DANA POINT, Calif. — Billionaire industrialist Charles Koch on Sunday compared the efforts of his political network to the fight for civil rights and other “freedom movements,” part of a growing effort by the organization to emphasize its commitment to the plight of the disenfranchised.
During remarks to 450 wealthy conservatives assembled in the ballroom of a lavish oceanfront resort, Koch urged his fellow donors to follow the lead of figures such as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Look at the American revolution, the anti-slavery movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement,” Koch said. “All of these struck a moral chord with the American people. They all sought to overcome an injustice. And we, too, are seeking to right injustices that are holding our country back.”
The theme of helping the lower class was echoed throughout the weekend conference as network officials laid out their plans to spend $889 million by the end of 2016 on issue advocacy, higher-education grants and political activity. Huge banners positioned around the halls of the resort featured quotes from donors describing their commitment to helping the poor. Mark Holden, the general counsel of Koch Industries, led a 40-minute discussion Sunday afternoon on the network’s push for criminal justice reform at the state and federal levels.
The emphasis appears to be driven by a sense among network officials that they need to do more to win the public over to their cause, including what they call “the middle third” of the electorate that does not identify with their libertarian ideology. It underscores one of the remaining challenges for the Koch political network, one of the most potent forces in American politics: to recast its image of being a political organ for the rich.
On Sunday, Koch cited the need to be “to be much more effective in articulating” the group’s mission.
“If we cannot unite the majority of Americans behind the vision, then we’re done for,” he added. “So that to me has to be our number one objective. But to do so, we’ve got to do a much better job of understanding what matters most to people, and then to demonstrate that a free society gives them the best opportunity of achieving that.”
He cited criminal-justice reform as an issue that has resonated because it “strikes the same chord as past successful freedom movements.”
The network is looking at other policies related to poverty, he said, such as “a failing educational system.”
“What we’ve been doing in the past is not sufficient,” Koch added. “We are going to have to raise our efforts to the next level.”
Several donors said they admire the Kochs because they’re playing “the long game,” stressing that they focus on winning elections only as a means to an end.
“It’s the last thing that most Americans would think would go on here,” said Pete Snyder, a tech entrepreneur who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor of Virginia two years ago.
He called the Koch meeting “an ideas factory” for the conservative movement, a contrast to more political cattle calls.
“A lot of the innovations and big ideas are going to be coming from here,” Snyder said.
Twelve years after Koch hosted a small gathering of like-minded libertarians frustrated by the growth of government, the political and policy network he and his brother David Koch helped launch now resembles a quasi-political party.
Network-backed advocacy groups such as Americans for Prosperity are expanding their efforts to mobilize a national, data-driven ground operation. A super PAC supported by the Kochs and their allies plans to spend an estimated $100 million this cycle.
And the donor network the brothers created — now overseen by Freedom Partners, a Virginia-based business chamber — continues to swell. This weekend’s conference drew a record number of attendees, including 146 first-
timers, officials said.
“We’re really excited about the movement that you all are helping us to build,” Kevin Gentry, a Koch Industries official who serves on the board of Freedom Partners, told the donors at the welcome reception. “Anything you can do to take up the reins of leadership and to expand our ranks and build this movement — it’s the only way we’re going to accomplish our goals.”
Five presidential contenders — former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — made appearances at the weekend retreat, held on the grounds of the St. Regis Monarch Beach, with dazzling views of the misty-blue Pacific Ocean.
Seven sitting governors, six incumbent senators and three House members also were in attendance.
“I wish the whole world could see what goes on here,” Walker said when it was his turn on the stage. “So many of you here aren’t here because of any interest on behalf of your personal finances. You’re here because you love America.”
For the first time, news organizations were allowed in to cover the traditionally private confab, on the condition that the donors present not be named without their permission. The gathering — which took over much of the Spanish-style resort — had the feel of a lavishly produced wedding held under tight security.
Only registered attendees were allowed down the drive of the resort, and men with earpieces hovered in the front lobby. Donors had to surrender their mobile phones before going into strategy sessions.
Out on the grand lawn, waiters circulated with trays of chilled Evian through the crowd of men in blue sports coats and women in cocktail dresses. There were crystal chandeliers dangling from tall metal poles and meticulous arrangements of votive candles and cacti on the tables.
The move toward more openness comes after the Kochs were vilified on the left by critics including Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who spent much of the 2014 elections castigating them as “shadowy billionaires.”
On Saturday, Charles Koch made a sly reference to his Democratic nemesis. Stumbling as he stepped up onto a riser, he quipped: “That was Harry Reid that was trying to trip me there. I didn’t see him, but I know he’s watching.”
“No, he’s got the bad eye. He’s probably not even watching us anymore,” Koch added, referring to the injury Reid sustained in an exercise accident.
But otherwise, Koch steered clear of political talk, emphasizing the network’s focus on creating a “truly free society.” He ticked off several goals, such as reducing irresponsible government spending and doing away with corporate welfare, and he lambasted big banks for their reliance on government bailouts.”
“Will you stand with us to help save our country?” Koch implored Saturday night at the opening cocktail reception, calling their cause “a life-or-death struggle for our country.”
Although the Freedom Partners network is not expected to get behind a single candidate in the crowded GOP presidential primary, it is helping elevate a select group through invitations to network-backed events.
The candidates who traveled to Dana Point, where they participated in separate question-and-answer sessions with Politico’s Mike Allen, made sure to praise the organization for its deep investments.
“The men and women in this room spilled gallons of blood and spent your fortunes retaking the Senate,” Cruz said.
Walker, who received strong network backing in his fight with labor unions in Wisconsin, called himself “proud” to talk to the group. He compared the donors to people without “a lot of net worth” at tea party rallies “who care deeply about the future.”
“David and Charles have harnessed that frustration and said, ‘Instead of being angry about it, let’s do something about it,’ ” he said.
Fiorina said the organization was “supported by people of great accomplishment and intellect and patriotism.”
“These are people who care deeply about our nation,” she said when asked why she came. “The foundation that the Koch brothers have built has invested in the power of ideas. They’ve invested in the power of ground games. They’ve invested in the power of lifting people up.”
Bush’s appearance was his first before the network, which began largely in response to frustration with federal spending by then-President George W. Bush, Jeb’s brother.
“I am truly honored to be here,” he told attendees, who received him with warm applause. “I really appreciated the invitation.”
For all of the interest in hearing from the candidates in attendance, much of the talk throughout the weekend was about one of the contenders who had not been invited: real estate impresario Donald Trump. In hallway conversations and strategy meetings, attendees fretted about the effect he was having on the GOP primary race, according to attendees.
“People are alarmed that he has some staying power,” said one person familiar with donor views, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. “But there is an understanding that you don’t want to overdo the response.”
Indeed, if there was any question about whether Trump would go after the Kochs, he answered that with a tweet Sunday morning.
“I wish good luck to all of the Republican candidates that traveled to California to beg for money etc. from the Koch Brothers,” he wrote. “Puppets?”