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At Koch gathering, a turn away from partisan politics

Brian Hooks, left, chairman of the Koch network, with founder Charles Koch at a seminar in Indian Wells, Calif. on Saturday. “Uniting broad coalitions works much better than partisan politics,” Hooks told reporters.
Brian Hooks, left, chairman of the Koch network, with founder Charles Koch at a seminar in Indian Wells, Calif. on Saturday. “Uniting broad coalitions works much better than partisan politics,” Hooks told reporters. (The Seminar Network)
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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — They boosted the tea party movement and spent millions to elect Republicans across the country. But at a weekend gathering, members of the conservative Koch network signaled that they were turning away from partisan politics in an effort to focus more on policy priorities that cut across ideologies.

At their biannual meeting at a luxury resort here, officials with the network founded by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch emphasized new investments in anti-poverty initiatives and reentry programs for former convicts. They also announced a new education initiative.

But unlike in previous election cycles, there was little talk of politics, and leaders declined to reveal their projected budget on politics and policy for 2019 and 2020 as the presidential election approaches.

The shift comes as the Koch network aims to rebrand itself as a group of bipartisan, philanthropic collaborators as opposed to a political organization — and as it seeks to distance itself from President Trump and the Republican Party.

“One of the big lessons we’ve taken as we looked at where we can be most effective is that uniting broad coalitions works much better than partisan politics,” Brian Hooks, the network’s chairman, told reporters in a briefing Saturday.

The move coincides with the ascendancy of key senior network officials whose vision is more aligned with that of Charles Koch, who has described himself as less interested in electoral politics than his brother David, a former leader of the network, who retired last year because of ailing health.

It also comes amid policy differences between the libertarian-leaning network and the GOP under Trump. Though the Koch network is aligned with the Trump administration on many matters, it opposes the president’s tariffs on foreign goods and supports giving permanent legal status to undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children.

In a sign of the division, the data firm aligned with the Republican National Committee told The Washington Post that it does not plan to renew a data-sharing agreement with the Koch network for the 2020 cycle, after years of working in tandem to enrich voter files for GOP campaigns and state parties.

Henry Barbour, board chairman of the firm, Data Trust, said in a statement that the split was prompted by the Koch network’s decision not to back Trump for reelection and to praise one of the most vulnerable Democratic senators during the 2018 midterms.

“In the past, [the Koch network’s data operation] i360 was a consistent supporter of the Republican and conservative ecosystem, so we have worked with them to help win elections, but that has changed,” Barbour said. “I don’t see a path where we have an agreement with them in the 2020 election cycle.”

Network officials declined to comment.

The network remains influential in electoral politics, particularly in states.

Americans for Prosperity, the network’s political arm, will still use its grass-roots network of volunteers to support candidates for the Senate, the House and governorships, officials said. It has also pushed for anti-union and pro-charter-school initiatives at the state level, though officials announced Monday that they would take on more comprehensive education policies.

This weekend, 634 donors who each contribute at least $100,000 annually to Koch-linked groups gathered at a luxury resort surrounded by rows of towering palm trees. Officials said it was the largest gathering to date.

The Post and other news outlets were invited to cover portions of the weekend gathering on the condition that they not identify donors in attendance without their permission.

Frank Baxter, a longtime donor from California, said aligning closely with Republican politics was a “learning experience,” but “we’ve transcended beyond the sort of political junkies and come to realize that politics is necessary, but not sufficient for the good of society.”

Art Pope, a businessman from North Carolina, said Monday that he expects the network to emphasize politics again as the 2020 election nears.

“It’s where we are in the election cycle,” Pope said. “2020 is still a ways away. It is time to take a breather from all the primary focus, much less the exclusive focus on elections, campaigns and politics, and go back to the more fundamental work that the seminar network supports.”

While network officials said they are open to publicly endorsing Democrats in addition to Republicans, donors offered mixed views.

“When we are partnering to do community change, research, policy change, that is where bipartisan makes sense,” said Stacy Hock, a philanthropist from Texas. “But it is, at this time, still predominantly Republican candidates who overlap the most with our ideals of limited government.”

A number of donors who are unhappy with the shift have diverted their political spending to other groups or left the network altogether, according to people familiar with private donor discussions.

The network has met twice a year since 2003, when Charles Koch ­convened a small group of like-minded business leaders to oppose increasing federal spending and steel tariffs under the George W. Bush administration.

Sixteen years later, the network encompasses a constellation of organizations promoting free-market and small-government ideas.

As the network works to diminish its partisan persona, it is funding anti-poverty programs across the country through its three-year-old organization Stand Together, through which the network has invested $90 million.

“This attitude of holding things against others who have different beliefs is tearing our country apart,” Koch, 83, told donors as they sipped wine at a reception Saturday evening. “And so what we need to do, and what we’re doing, is bringing people together.”

Some observers of the Koch network say its shift will have minimal impact on national politics, noting that the network’s preferred 2012 presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, lost the election and that the network sat out the 2016 presidential race.

“One of the positive aspects of the way our politics is changing is that an arena full of Trump rallygoers and Trump supporters can make more difference, perhaps, than people who write massive-sized checks,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a former Koch Industries employee.

Schlapp added, “It’s harder for a donor to make an impact in a social media world where a guy with a large Twitter following might have more sway than the guy with a large savings account.”