts. He added, “I still don’t like what he says or does.”
Gary Lynch, whose Iowa livestock business employs roughly 700 people, said he and his business have benefited from the Republican tax overhaul. He said, however, that Trump’s behavior “doesn’t help” his party promote the benefits of the plan.
“He hasn’t got it down yet,” Lynch said of the president, noting that he doesn’t mind Trump’s style personally.
Another former Trump critic, North Carolina-based donor Art Pope, said he’s warming to the president as well.
“The policies of this administration have really benefited the American people,” Pope said.
Democrats need to pick up at least 24 seats nationwide this fall to claim the House majority for the last two years of Trump’s first term. Recent Democratic wins in Alabama and Virginia, backed by Trump’s low approval ratings, suggest the GOP is in trouble.
State Journal reporter Matthew DeFour contributed to this report.