The Koch brothers’ guide to political activism
Donors at a Freedom Partners retreat are told to be more public “Identify yourself, because this isn’t some secret cabal”
Charles Koch should be on top of the world. The billionaire industrialist’s conservative Freedom Partners network attracted a record 500 wealthy Americans to its semiannual retreat in the California desert oasis of Indian Wells over the last weekend in January, a record for the group. It’s preparing to spend $500 million this year on causes related to free markets and limited government, also a record.
Yet when Koch stepped onto the stage to kick off the four-day summit, his message to the crowd was grim. After laying out his vision of the kind of libertarian paradise he aspires to create, he said, “The tragedy is, in my view, that America is moving farther and farther away from this type of society.” He exhorted his members to step out of the shadows and advocate publicly for their beliefs. “I’ve been identified lately, and it’s not so bad,” he said. “I’m still here. And matter of fact, I’m stronger than ever. Come out and identify yourself, because this isn’t some secret cabal.”
The Republican presidential election has served as a stark reminder of the limits of the power that wealthy donors can wield in U.S. politics. Donald Trump dominated the polls for months without spending much of his or anyone else’s money while candidates given millions by Koch allies flamed out. Scott Walker, an early favorite of many Freedom Partners donors, withdrew from the race after only 71 days. Members wrote seven-figure checks to super PACs supporting Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich, only to see them flatline in the polls. (Other members of the network have backed Ted Cruz, who won the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, and Marco Rubio, who placed third, behind Trump.)
Freedom Partners members, many of whom are owners of private companies, pay $100,000 to join the network. The twice-yearly seminars take place at fancy resorts amid heavy security. Members often bring spouses and find time for golf between meetings. The Kochs allowed six news organizations, including Bloomberg, to attend parts of the gathering in Indian Wells, on the condition that reporters not approach donors or report on their presence without permission.
The meetings cover a broad range of projects that receive Freedom Partners funding, including providing scholarships, fighting campus speech codes, and building networks of conservative activists. The group is deeply involved in a push to reduce incarceration of nonviolent offenders, as well as an effort in Congress to abolish the Export-Import Bank of the United States.
Neither Charles Koch nor his brother David has endorsed anyone in the Republican primaries, nor has Freedom Partners made a recommendation to its members. Although the organization typically supports Republican candidates, only about a third of its spending goes to electoral politics, and the Kochs often say they regard Republicans as only slightly less contemptible than Democrats. In an ad hoc gift shop set up for the event, visitors browsed books on a recommended reading list handed out to attendees, which spanned classic economics texts and recent academic publications.
Marc Short, president of Freedom Partners, says the group has been trying to make sense of the Trump phenomenon. “It’s a frustration and even an understandable anger that people feel, that their representatives in Washington don’t represent their interests anymore,” he says. “We agree with the frustration, but we just feel like that’s the wrong prescription to solve the problem.”
Members of the group spent almost $400 million in 2015, officials say, part of a plan to invest as much as $889 million electing conservative candidates friendly to Freedom Partners’ policy proposals. Much of that giving has taken place through nonprofit vehicles that mask donors’ names.
Tamra Farah of Colorado Springs, Colo., is following Koch’s advice to be more public about her political giving. After joining Freedom Partners with her husband, Barry, she began working full time for Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ largest activist network, as its Colorado communications director. She says she hasn’t paid much attention to the presidential race. Instead, she’s been going door-to-door in Colorado to build support for a repeal of Obamacare. She says, “We’re in this for the long haul.”