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The Koch network isn't slowing down

As he welcomed donors and lawmakers Saturday to an annual confab in the California desert, billionaire Charles Koch p...

Posted: Jan 29, 2018 5:56 AM
Updated: Jan 29, 2018 5:56 AM

As he welcomed donors and lawmakers Saturday to an annual confab in the California desert, billionaire Charles Koch posed a new challenge to his powerful political network: "to increase the scale and effectiveness of this network by an order of magnitude, by another tenfold."

"Because if we do that," Koch said, "I'm convinced we can change the trajectory of this country."

After a year with Republicans in control of the federal government, Koch and his allies could have toasted any number of big changes as they gathered - including the successful approval into law of sweeping tax reform, the brass ring for fiscal conservatives.

"We're coming off a successful year in 2017," said Brian Hooks, the network's co-chairman. "Our most successful year yet."

But this is no mission-accomplished moment for the network, its leaders emphasized Saturday, with new battles to fight in 2018 and beyond.

This year, the network plans to redouble its policy efforts on criminal justice reform, and already it has been in discussions with the White House in recent weeks on a path forward. Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, said "there is an appetite to at least advance prison reform, and I think that's a great place to start."

The network also hopes to influence the immigration debate, pushing for a path to citizenship for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and countering White House efforts to curb legal immigration, as with proposed changes to the visa lottery system. Daniel Garza, president of the network's LIBRE Initiative, said Saturday that the network "cannot support arbitrary cuts to future legal immigration levels."

And Koch groups are poised to invest more money in this election cycle than in any previous midterm, they said - likely close to $400 million to fuel the network's political and policy priorities. That spending target is essentially unchanged from what the network announced during the same seminar last year, when President Trump was newly sworn in. But the political outlook for Republicans has not improved since then, with party strategists forecasting a bruising election next fall.

"We know the challenges," said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, "but we've seen the results that these policies are having on Americans, improving their lives, and we're all in to try to protect those in what we know is a challenging year."

As part of its spending, the Koch network plans to commit $20 million to promote tax reform - matching its investment last year during the push for the legislation. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a member of Republican leadership, praised the fresh round of capital during the dinner program Saturday, saying he is "delighted that the network is going to be committed to helping us tell that story."

During last year's donor meeting in Indian Wells, no one could predict what the story of 2017 would be for the Koch network: There was deep trepidation within the network about what direction the Trump administration would take, and where its libertarian ethos would fit in with the President's populist agenda.

The mood, however, has shifted dramatically.

"It's been a good partnership," Phillips said Saturday. "No doubt about that."

The network's leaders gushed over the administration's rollback of government regulations and praised Trump's judicial appointments. During the dinner program Saturday, Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, drew enthusiastic applause from donors when he noted, "We're literally creating a generational change in the direction of the courts."

And they aren't sick and tired of winning yet.

Under silhouetted palm trees, with the calm evening air punctuated by the sound of a cocktail shaker at an open bar, Charles Koch suggested an ambitious year ahead for his powerhouse network.

"I'm more excited about what we're doing and about the opportunities than I've ever been," he said.

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