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Billionaire David Koch, Who Shaped Modern Conservative Politics, Has Died

The Koch brothers have together given hundreds of millions to political candidates and policy-focused groups to advance their libertarian strain of conservatism.

Posted on August 23, 2019, at 8:48 a.m. ET

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David Koch in 2015.

Billionaire industrialist David Koch — who worked with his brother Charles to shape conservative ideology and politics for decades through massive donations to libertarian causes, only to watch in shock as the Republican Party under President Donald Trump drifted toward populism and protectionism — has died. He was 79.

His death was confirmed to media in a statement from Koch Industries, the massive Kansas-based conglomerate he helped build and lead, which is involved in the production of a wide range of products from manufacturing paper to refining oil.

"It is with a heavy heart that I announce the passing of my brother David," Charles Koch said.

David Koch’s death comes after he stepped down from his corporate and political roles for health reasons in June of 2018, having been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer almost three decades ago. "David liked to say that a combination of brilliant doctors, state-of-the-art medications, and his own stubbornness kept the cancer at bay," said Charles Koch.

Although he donated more than $1 billion to philanthropic causes like the arts, education, and medicine, David Koch became best known in the last decade for his political contributions — and as a favorite bogeyman for the left.

The Koch brothers have together given hundreds of millions to political candidates and policy-focused groups to advance their libertarian strain of conservatism. They built a sprawling network of groups and think tanks that have hundreds of major donors and millions of activists. The groups, rooted in the Kochs’ emphasis on free markets, push for a more limited government, reducing federal spending, school choice, free speech on college campuses, and criminal justice reform. Their money and influence helped the rise of the Tea Party following President Barack Obama's election. The pair were also among the largest sponsors of groups denying the science of climate change, with Greenpeace once calling them "a prime example of the corporate takeover of government."

Donors who give to the Koch network are invited twice a year to ritzy resorts in California and Colorado for what the brothers call “seminars” — weekends full of meetings with elected officials, sometimes presidential hopefuls, and network staff members who would educate donors on the network’s mission and work for the year. Charles Koch leads the seminars, but David Koch could be spotted on the sidelines of these gatherings, often individually meeting with donors. With his health deteriorating, however, he had stopped attending the gatherings in recent years.

The seminars used to be private events but were opened up to selected press in 2015 as criticism of the brothers’ activities became more widespread with their rising influence in politics after the 2010 elections. Democrats criticized the Kochs in political ads and in Senate floor speeches as puppet masters for GOP politicians they had helped elect with their contributions, making the brothers a household name.

"Senate Republicans ... are addicted to Koch," said Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, then the Senate majority leader, in a 2014 speech that played up the fact that the brothers' surname is pronounced "coke."

In 2016, however, the brothers distanced themselves from Trump and even flirted with the idea of supporting Hillary Clinton. In 2018, after Charles Koch criticized the president's policies, Trump attacked them on Twitter. "The globalist Koch Brothers, who have become a total joke in real Republican circles, are against Strong Borders and Powerful Trade," he wrote. "I never sought their support because I don’t need their money or bad ideas."

Michel Delsol / Getty Images

David Koch in 1989.

Before creating the network, the brothers were major supporters of the libertarian movement. David Koch ran on the Libertarian Party’s ticket for vice president in 1980. The party got about 1% of the vote after a campaign that was largely funded by Koch himself.

David Koch addressed his transition from backing the Libertarian Party to the GOP in 2012, when the brothers invested millions opposing Obama’s reelection.

“I think the Republican Party has a great chance of being successful, and that’s why I support it,” David Koch told reporters at an event in Tampa, Florida. “The Libertarian Party is a great concept. I love the ideals, but it got too far off the deep end, and so I dropped out.”

David Mack contributed reporting.

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