The Slatest

What the Kochs’ $889 Million Promise Means for the GOP Primary

David Koch and his brother Charles unveiled their shock-and-awe campaign at a donor retreat on Monday.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The dark-money political machine run by the Koch brothers hopes to spend $889 million in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential and congressional elections. That figure, shared with a select group of deep-pocketed donors on Monday—and quickly and not-so-quietly leaked to reporters—is staggering. In the words of Politico’s big-money reporter, Ken Vogel, it’s “a historic sum that in many ways would mark Charles and David Koch and their fellow conservative megadonors as more powerful than the official Republican Party.”

The numbers back that up: The fundraising target is more than twice the $407 million the Koch network spent on the 2012 election, and $232 million more than the Republican National Committee and the GOP’s two congressional committees spent combined that cycle. It’s also in line with the $1 billion that observers predict will be the magic fundraising number for each of the two parties’ eventual presidential nominees.

It remains to be seen exactly when, where, and how the network plans to dole out the cash, but history suggests it’s a safe bet that a big chunk of it will be reserved to fund attack ads targeting both the Democratic front-runner (Hi, Hillary!) and the specific policies—EPA climate regulations, Obamacare, campaign disclosure laws—that the Kochs and their friends hate with a passion.

Perhaps the most-pressing question now is whether the group will look to spend some of that money in the GOP primaries—something the network is said to be debating but appears unlikely to follow through on anytime soon. “At this point,” the Washington Post reports, “some contributors have said they have little interest in putting money into a bloody internal fight, and many others are not yet set on a candidate.”

That lack of a consensus isn’t a surprise. The network isn’t quite as monolithic as it might first appear. It is believed to include several hundred donors, who presumably share a disdain for big government but don’t necessarily agree on which candidate will be the best vehicle for that worldview. Even the brothers themselves appear to have slightly different tastes when it comes to picking favorites. GOP sources with ties to the network, for instance, told the New York Times last week that Sen. Rand Paul is considered “ideologically close” with Charles, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie “has long ties to David.”

It’s also not a two-horse race—something the guest list at the recent Koch summit makes clear. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz joined Paul at the retreat. Jeb Bush also reportedly received an invite, but took a pass, citing a scheduling conflict.

There’s another reason for the Kochs to stay on the sidelines for now: They can win even without playing. The shock-and-awe campaign they launched Monday means that the brothers can—and, to some degree, already have—set the terms of the Republican debate without having to hand-pick their candidate. The fact that they hypothetically could go big in the primary will likely serve as a deterrent for deep-but-not-that-deep-pocketed donors who might otherwise have backed a candidate who doesn’t make it on the brothers’ short list. (Alternatively, the Koch machine could wait until the primary field narrows and then deliver a swift knockout blow to any candidate they don’t like that’s still standing after the first few contests.)

The Kochs and their allies, then, don’t have to worry about selecting a specific GOP nominee. They have 889 million reasons to believe that whomever wins the primary will already be running on a platform aimed to appeal directly to their interests.