They may not like President Donald Trump’s commentary and style, but they love what he’s doing on taxes, on judges, and for the markets — and that’s enough for the Kochs’ massive donor network to spend as much as $400 million supporting Republicans this year alone.
The Koch network exists to help promote conservative policy. Trump presided over a historic tax overhaul that the network has aggressively pushed for — spending $20 million last year to help shepherd it through — and he nominated Neil Gorsuch, a conservative, to the Supreme Court.
“If I had gone into a coma two years ago and woke up today and just read what has been accomplished, I’d be thrilled. Shocked and thrilled,” Tom Shepherd, a donor from Cincinnati, where he owns a material sciences company, told reporters Sunday. “There’s a lot that, there’s an awful lot about President Trump that is regrettable. I think his commentary, his general commentary. It’s just largely unnecessary, ugly, distracting.”
“President Trump is not helping get many Republicans elected, I think. He’s doing more harm than good because he’s distracting people from the good work that is happening, which is either happening because of him or in spite of him,” Shepherd added. “But there’s a lot of good stuff going on.”
“These elections are going to be brutally tough,” Americans for Prosperity CEO Emily Seidel told seminar attendees Monday morning in a presentation that was part 2018 briefing, part pitch for donations. “We’ve never faced a challenge like this one,” she added.
The deck has historically been stacked against the party in power during the first midterm of a president’s term, and AFP expects 2018 will be no different. Adding to that, Seidel said, “are the high unfavorable ratings plaguing both president Trump and the Republican led congress.”
“And the recent elections in Virginia and Alabama suggest both anger and enthusiasm are high among progressive groups. And so some are saying that 2018 may be a wave — and the Democrats are certainly fundraising off of that,” she said.
So in an effort to protect all the “good stuff” Shepherd described, the Koch network is preparing to make an enormous investment this year — close to $400 million on policy and politics efforts, the largest sum they’ve ever spent on a midterm election.
Part of that effort will be selling the benefits of the new tax plan, a cause on which the network plans to spend up to $20 million. It’s something they see as a winning message in the election — but only if they can help make the case to voters that it’s a good thing. For now, the public is not entirely sold. A Politico/Morning Consult poll from earlier this month found 45% of voters liked what they knew of the plan, while 34% did not like it and 20% remained undecided.
Phillips says they believe they can help sell it. Addressing the seminar on Saturday night, Texas Sen. John Cornyn said it could be a winning issue right off the bat. Democrats are defending 10 senators in states Trump won, all of whom voted against the tax plan. In those states, Cornyn said, “I think there’s a great opportunity to take this to the people and just to ask if this is the kind of representation they want.”
Already, they’ve been running efforts related to the tax plan attacking Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, and they cited Florida as another state where they will target the Democratic Senator, Bill Nelson, for his vote against the tax plan. The network only gets involved in races where there is a candidate who they believe will champion their issues and where they think their efforts can have a noticeable impact. Along with Florida and Wisconsin, Senate races in Missouri and Indiana have already made that list this year.
On the House side, AFP expects to get involved around May, when the races have taken shape. Phillips said he anticipated as many as 80 competitive House seats this cycle.
The network will also get involved in as many as 15 gubernatorial races. Already, they have begun their efforts in five of them: Nevada, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and Florida.
Frank Baxter, a former investment banker and ambassador to Uruguay under former president George W. Bush, described the tax cuts as cause for optimism. “I think the talk about a wave is premature,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Maybe that’s wishful thinking, but I think it is premature. The results of the tax cut are quite promising and it really is 'the economy, stupid' in every case.”
Even some former Trump skeptics have come around. Art Pope, a major Republican donor from North Carolina, did not back Trump in 2016. But he said Trump’s personal style might actually prove an asset to Republicans in the midterms.
“In some ways it makes President Trump President Trump. He’s not the Republican Party. I mean he is the Republican nominee, he is the Republican president, but he’s obviously a very unique historic president in and of himself,” Pope told reporters. “So what President Trump does or says is President Trump, not necessarily reflecting the entire Republican Party.”