The Koch brothers are going rogue.
For years the political network funded by billionaires Charles and David Koch funded politicians on the right, laying the foundation for the libertarian causes the two support. Their support has gone almost exclusively to Republican candidates, with rare exception.
But in the era of Trump, what it means to be on the "right" is changing, and the Koch network's tactics are changing to reflect new realities.
For the first time, the LIBRE Initiative — the Hispanic outreach arm of the Koch network — is putting money behind efforts to praise Democrats on the federal level, and doing so with control of Congress on the line in the midterm elections.
"This stands out. People when they talk about the Koch network ... they point at areas like tax reform, where we've worked very closely with Republican members," said Wadi Gaitan, a spokesman for the LIBRE Initiative. "Here on this issue, we have Democrats where we want to make sure that their constituents are aware that they are working on a permanent solution for DREAMers and on border security. So it certainly is a unique effort."
It's a novel approach for a network that has made a name for itself for funding causes on the right — and has only very sparsely praised anyone in the Democratic Party.
But the Republican Party under the Trump administration has not moved closer to the libertarian philosophy favored by the Kochs: The White House has pursued foreign tariffs, taken a hard line on immigration, and approved a massive spending bill that would increase the deficit.
As the Republican Party moves further away from the Kochs' ideals, it appears that their network has begun investing in bipartisan efforts that unite members of both parties.
In recent years the Koch network has pursued issues such as criminal justice reform, letting terminally ill patients try experimental medical interventions, and protecting DREAMers — immigrants in the U.S. who were brought to the country as children — which draws interest from both sides of the aisle.
"Even when Congress agrees that action is required, members tend to focus on petty differences rather than getting the job done," James Davis, a senior official in the Koch network, wrote in a recent op-ed. "Our fervent hope is that even isolated agreements won't just advance good policy but will also help tear down the walls of mistrust and bitterness that have degraded our politics and turned Americans against one another."
The LIBRE Initiative's new effort takes place within that context. They will send mailers to more than 100,000 homes, thanking Democrats and Republicans for their work on a legislative fix for DREAMers.
Democratic Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, as well as Democratic Reps. Raul Ruiz and Pete Aguilar of California will be the recipients of this political ad push, as will Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. Luján is the chairman of House Democrats' campaign committee.
Republicans still make up more than half of the beneficiaries of this ad blitz — six GOP House members and three GOP Senate lawmakers will get kudos from the Koch network. They have already pledged to spend nearly $400 million in 2017-2018 to back the Koch Network's policy goals in various states and the federal level, including the free market policy gains achieved by the Republican-controlled Congress.
"Thank you Sen. Coons for supporting a permanent solution for Dreamers," one mailer reads. "More than 90% of Americans want protection for the Dreamers."
The LIBRE Initiative declined to say precisely how much it would be spending on this effort, except to note that it was part of a larger seven-figure project on finding a fix for DREAMers. This project includes television and digital advertisements, congressional advocacy, grass-roots mobilization and educational programs.
"In order to get this through the House and Senate, it is important for Democrats to be at the table ... for us, it's how do we achieve the goal?" Gaitan said. "And what we said is we're willing to work with whoever to make sure that we're getting good policy through Congress."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The Koch brothers are billionaire libertarians who have spent massive amounts of money to support Republican candidates and causes over the years, pushing a pro-business, small-government agenda.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now the Koch brothers are making a push to praise some Democrats in this midterm year, as well. It's part of their support of a legislative solution for DREAMers. These are immigrants to this country who arrived as children illegally.
GREENE: Let's bring in NPR political reporter Tim Mak with some reporting he's done on this. Hi, Tim.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.
GREENE: OK. So what are the Koch brothers up to? What is their political network doing right now?
MAK: So I think you put your finger on it earlier. The Koch brothers are libertarians. They're not conservatives. So they clash with the president in a number of ways, especially the direction of the Republican Party. So where the president wants tariffs, they want free trade. Where the president wants a hard line on immigration, they want a fix for dreamers. Where the president has decided to sign a spending bill that would increase the deficit, the Koch brothers have really opposed that from the start. So what are they doing now? The Hispanic outreach arm of the Koch network is doing something they've never done before, and that is to spend money praising Democrats at the federal level who they've worked with on a solution, on a legislative solution, for these DREAMers.
GREENE: Who exactly are they praising? Which Democrats have they chosen to single-out here?
MAK: So they're going to send out about more than a hundred-thousand mailers to various people in the districts of five Democrats. We've got Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. We've got Democratic Congressmen Pete Aguilar and Raul Ruiz of California and Democrats Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico. Now, it's notable that one of these folks is the chairman of the House Democratic campaign arm in a midterm year. We also want to note that there are nine Republican lawmakers. So they're not going all in with Democrats. It's just notable that this is one of the first times they're actually spending money to praise Democrats.
GREENE: I mean, being someone who's covered the Koch brothers and followed their influence over the years, I mean they're so known for Republican loyalty, right? I mean, even though you said they're not necessarily conservative, you have Democrats who will bring them up all the time as some evil force. I mean, is this really a moment where we can say, wow, the Trump era has really changed the political landscape?
MAK: The Republican Party really does appear to be moving further away, not closer, to the philosophies that the Koch brothers have espoused for a really long time. And I think one thing that's changing is not what the Koch brothers believe. That's remained pretty consistent. But they're changing their tactics, right, to reflect the nature of the Republican Party and where it's going. So they're trying to emphasize the bipartisan efforts they're engaging in that's consistent with their philosophy. So they're working on things like a second chance for felons as part of their efforts on criminal justice reform. They're working on this immigration reform issue. They're working on legislation that would let terminally ill patients try experimental medicines and medical procedures. Still, we have to conclude that they have a lot still in common with the Republican Party. They're still going to be spending big in the midterms to help Republicans keep Congress. That's a priority for them. They're going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars. And, let's not forget, they were a big fan of the tax cuts that were supported exclusively by Republicans in the House and Senate, and they're going to be using that as a central message in their midterm push over the next six months.
GREENE: Interesting background on the Koch brothers. NPR's Tim Mak. Thanks a lot.
MAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.