How much of politics can David Koch and his brother purchase?

Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

The Koch Paradox

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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If the Koch brothers bake a billion-dollar electoral cake, can they eat it too?

The question arises from the news issuing this week from Charles and David Koch’s “summit” of 450 wealthy donors and activists in Palm Springs, California. The Koch’s vast network of political groups is being tooled to raise and spend almost $1 billion to defeat Democrats in the 2016 elections. (The comically exact figure, delivered to multiple news organizations, was $889 million.) That’s about as much as each of the two major presidential candidates may spend on their 2016 campaigns. It’s also more than double the Koch network's estimated 2012 spending.

The obvious question, raised by Darrell West of the Brookings Institution among others, is can the Kochs and their allies actually buy elections? Then again, what does it even mean to buy an election? And why are the Kochs eager to make a purchase directly when an entire political party already exists for the purpose of financing and winning elections?

The Kochs no doubt have complex reasons for their complex political business. But their political ambitions are riddled with paradoxes. For the purpose of electing Republican candidates who are sympatico with their anti-tax, anti-regulation, pro-carbon positions, they have bypassed the Republican Party, opting instead to build an autonomous political party, equipped with its own infrastructure of consultants and organizations. For a couple of guys eager to elect Republicans, they don't seem to have a lot of faith in the electoral competence of . . . Republicans.

Simply funneling money into existing Republican-affiliated operations, such as Karl Rove's Crossroads groups, would allow the Kochs to finance attacks on Democrats while keeping out of the limelight. To the extent that having their own operation -- including a presidential candidate audition at the Palm Springs event -- attracts more attention, it seems counterproductive: The Kochs can be most effective when their activities are most discreet.

The more American voters understand the overlap between Koch business interests and political interests (which are not always subtle) the more radioactive the brothers are likely to be in electoral politics. Understanding that, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid made a crusade of the Kochs in 2014, seeking to raise their public profile and, thus, the liability they represent to the Republican candidates they support.

Now the Kochs are making it easier for Reid. By escalating their public engagement, and placing a billion-dollar marker on the 2016 elections, the Kochs are ensuring that they will be a bigger story for the news media and a handier tool for Democrats eager to paint Republicans as servants of self-interested billionaires.

That reality may lead to a final irony: that the very boldness of the Koch political enterprise may require them to moderate their ideological ambition. A billion-dollar investment would suggest that the Kochs want more than gridlock, which can be purchased pretty cheap these days; they want all of Washington firmly in their camp. The pair seems amiably laissez faire about social issues, including gay marriage. But their views on energy, climate change, labor, pollution and taxes -- all issues on which their philosophy and their bottom line are unnervingly aligned -- leave them, and the candidates they embrace, vulnerable.

The Kochs would surely love to wrench U.S. politics further in their direction. But just as the hard-right partisanship of Republican presidential primaries leads to more moderate rhetoric in the fall, the Kochs may discover that playing a bigger role in U.S. elections also requires them to play a more mainstream one. If they become larger public figures, they may find it necessary to appear less self-interested, softening their policy views and perhaps even adjusting their industrial practices as they come under ever greater scrutiny from the news media, the public and government agencies. By seeking greater influence over others, the Kochs may be influenced in turn.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net