NY Times, Aug. 30, 2014
By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE
DALLAS — The network overseen by Charles G. and David H. Koch has knocked on the doors of a million voters this year, elbowed aside some of the Republican Party’s top strategists and built one of the biggest fund-raising operations in politics.
But as 3,000 activists, dozens of big donors and a gaggle of presidential aspirants gathered here for a pre-election conference held by the network’s flagship political organization, Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ political operation is confronting the anxieties of influence.
Koch-backed organizations have largely steered clear of the bitter battles this year between establishment Republicans and Tea Party conservatives, instead encouraging Republicans to emphasize economic freedom and mounting well-financed attacks on Senate Democrats. Mindful of the failure of conservative groups to unseat President Obama in 2012, they have cleaned house, retooled their data efforts and grass-roots outreach, and cautioned donors that a Republican Senate majority will not be easily attainable.
Yet the Koch network’s growing importance to Republicans — its groups are planning to raise and spend a combined $300 million by Election Day — and its expanding grass-roots footprint have put pressure on it to become more aggressive in reshaping the Republican Party as 2016 approaches.
Video | Rallying ConservativesAmericans for Prosperity, a group backed by the Koch brothers, hosted a summit in Dallas ahead of the midterm elections that drew several potential presidential contenders.
“The question is, once you build an army, shouldn’t you use it, if you’re going to remain relevant?” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican consultant who has worked with some organizations in the Koch network.
Three of Americans for Prosperity’s strongest chapters today are in the early presidential primary states of Florida, Iowa and New Hampshire. Officials view New Hampshire, with its libertarian-leaning conservative voters, as ripe for the group’s brand of politics. Late last year, the organization opened a chapter in a fourth critical primary state, South Carolina, in part to ensure that Republican candidates attend to economic and fiscal issues during what is typically one of the party’s most divisive races.
Freedom Partners, the nonprofit that oversees the Kochs’ twice-yearly donor conferences, recently formed a “super PAC,” allowing it to be more aggressive in promoting or attacking candidates without running afoul of rules that limit the election activities of nonprofits.
Some donors and activists involved with Koch-backed groups are now urging it to consider a more active role in the 2016 primaries, perhaps even helping groom a candidate that shares the organization’s focus on economic issues.
Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana at the Americans for Prosperity conference. Mr. Pence was among several potential contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination to appear.
COOPER NEILL FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
“It’s an ongoing question,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, who said his organization was focused intently on the midterms. “But we don’t believe that we’re fully there yet as an organization.”
In a mark of the competition for the group’s favor, several top potential contenders for the Republican nomination interrupted their Labor Day weekends for a chance to court the donors and activists in Dallas, including Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey had a family obligation, an aide said, but pledged to headline a donor meeting that David Koch will host in New York next month. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, beloved by Tea Party activists, was the featured speaker on Saturday afternoon.
“It would be a force multiplier for any Republican in the primary that is hard to rival,” Mr. Wilson said, “because they have these effective grass-roots organizations across the country, and they are learning how to be efficient and timely and targeted.”
On Thursday evening, Mr. Pence and Mr. Paul mingled with 140 top donors and Koch aides at a dinner hosted by David Koch, dining on Kansas City strip steaks and remarks by the conservative columnist George Will.
Mr. Paul has sought to convince the group’s libertarian-minded donors that his skepticism of foreign intervention makes him a better fit than other leading Republican candidates, most of whom share conservative views and records on fiscal issues.
“I don’t think it’s that far outside the traditional belief system of Republicans, but it does set me apart,” Mr. Paul said in an interview on Friday. “Americans don’t want a reckless and rash leader that takes them into war recklessly.”
Mr. Pence declined an invitation to speak at the convention’s general session on Friday afternoon, instead opting for a smaller session in the morning. Mr. Pence, a former Republican congressman, recalled opposing his own party’s initiatives on education standards and prescription drugs, and praised the activists for their help in pressuring Indiana’s Republican lawmakers to enact his tax cut proposals.
“Some people think our next nominee should be a governor,” Mr. Pence said to laughter. “And I’m certainly sympathetic to that.”
Mr. Pence has close personal as well as political ties to the Koch organization: His former chief of staff runs Freedom Partners, which also employs several other former Pence aides.
But Mr. Perry, who has been elected to three full terms as Texas governor, is close to many Freedom Partners donors. Mr. Paul’s supporters include Frayda Levin, a New Jersey businesswoman who is chairwoman of Americans for Prosperity, and other libertarian-minded donors in the Koch orbit.
Mr. Cruz had the most rapturous reception of all the speakers, earning a standing ovation with his call to impeach Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
The Kochs themselves have met with several possible 2016 contenders, including Mr. Paul and Mr. Christie, but have been careful to avoid bestowing their imprimatur on any one of them.
One danger in getting involved in primaries, donors and activists said, is that backing one candidate could split the financial network the Kochs have spent years building, sending donors to other super PACs and outside groups.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to impact politics,” Ms. Levin said. “But we don’t want to just be R vs. D.”
The same danger applies to Americans for Prosperity’s activist corps: Avoiding primary politics and remaining issue-focused, officials said, preserved the group’s credibility among grass-roots voters. It has never deployed its field network for explicit election advocacy on behalf of a candidate.
“We’re not a PAC, and we don’t want to be a PAC,” said Greg Moore, who heads the New Hampshire chapter. “If you support one candidate over another, you’re sort of latching yourself to them. We want to be able to stay pure on the issue of freedom.”
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