April 23

The Republican Party’s biggest sugar daddies, the Koch brothers, are a mixed bag for the GOP: They bring money but lots of baggage. Their downside isn’t only that they are a convenient foil for Democratic turnout, but that they could exacerbate existing tensions within the Republican Party. Here’s how.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has attacked the GOP for being "addicted" to the Koch brothers' donations. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has attacked the GOP for being “addicted” to the Koch brothers’ donations. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

For years, the GOP has maintained an uneasy and unlikely alliance between big business, social conservatives and anti-government libertarians. If you looked at these three groups on a Venn diagram, you would often find little overlap except in years when they have a shared enemy: Barack Obama, for example. Enter the Koch brothers and their agenda, which is transparently self-interested. Today, in an effort to respond to Democratic donor Tom Steyer’s statement that he is different from the Kochs because he is isn’t looking for a quo for his quid, a Koch spokesman disputed this characterization of selfishness, pointing out that the brothers have long opposed tax subsidies to oil and gas interests, an example where their mouth opposes their money. But, of course, the Kochs don’t spend money on campaigns designed to kill oil and gas drilling depreciation allowances. Instead they are spending it to kill one of the most promising forms of alternative energy: solar. It is this anti-solar campaign that may awaken part of the Republican coalition and turn it against the brothers and their agents.

Solar panels throughout red states of the South and Southwest have become this century’s version of the satellite dish. In the late 1970s, rural and then suburban households who couldn’t get cable or were tired of paying its monopoly started setting up satellite dishes instead.  This was about more than the thrill of getting television where it had been too fuzzy or expensive before: This was an act of freedom. You were beating a system that was rigged against you. Today, another way to beat the system is to take on big utilities and their monopoly prices by putting some solar panels on your roof or in your yard. Not only do your energy bills go down, but the utility company buys the extra power you generate. No wonder anti-establishment conservatives (and liberals, for that matter) absolutely love their solar panels.  They are a deeply powerful and personal badge of defiance and independence.

Now the Koch brothers want to take it all away. They are funding a multi-state campaign to kill solar panels by imposing a monthly fee on their usage.  The argument is that solar panel users are freeloading on the power grid. There may be some limited merit to that argument, but it is laughable coming from the Koch brothers and the large, carbon-based utilities. The grid has been a neglected step-child of the energy business for generations, and few people, especially the utilities and the extraction industries who ultimately depend on its reliability, have cared. Until, of course, some freedom-lovers started a trend that could reduce the nation’s dependence on coal and oil, crown jewels in the Koch business empire.

So the dirty little secret of the Republicans is not just that they are “addicted” to the Koch brothers’ money, to borrow Harry Reid’s phrase, but that they are fooling around with people who are only situationally for freedom — freedom when it’s good for their  business. But the message for the young family trying to save money or the guy with 20 acres who is tired of getting jacked around or the small farmer barely getting by is clear:  We will crush your dream. This is not an association Republicans should covet.