September 1

While most Americans were settling in for a long weekend, many of the potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates — Rick Perry, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Mike Pence — went to Dallas for a convention of Americans for Prosperity, the group through which Charles and David Koch channel much of their political money. If any of the politicians were wary about how it looks to have so many people who want to be the leader of the free world kissing the Kochs’ rings, you couldn’t tell. They’re making a strategic calculation that whatever PR risks are inherent in getting too close to the Kochs, they’re outweighed by the money the brothers bring to the GOP’s table. And if the Kochs plan to intervene in the 2016 primaries — something no one seems sure they’ll do — then every Republican candidate wants to be the one on the receiving end of that fire hose of cash.

Charles Koch, left (Associated Press) and David Koch (Bloomberg)
Charles Koch, left (Associated Press) and David Koch (Bloomberg)

At the moment, Republicans couldn’t be happier about the Kochs’ support, because the sums they mobilize are staggering. The Koch network (which includes other like-minded benefactors) spent at least $400 million in 2012 and are expect to drop another $300 million in this year’s midterms. The law of ever-increasing campaign spending suggests that in 2016 they’ll spend even more. It would be a surprise if the total didn’t top a half billion dollars.

So far, the Democrats’ efforts to make voters see the Kochs as a pair of villains have met with only limited success. One poll taken in March found 37 percent of people with an opinion about the Kochs (25 percent negative, 12 percent positive). On the other hand, it might be enough if many voters had only the vaguest sense of who the Kochs are and what they stand for. If people hear the name and say, “Aren’t they those billionaire Republican guys? I don’t quite remember,” then that would make Democrats happy. As Greg has explained before, while Democrats certainly want voters to think of their opponents as heartless robber barons, the strategy is more complex than that; it’s also about establishing a context for attacks on Republican positions on economic issues. When you go after Republicans for not supporting an increase in the minimum wage, an association with billionaire oil magnates tells voters why Republicans believe what they do and why their interests are opposed to those of ordinary people.

Republicans will tell you that it’s foolhardy of Democrats to try to make an issue out of the Kochs’ sway over the GOP, mostly because voters don’t particularly care about the influence of money in politics. But even if the attacks had some effect, it would have to be clear and unambiguous before Republican contenders started shying away from the Kochs and all that money.

I’d be extremely surprised if the Kochs actually chose to back a single candidate in the 2016 primary; not only does that risk alienating whoever wins if it’s not the one they picked, it could also turn them into just one faction in a factional conflict. Even if the brothers aren’t toeing the GOP line on some issues (such as immigration or foreign interventionism), they benefit from having everyone on the right view them as a friend to all Republicans. At the same time, it’s in the Kochs’ interest to have all the candidates believe they might back a primary candidate. That way, those candidates will continue to cater to their concerns and maybe even make some promises about actions that could be taken once a Republican is in the White House.

But the closer we get to the 2016 general election, the more problematic it will be for the eventual nominee to be seen as too close to the Kochs. Democrats aren’t going to stop going after them, and if the Republican candidate himself isn’t a plutocrat (none of the contenders this time around approach Mitt Romney’s level of wealth), the next best thing is to say that he’s in a plutocrat’s pocket. So there will be many more Democratic ads with the brothers’ pictures, and many more Democratic speeches tying that eventual nominee to the oil barons from Kansas.

The longer that goes on, the higher the chances that being seen as too close to the Kochs poses a political risk for Republican presidential candidates. But for the moment, they don’t seem too concerned, especially when gaining the Kochs’ favor comes with the promise of so much money.