In recent weeks, the Republican Party has seen a major clash between President Trump and the Koch political network.
The Koch network has long been reliable donors to Republican candidates. For example, the Kochs pledged to spend $750 million on behalf of Republican candidates in the 2016 election cycle alone. Because of this, Democrats have criticized the Kochs for trying to buy election victories on behalf of the GOP.
But the Kochs and their organization have not been fans of Trump. During the 2016 campaign, Charles Koch famously stated that the choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton was like choosing between “cancer or a heart attack.” Since Trump’s election, relations have not improved. The Koch network opposed Trump’s tariffs and announced that it would spend millions in advertising and lobbying to fight them. Additionally, the Koch network also reported that it would not endorse the Republican senate candidate in North Dakota — a crucial state for Republicans in the fall. In response, Trump has taken to Twitter to denounce the Koch brothers as “globalists” and to criticize their influence on the party.
Last week, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel added to this controversy by sending a memo to Republican donors and candidates warning them to stay away from the Koch political network. The memo already seems to have had some success, with one major donor to the Koch network denouncing the group.
Why is the RNC getting involved in this conflict? And what does it tell us about the role of the RNC in the Trump era?
The RNC is concerned about competition from the Koch organization
The RNC’s participation in the Koch-Trump feud is surprising given that the Republican National Committee is now attacking one of the biggest Republican donor organizations in the country. Why would the RNC want to alienate a major donor to the party?
Part of the answer is that the RNC is concerned that the Koch organization is trying to supplant it as the main source of campaign support for Republican candidates. Historically, both the DNC and RNC have helped candidates by raising money, providing data and other campaign support, and publicizing the national party’s brand.
However, much of this can now be done without the DNC or RNC. For example, Citizens United dramatically increased outside political spending in campaigns. Modern media has made it easier for candidates to promote themselves as independent from the national party. National committees still provide candidates with voter data and specialized campaign support.
But the Koch organization has been building a similar system which, according to Politico, rivals “that of the Republican National Committee.” The RNC probably feels threatened by the potential loss of its last main role within the GOP. As a private organization, the Koch political network — a collection of different groups, including Freedom Partners and Americans for Prosperity — can share data not just with Republicans but also with third-party candidates or even Democrats.
Like previous presidents, Trump controls the RNC and uses it to his benefit
But the RNC’s attack also highlights the fact that the Republican National Committee is fully under Trump’s control and will support its president against attacks and criticism — whether they come from outside or from within the Republican Party.
As I argued in a recent article, incumbent presidents of both parties have such control because they get to hire and fire the chair of the committee. Presidents can replace chairs who aren’t supportive enough of their agenda and goals.
In practical terms, this means that committees of parties with presidents in the White House often spend much of their resources promoting and supporting that president. For example, in the 1980s, the RNC focused on celebrating Ronald Reagan. In 1981 and 1982, the RNC spent more than $12 million on TV advertisements in which it promoted the GOP as Reagan’s party. The committee endorsed Reagan for reelection before the president even announced his intention to run again. Reagan’s control was such that he appointed his daughter Maureen — a relative political novice — as RNC vice chair in 1986.
Similarly, the DNC in the 1990s mostly worked to promote Bill Clinton. For example, starting in 1995, the DNC spent more than $25 million on ads backing Clinton’s reelection. These ads were part of a strategy designed by Dick Morris, Clinton’s personal pollster, who was put on the DNC’s payroll in 1995. The ads promoted Clinton’s image as a crime fighter and extolled his positions on Medicare, welfare reform and tax cuts. While the DNC paid for the ads, they were mostly the product of the White House, with Clinton himself directly involved in their creation.
Such choices may have made some sense strategically. For example, because Reagan was more popular than his party, branding the GOP as “his” was reasonable. But at times, national committees’ unconditional support for their presidents leads them to promote policies that aren’t endorsed by most other party members — or to neglect campaigning for other members of the party.
All that is true for the RNC under Trump. McDaniel has said that she views the committee’s role as supporting Trump, explaining that “you know the job you’re signing up for.” Indeed, McDaniel describes the RNC as “[Trump’s] political arm.”
Since Trump’s inauguration, the RNC has upheld this vision by creating and airing advertisements aimed at Trump’s 2020 reelection; following Trump’s order to reinstate funding and support for Roy Moore’s senatorial campaign in Alabama despite allegations of sexual misconduct with minors; spending a considerable amount of funds for events and office space in Trump-owned properties; and covering part of Trump’s legal fees in the Russia investigation. And now it has followed Trump in attacking the Koch political network.
The RNC-Koch fight thus illustrates a broader truth about the RNC during the Trump era: It will follow Trump’s orders. Crucially, this means that if other conservatives or Republicans have a conflict with Trump, the RNC will side with the president.
This is particularly relevant because it also indicates what the RNC’s reaction may be in the case of a potential primary challenge in 2020. Should other Republicans run against Trump, they may face opposition not only from Trump’s reelection campaign, but also from the Republican Party’s national committee.
Boris Heersink is an assistant professor in the department of political science at Fordham University.