If you’re a Republican, you surely thank the heavens for the Koch brothers, billionaires willing to spend vast sums to help Republicans get elected. But could the Kochs actually pose a serious threat to the Republican Party itself?
That’s the question raised by a fascinating new report from Jon Ward of Yahoo News on a brewing conflict between the Kochs and the Republican National Committee over voter files. While this looks like a somewhat arcane dispute over data and software, it actually gets to the heart of a transition now going on in American politics — one Republicans initiated, perhaps without quite understanding it, and one that now threatens to make their party wither on the vine.
For years, Republicans have been fighting to empower people like the Kochs and increase their political power, and now the Kochs may end up swallowing the Republican Party itself.
This current dispute is about whether Republican candidates for office will use the RNC’s voter file to target their campaign activities, or whether they’ll use a system created by the Kochs’ political operation. According to Ward, the RNC sees the Koch’s system as a real threat, and things are getting ugly:
Since then, relations between the two sides have soured, turning into what one Republican operative described as “all-out war.” Interviews with more than three dozen people, including top decision-makers in both camps, have revealed that the Kochs’ i360 platform for managing voter contacts — which is viewed by many as a superior, easier-to-use interface than what’s on offer from the RNC — is becoming increasingly popular among Republican campaigns.
The RNC is now openly arguing, however, that the Kochs’ political operation is trying to control the Republican Party’s master voter file, and to gain influence over — some even say control of — the GOP.
“I think it’s very dangerous and wrong to allow a group of very strong, well-financed individuals who have no accountability to anyone to have control over who gets access to the data when, why and how,” said Katie Walsh, the RNC’s chief of staff.
There’s a pretty rich irony in hearing an RNC spokesperson complain about the influence of unaccountable rich people on politics. That’s because the power the Kochs (and other mega-donors) are building is a direct consequence of everything Republicans have advocated for years. They’re the ones who filed lawsuits to try to weaken campaign finance laws. They’re the ones who celebrated when those lawsuits succeeded. They’re the ones who rush to exploit every new loophole so the most amount of money can be spent with the least amount of accountability. They’re the ones who say that money equals speech, and liberty demands that the wealthy be able to spend all they want on campaigns.
But it’s possible that party leaders may not have predicted just how serious and involved the Kochs would become in their political activities.
This reminds me of something you’ve probably seen in a half-dozen movies about the mafia. A struggling business owner comes to the don and begs for a loan — he knows his business will succeed, he just needs some help getting through a rough patch. The don agrees, and the business owner is happy to have the don’s nephew come work for him while he puts the loan to good use. Then more of the don’s people keep coming, and before he knows it, the place is full of made guys. Eventually he complains to the don’s lieutenant. “This is my business!” he says. “You don’t seem to understand,” replies the lieutenant. “You work for us now.” (No, I’m not drawing a moral equivalence between the Koch brothers and mobsters.)
The model followed by most billionaires in the Kochs’ position is basically to just throw money at existing operatives and institutions to fund a bunch of TV ads, which is what they did when they first started. But as time has gone on, the Kochs have gotten smarter and smarter. They’ve invested in building a grassroots network through Americans for Prosperity, which is labor-intensive and time-consuming, but can ultimately yield results that advertising can’t. They’ve successfully created this data operation, which is supposedly superior to the RNC’s. They are obviously not content to just make big donations and let other people decide how the money gets spent.
Some other mega-donors are trying to do something similar, but none of them, on the right or the left, is doing it with the scale and success that the Kochs are. And if they want, they can go much bigger. The Kochs’ combined wealth is over $80 billion; so far they’ve barely dipped into the ocean of their resources.
We shouldn’t overstate things — the Republican Party is a long way from beginning to wither away. The RNC still raises plenty of money, its local affiliates still make up the default avenue through which rank-and-file conservatives all over the country can participate in politics, and it still has the ability to do things like sanction presidential primary debates and thus set their rules (though if the Kochs decided to hold their own series of debates, I’m pretty sure the candidates would come). But there is a dangerous future on the horizon, one in which the party still carries symbolic value, but not much practical influence.
It’s too early to tell whether that will occur, or whether it would be good or bad for conservatives in the long run if it did occur. On one hand, the party argues, quite reasonably, that while someone like the Kochs might lose interest and pack up shop one day, the party will always be there trying to elect Republicans, so it makes sense for them to be the locus of organizing, spending, and coordination. On the other hand, Republicans succeeded in creating something like a free market in political organization, where any new entrant with the means can come in and try to win market share.
In other words, the party fought to give the Kochs as much influence in politics as they were willing and able to take, and the Kochs took them up on it with so much enthusiasm that they now threaten to supplant the party. Maybe a party that lauds the wealthy for their smarts and entrepreneurial spirit should have seen that coming.