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Koch Network Raises Over $70 Million for Push to Sink Trump

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Koch Network Raises Over $70 Million for Push to Sink Trump


The political network established by the conservative industrialists Charles and David Koch has raised more than $70 million for political races as it looks to help Republicans move past Donald J. Trump, according to an official with the group.

With some of this large sum to start, the network, Americans for Prosperity Action, plans to throw its weight into the G.O.P. presidential nominating contest for the first time in its nearly 20-year history. The network spent nearly $500 million supporting Republican candidates and conservative policies in the 2020 election cycle alone.

Two groups closely affiliated with Charles Koch contributed $50 million of the more than $70 million that has been raised (David Koch died of cancer in 2019). Mr. Koch is a major shareholder in Koch Industries, which contributed $25 million to Americans for Prosperity Action, according to a preliminary draft of Federal Election Commission filings. Another $25 million was donated by Stand Together, a nonprofit he founded.

The Koch network’s goal in the 2024 presidential primaries, which has been described only indirectly in written internal communications, is to stop Mr. Trump from winning the Republican nomination. In February, a top political official in the network, Emily Seidel, wrote a memo to donors and activists saying it was time to “have a president in 2025 who represents a new chapter.”

Since then, Republican voters have rallied around the former president, with his support in polls strengthening his front-runner status after his two indictments. Some of the biggest donors in Republican politics, including some in the Koch network, had been hanging their hopes on Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida as Mr. Trump’s most promising rival. But Mr. DeSantis has disconcerted many donors with his early campaign stumbles and a slip in his poll numbers.

With seven months until the primaries, the Koch coalition of conservatives is still searching for who its influential and wealthy donors believe can take down the former president, a reflection of a broader paralysis among anti-Trump Republican donors who have watched in shock as Mr. Trump’s poll numbers have held despite two indictments. A memo that circulated inside the Koch network this month made the case that Mr. Trump’s renomination was not inevitable, arguing that the issue of electability could still weaken him.

Some top Republican donors, who routinely write seven- or eight-figure checks to support candidates, are keeping their checkbooks closed as they wait to see whether Mr. DeSantis can improve or whether another candidate, like Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, pops during the summer debates. Their paralysis has benefited Mr. Trump, who is begrudgingly viewed by many top party donors as the inevitable nominee.

Yet officials in the Koch network profess optimism that 2024 will not be a repeat of 2016, when Mr. Trump began winning statewide races with roughly a third of the party’s Republican base behind him in a fractured, crowded field.

The notion of Mr. Trump’s inevitability “is being pushed by left-leaning media outlets, political operatives and the Trump campaign itself,” Michael Palmer, president of the Koch-affiliated voter data group i360, wrote in a memo this month.

Mr. Palmer sought to dispel that narrative: “The country is in a much different place than it was eight years ago. Voters of all stripes (including G.O.P. primary voters) have a changed base of knowledge regarding the former president, and other candidates will most certainly treat him differently in the primary this time around.”

Yet save for a handful of rivals, most have walked fairly gingerly around Mr. Trump, or have defended him over his two criminal indictments.

Mr. Palmer argued that Mr. Trump was weaker than he appeared. He noted how much time was left in the campaign, the fact that early polling often doesn’t predict the winner, that many voters express concern about Mr. Trump’s general-election viability, and that a chunk of the former president’s voters have signaled openness to another, “more electable” candidate.

Mr. Palmer wrote that “support for DeSantis at this time likely represents a generic Republican as his policy positions are not well known outside of Florida.”

The group is expected to make a new round of digital advertising on the issue of electability in the presidential race, in addition to sending out its first piece of direct mail in the coming days.

The group has also made a series of endorsements in down-ballot races, where it plans to spend significant sums. Americans for Prosperity has 300 full-time employees within states and 800 part-timers, officials said. It is about to make its first round of congressional endorsements.

It’s not clear how soon before the Iowa caucuses early next year the group will decide on the best candidate to back against Mr. Trump.

According to the preliminary draft of the F.E.C. filings for Americans for Prosperity Action, its major donors include Art Pope, a North Carolina businessman who attended a policy retreat hosted by former Vice President Mike Pence before he joined the presidential race; Craig Duchossois, a Chicago businessman; Jim and Rob Walton, brothers and heirs to the Walmart fortune; and Ron Cameron, an Arkansas poultry magnate.

Mr. DeSantis in particular has taken several positions that are ideologically at odds with the Koch network, including his promise to repeal the First Step Act — a criminal justice reform bill that was passed during the Trump presidency with the strong backing of the network. Yet the group’s officials may ultimately choose pragmatism over strict agreement on key issues if it looks as though a candidate could win.

As they wait for the Republican field to winnow, top network officials are trying to pull off a difficult feat: changing who votes in Republican primaries. The network has a vast army of door-knockers, backed by tens of millions of dollars, who fan out across competitive states each election cycle to support candidates.

During these early months of the Republican presidential primaries, the network is dispatching these same activists to engage voters who are open to supporting somebody other than Mr. Trump. They are beginning a conversation with those voters, collecting data on them and raising doubts about Mr. Trump’s chances of winning a general election. They intend to return to these voters’ doors closer to the primaries to try to persuade them to vote for the network’s preferred candidate.

“A key part of our strategy to elect better leaders is to empower more people’s voices in the primaries,” Ms. Seidel said in a statement. “We’re asking general election voters to show up in the primaries to support better candidates — and in speaking to tens of thousands of those voters already, they are enthusiastic to get engaged earlier to support a candidate who can win.”

This well-funded effort to defeat Mr. Trump represents something of a do-over. Ahead of the 2016 Republican primaries, Marc Short, a senior Koch official at the time, argued internally that the network should spend heavily to stop Mr. Trump and support a rival with a more conservative policy record, such as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas or Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

Top officials and donors killed the idea, but some in the network regretted it. Mr. Short has come full circle. He went on to join the Trump-Pence campaign and served in the Trump administration as legislative affairs director and then chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence. Mr. Short is now advising Mr. Pence as he runs for president against his former boss.

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