David Koch was not a political mastermind. He was a failed candidate, a bit of a bumbler as a strategist, and a frequently inconsistent ideologue. But he knew what rich men who dabble in politics know: If you throw enough money around, two things will happen. First, the machinery of electioneering and governing will adjust to the cash flow. Second, the recipients of your largesse will take your calls.
These were not just truths for David Koch and his brother Charles. They are the truths of electioneering in our times. Yet the Kochs have been more than mere “major donors.” They have been the poster boys for a crisis that grew dramatically worse on their watch, as they steered their vast fortune into bending the governing of states across the country and decisions made in Washington to their will.
David Koch shuffled off this mortal coil Friday, at age 79, after devoting an extraordinary portion of his life and fortune to pushing American politics to extremes that ultimately even he could not control. Wealthy campaign contributors come and go. But this passing is being noted, appropriately, as major news in a country that has been the target of multigenerational manipulation by the Koch family.
Koch inherited his wealth and his ideological inclinations from his father, Fred Koch. Dad was an oilman and an industrialist who dabbled in politics, as a founding member of the John Birch Society in the late 1950s. The group was formed during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, who warned: “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them…are a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
Eisenhower was right that the millionaire-funded extreme-right groups of his time took the form of a tiny splinter, and that the wealthy backers of these projects were often stupid—or, at the least, delusional in their disdain for government. Ike appears to have been wrong, however, about the fate that awaited the party that veered toward the right-wing cliff. Fred Koch remained on the fringe. Over time, however, David Koch, and his more financially agile brother, mainstreamed the extreme.
The basic facts are these: David Koch was a rich man who used his fortune to influence our politics with an eye toward further enriching himself. His spending harmed society, harmed the planet and paved the way for Donald Trump’s broken presidency. But the story of how Koch came to be so influential goes deeper than that. It is the story of a man on a mission to transform American politics, and of the extent to which his money—and that of his brother—allowed him to acquire extraordinary influence over policy making and policy makers.
The project was not immediately successful. David Koch stepped onto the national political stage in 1980 as part of an audacious attempt to game the nation’s campaign finance laws—and, perhaps, revamp a Republican Party that Koch thought was hopelessly liberal. The great loophole in the Watergate-era reforms of campaign contribution and spending rules was a court-ordered exception for wealthy men and women who chose to fund their own campaigns.
The Libertarian presidential nominee in 1980 was Ed Clark, an able and appealing lawyer who had mounted a surprisingly strong bid for governor of California two years earlier. Clark was not very rich. But he chose as running mate David Koch, who could spend to his heart’s content. Koch announced that “as the vice-presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party I will contribute several hundred thousand dollars to the presidential campaign committee in order to ensure that our ideas and our presidential nominee receive as much media exposure as possible.” Some of the ideas were attractive—for example, dialing back Pentagon spending and recognizing the madness of the drug war—but the party platform also called for abolishing the minimum wage, occupational health and safety oversight, environmental protections, Social Security, and most everything else that Americans liked about government.
Koch spent an estimated $2.1. million on a campaign that bought lots of TV ads and direct mail, but not many votes. The Clark-Koch ticket won just 921,128 votes nationwide—roughly 1 percent of the total.
Koch decided to seek a better return on his investments. “The Libertarian Party is a great concept. I love the ideals, but it got too far off the deep end, and so I dropped out,” the billionaire said in 2012.
Koch recognized that it would be easier to fund political campaigns and organizations than to pitch his program as a billionaire contender seeking power in order to lower his own tax bill. Initially, the project was hampered by what passed for campaign finance rules and regulations. This frustrated Koch, who once remarked, “We’d like to abolish the Federal Elections Commission and all the limits on campaign spending anyway.”
The FEC still exists. But the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC and a host of other diminutions and diminishments of campaign finance rules cleared the way for David and Charles Koch to play politics as they choose. They found willing allies amid a rising generation of conservative Republicans, such a Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who turned raising funds from specially interested billionaires and CEOs into a GOP art form.
Much of the Koch spending went to officially independent groups that sought to influence the electoral and governing processes—including Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council. But everyone knew where the money was coming from, and everyone knew the Kochs, who presided over regular “summits” that served as speed-dating events for conservative candidates and the billionaire class.
Enter Scott Walker, a struggling Wisconsin politician who was angling for a governorship. The Kochs threw their support behind Walker, with David Koch declaring: “We’re helping him, as we should. We’ve gotten pretty good at this over the years. We’ve spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We’re going to spend more.” According to The Palm Beach Post, where the quote originally appeared, Koch used “we” to refer to Americans for Prosperity, the group that he and his brother used as one of their vehicles for manipulating our politics.
Even before he knew the Kochs personally, Walker recognized what the brothers had done for him, and for ambitious young men like him. Spending by the Kochs, via direct donations and independent expenditures, played a definitional role in generating the “Republican wave” of 2010, the year Walker was elected.
Walker’s understanding of this debt led to an incident that revealed much of what Americans will remember about David Koch, even though he was not an actual participant. In February 2011, as tens of thousands of teachers, nurses, librarians, and their allies marched in opposition to Walker’s attack on unions and collective-bargaining rights for public employees, the phone rang in the governor’s office. The caller identified himself as David Koch and was put through to Walker.
The caller—a brilliant prankster (the late Ian Murphy) who was pretending to be Koch—was soon trading notes with the governor about the “vested interest” that Koch Industries had in Walker’s assault on unions. The 20-minute conversation revealed the obsequious deference of an elected Republican governor to the benefactors of his 2010 race—and, as it would turn out, of the campaigns that followed for Walker, who faced a citizen-demanded recall and tough reelection fights before he was finally defeated in 2018.
Here’s the critical exchange from 2011:
Koch caller: “Well, I tell you what, Scott: once you crush these bastards I’ll fly you out to Cali and really show you a good time.”
Walker: “All right, that would be outstanding. Thanks for all the support in helping us move the cause forward…”
Koch caller: “Absolutely. And, you know, we have a little bit of a vested interest as well. ”
Walker: “Well, that’s just it.”
Yes, that is just it.
The manipulations of democracy that David Koch and his brother funded—extreme gerrymandering, defenses of an Electoral College that has prevented popular-vote winners from becoming president, voter suppression schemes, and assaults on unions—did much to elect Republicans like Walker. But the most recent Republican president has turned the movement David and Charles Koch envisioned toward extremes that more closely mirror the fever dreams of their father. And if Democrats ever get their act together, they will, for the sake of not just their party but the future of society and the planet, be required to upend what the Kochs have done.
So the full measure of David Koch’s influence has yet to be made. But some history has been written in stone—by the malleable Scott Walkers and Paul Ryans of the 2010s. This much we know for certain: When David Koch called—or seemed to call—his political hirelings answered.