(Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

“The Koch brothers will spend more money in this election cycle than either the Democratic or Republican parties. This is not democracy.”

–Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), post on Twitter, Oct. 17, 2015

“When you have one family — the Koch brothers, worth some $85 billion — when this one extreme right wing family will be spending some $900 million in this campaign cycle, which is more money than either the Democratic or Republican party will be spending … my friends, you are not talking about democracy. You are talking about oligarchy, and that has got to change.”

–Sanders, speech at Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, Oct. 7, 2015

“You have one family, the Koch brothers, who will spend $900 million in this election cycle to elect candidates who will protect the wealthy and the powerful. That is more money than will be spent by either the Democratic or the Republican party.”

–Sanders, Senate floor speech, Sept. 22, 2015

“According to media reports, the Koch brothers alone, one family, will spend more money in this election cycle than either the Democratic or Republican parties. This is not democracy. This is oligarchy.”

–Sanders, presidential campaign announcement speech, May 26, 2015 

This is a standard stump speech line that appeals to his supporters. Campaign finance reform is one of Sanders’s main campaign issues, and he uses this line when criticizing the influence that mega-wealthy donors have on politics.

Who else better to use as an example than Charles and David Koch, the conservative billionaires who have come to symbolize the growth of dark money’s influence on American politics? But Sanders’s characterization of the two brothers’ anticipated spending on the 2016 elections is wildly off base.

Let’s figure out what’s really going on.

The Facts

Sanders’s campaign pointed to a Jan. 26, 2015, New York Times article with the headline “Koch Brothers’ Budget of $889 Million for 2016 Is on Par With Both Parties’ Spending.” The article describes the nearly $900 million spending goal of the Koch-backed political network of nearly 300 conservative donors, and this fundraising commitment was revealed at a January 2015 donor retreat. (For more on the network, check out these primers by The Washington Post and the Center for Responsive Politics.)

This is a staggering figure, and an aggressive goal. It is more than double the $407 million that 17 groups in the network, overseen by the Koch brothers, raised during the 2012 campaign, The Washington Post’s Matea Gold reported: “The figure comes close to the $1 billion that each of the two major parties’ presidential nominees are expected to spend in 2016, and it cements the network’s standing as one of the country’s most potent political forces.”

Sanders’s campaign compared the $889 million figure to party spending in 2012. The Democratic National Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent $647 million, and the Republican National Committee, National Republican Congressional Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee spent $675 million, according to spending data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

But here’s the problem. While the $889 million goal does exceed each of those spending figures by the two major political parties, it does not represent direct donations from the two brothers, or one family, as Sanders frequently suggests.

Moreover, not all of this money will be spent on direct political activities, according to a June 2015 Koch Industries quarterly newsletter.

About two-thirds of the $889 million “will help support research and education programs, scholarships and other efforts designed to change policies and promote a culture of freedom in the United States,” according to the newsletter. It includes money that will be donated to the United Negro College Fund, Youth Entrepreneurs, criminal justice reform and “other worthy causes that help people improve their lives,” it says.

The remaining one-third will be in direct electoral spending, including presidential, congressional, state and local races. (Donations by the Democratic and Republican parties, in contrast, are more focused on direct electoral efforts than issue advocacy.)

In a Sept. 29, 2015, interview with Forbes, Charles Koch rejected claims that the Kochs will spend close to $1 billion on 2016 campaigns. He said “a small fraction” will come directly from his brother and himself. He estimated about $300 million out of the nearly $900 million would fund 2016 elections, but the final amount will be decided by donors.

According to 2015 campaign finance records, Charles Koch donated $2,700 this year to support Republican Jerry Moran in the Kansas Senate race. So far in 2015, David Koch donated $3,000 to Koch PAC, $5,000 to OrrinPAC, affiliated with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). David Koch also donated $234,800 to the NRSC and the New York Republican Federal Campaign Committee. This calculation may not include all of third-quarter spending, which were due to Congress on Oct. 20, 2015.

Koch PAC has supported some PACs to support candidates in their Senate re-election efforts, including Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. That money was eventually transferred to their presidential campaign funds.

At least two Koch-backed groups have each launched a political ad this year, but it is unclear whether the ads were backed by the Koch network fundraising. Freedom Partners, the business lobby that serves as the hub of the Koch political network, and its super PAC (Freedom Partners Action Fund) has not run any ads in the 2016 campaign, their Web sites show.

In an interview with American Public Media’s Marketplace released Oct. 21, 2015, Charles Koch gave a lower estimate for the network’s fundraising projection: $750 million overall, with $250 million aimed at political activities. He said: “As I said, very small portion of that $250 [million] comes from the so-called Koch brothers, and even less from me than from my brother, because everybody can choose what they want to give to. So it isn’t the Koch brothers doing it. It’s other people doing it.”

Host Kai Ryssdal challenged that answer: “You realize that comes across as sort of disingenuous, right? … You have money in politics throughout the system, and for you to sit there and say, ‘I’m sorry, this isn’t really us,’ doesn’t ring true and will not ring true when people hear this interview.”

Charles Koch answered: “Okay, but here’s the thing.  If this wasn’t what people wanted, other people wanted to give to, the money wouldn’t come because we’re not putting it up. That’s, I mean you can say, yeah, we’ve improved the capability, because we say, ‘Okay, if you want to donate to these, we need to help make it more effective and to try to pick better candidates who will do a somewhat, maybe not go 70 miles an hour, and then hope there’s a few who will agree and actually try to change the trajectory of the country.'”

Robert Maguire, political nonprofits investigator at the Center for Responsive Politics, said there is no evidence that the Koch brothers are providing all the funding for the donor network. In fact, the Kochs have cultivated a network of “sympathetic, wealthy donors that fuel the political activities of the nonprofits they control,” he said. Given that groups in the donor network are nonprofit organizations for the most part, there is no way for the public to know how much of the groups’ revenues come from the Kochs. “But for now, it is safe to say they do not provide all of the network’s funds,” Maguire said.

“To be clear, it is true that Charles and David Koch head up the largest, most complex, and most opaque political network in the country,” Maguire said. “Their influence as political financiers and political organizers cannot be discounted. In that sense, Sanders is right that the brothers — and the members of their donor network — have an outsized influence on the who gets nominated for our country’s highest offices. Most GOP presidential hopefuls, for example, have auditioned for Koch seal of approval at their donor retreats.”

[Update, Nov. 1, 2016: A spokesman for Freedom Partners, the business lobby that serves as the hub of the Koch political network, confirmed the political network’s projected 2016 spending has been downgraded to $750 million from $889 million, with about one-third of the $750 million budget being spent on policy and politics. As of Oct. 12, 2016, the Democratic Party had spent $922.5 million and Republican Party had spent $664.3 million on the 2016 election.]

The Pinocchio Test

Sanders previously has referred to this $900 million figure saying “just one family … along with other wealthy donors, bankroll a $900 million political operation this election cycle.” But increasingly, Sanders more specifically attributes the $900 million figure to the Kochs’s anticipated direct spending on the 2016 elections. He now says that the “Koch brothers alone, one family,” will spend all of the nearly $900 million on the 2016 elections.

This figure is a fundraising goal by the end of 2016. It does exceed what the parties spent on 2016 elections in 2012, which experts tell us is a fair estimation of what the parties may spend in the 2016 election cycle. But the money will be raised by a network of approximately 300 donors, not just “Koch brothers alone, one family.” And the Kochs say not all $900 million will be spent on direct electoral spending; two-thirds will be spent on non-political activities, such as voter education and research.

It’s fair to say that the Kochs have an opaque and expansive network that aims to raise an unprecedented amount of money, and that meeting this goal would make the network one of the most powerful forces in the 2016 campaign.

Of course, we don’t know exactly how much the network will raise over the next 13 months, we do not know if the plans to spend about one third of the money raised on politics will change, and we will not know all the details of the Koch brothers’ financial influence. But Sanders’s particular talking point is not supported by the data currently available to the public.

An anti-Koch message is a powerful one, and an energizing one for Sanders’s base. But this particular anti-Koch message reaches too far and thus earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios


(About our rating scale)

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Follow The Fact Checker on Twitter and friend us on Facebook

Check out our 2016 candidates fact-check page.