What Donors Want

They helped elect a new class of Congress members. Now what?

David H. Koch speaks at the unveiling of the David H. Koch Plaza at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 9, 2014 in New York City.

David H. Koch speaks at the unveiling of the David H. Koch Plaza at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 9, 2014 in New York City.

(Photo by Paul Zimmerman/WireImage)

When the 114th Congress convenes on Tuesday, lawmakers won't merely be thinking of the voters who put them in office. They'll also be mindful of the donors who helped them reach those voters in the first place.

The 2014 midterm elections cost some $3.7 billion, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That's a lot of moneyed interests to consider, and sometimes they aren't pulling lawmakers in the same direction. What's a senator to do, for example, if the small-government Koch groups see a federal spending plan as too lavish while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce thinks of it as a win for business?  

Scott Reed, a top political adviser for the Chamber, had this take on donor expectations: “We don't expect the candidates we endorsed to line up 100 percent with us, but we'd like to get them in the 80 percent range.” 

Here's a look at what's on some donor wish lists—and how they intersect and conflict with each other.

The Koch brothers want an authentic spending fight

Billionaire energy executives Charles and David Koch have a network of advocacy groups that sunk at least $150 million into last year's elections. They want their senators to be soldiers for less government spending.

"What I want these candidates to do is to support a balanced budget," David Koch told Barbara Walters in an ABC interview in December. "I'm very worried that if the budget is not balanced that inflation could occur and the economy of our country could suffer terribly."

Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, the most active nonprofit in the Koch alliance, said his group won't be shy about calling out lawmakers who take their eye off this spending ball. Phillips predicted chafing between deficit hawks like his group and others that might be willing to sacrifice purity if it means getting their preferred projects funded.

The Chamber of Commerce wants the government to invest in infrastructure

That makes the Chamber, which put up $35 million to usher into office more business-minded Republicans, a potential foe to the Kochs' top objective. The group spent most of its money on primary contests and notched a win rate of 14 out of 15 candidates, Reed said. The goal was to elect Republicans who are "committed to governing," he said.

"What we did not want," he said, "are the candidates who say, 'Let's get to D.C. so we can shut the damn place down.'"

The Chamber thinks Republicans should be prepared to fund infrastructure, even featuring that message in some of its candidate advertisements last year. "The key ingredients to thriving free enterprise are roads, bridges and tunnels," Reed said.

Crossroads wants to avoid messy clashes that could ding the GOP image ahead of 2016 

The Chamber can probably count on Karl Rove's powerful Crossroads political groups as an ally. They're driven far less by ideology than by party politics. That makes sense: Rove was former President George W. Bush's top strategist, earning the nickname "Bush's brain." The Crossroads enterprise spent $100 million on the 2014 races, according to American Crossroads President Steven Law, and wants more than anything to put the party in a good position for the 2016 presidential election.

"Voters expect constructive action, not obstructionism. They want Washington to work and lawmakers to get things done," Rove wrote in his post-election column in the Wall Street Journal. "Their expectations are low because their distrust of politicians is high. So surprise them. The rewards will be great if the GOP shows it has a governing agenda."

Translation: Crossroads wants to keep senators from doing politically damaging things that might cost seats or, worse, the presidency in 2016. To that end, Crossroads will spend much of 2015 providing Republican leaders with research to advise them how to broaden the party's appeal and what kinds of legislation voters would like to see. "There's an appetite for constructive change, not reflexive opposition," Law said.

As for any looming fiscal battles, "we strongly support spending restraint," Law said. "But where we differ with some of the other groups is in tactics." He said shutting down the government in protest of Obama's health care law is a prime example of the kind of "colossal failure" he hopes Republican lawmakers will avoid. "You have to think through what you're going to get for it. We'd be concerned about shutdown gambits that would tarnish the brand." 

Law, like many representatives of the political money groups, will make the rounds on Tuesday, congratulating the new members and attending various parties in their honor. "Everyone we were helpful to has been very kind about letting us know they appreciated our role," he said.

Sheldon Adelson seeks the death of online gambling

A billionaire casino executive, Adelson wants to stop what he sees as the scourge of online gambling. He argues it's not about the bottom line for his international gambling empire, but rather it's an issue of morality because kids can get hooked on betting. Three states have already legalized online gambling, but Congress could step in with a federal ban. That's what Adelson has pushed for through a Washington advocacy group he started in 2014.

Although some have argued that it's too late for action, Adelson isn't just anyone—he's a megadonor. In addition to pumping more than $90 million into the 2012 presidential election, he spent $5 million last year to elect Republican House members. Politico reports he may have funneled tens of millions more through nonprofit groups that don't disclose their donors.

Coal Country wants a return to power

The coal industry demonstrated last year that it can still fuel election turnout. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used a pro-coal message to pad his win in Kentucky. More than one-third of McConnell's TV ads in his race against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes invoked his pro-coal stance, and voter turnout showed the message hit home: He improved his vote totals throughout the state's coal counties.

The pro-coal theme also played well in West Virginia, where Republican Shelley Moore Capito defeated a Democratic opponent. The American Chemistry Council, American Energy Alliance and United Mine Workers of America Power PAC all weighed in with campaign money and election-time advertising. They'll be after lawmakers to push back on President Barack Obama's new regulations limiting smog, which were seen as a direct hit on the coal industry.

Black pastors bought themselves an unlikely friend

Weighing in at just $183,340 in contributions, All Citizens for Mississippi certainly wasn't the election cycle's biggest super-PAC. But it packed an important punch. The group worked to motivate African Americans to head to the polls in support of Republican Senator Thad Cochran, who was facing a surprisingly tough primary challenge from the right. The super-PAC, led by a black minister, put out radio ads warning that Cochran opponent Chris McDaniel would be bad for race relations.

Bishop Ronnie Crudup of the New Horizon Church International, who started the super-PAC, said its work on behalf of Cochran erased any doubt about the importance of Mississippi's African American voters. Crudup said he's had post-election conversations with Cochran. "The senator knows that African Americans stepped up for him, and I can't put words in his mouth, but he has made good, affirmative statements that he appreciates the support."

On Crudup's wish list: better funding for historically black colleges and universities, policies that bring jobs to Mississippi and federal funding for workforce development. And there's the issue of Obamacare. Crudup said he'd be very disappointed if Cochran tries to obliterate what he sees as a law that has been particularly helpful in getting African Americans health insurance coverage. "I think that our senator understands his constituents, black and white, depend on that service," Crudup said.

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