How the Presidential Primary Is a Proxy War Between the Kochs and the Republican Establishment

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Adam Gabbatt of The Guardian holds images of Republican candidates as he interviews Howard "Cowboy" Woodward during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, on February 26, 2015. 

There’s a battle brewing in the Republican Party, one that could be acted out in a most unseemly way in the nomination contest for the GOP standard-bearer. The wrangling between the Republican establishment and the Koch wing of the party promises some great entertainment for liberals who follow the presidential primaries; unfortunately, it also promises to be bad for our democracy.

At this early stage in the presidential campaign, Scott Walker, the Koch-made Wisconsin governor, leads the pack in Iowa, polling at 18 percent, according to a June survey by Morning Consult. The likely establishment choice, a candidate formerly known as Jeb Bush (now just “Jeb!”), is tied for second with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul, the U.S. senator from Kentucky. But with Walker and Bush holding down the top two spots in terms of access to deep-pocketed donors, the nomination contest could well become a joust between the two.

As reported by Jon Ward for Yahoo! News, at issue is control of the voter database compiled by the Republican National Committee, and campaigns’ use of competing voter-targeting systems: the i360 system bankrolled by billionaire neo-libertarians Charles and David Koch, and the RNC’s own Data Center and Beacon platforms. Why this matters to the RNC is that data collected in the field is critical to building its own master file of Republican voters. If entities outside of the party are doing that work, than the RNC has no claim on the data collected by them. With the i360 system growing in popularity with GOP candidates, the data will be held by the entities collectively known to political junkies as Koch World. (These include Americans for Prosperity, Generation Opportunity, 60 Plus, and others.)

RNC chair Reince Priebus appears to view the Kochs’ data enterprise as a threat to the viability of the Republican Party itself. And not without reason: According to a report by Politico’s Kenneth Vogel and Mike Allen, the Koch brothers “are continuing to amass all of the campaign tools the Republican National Committee and other party arms use to elect a president.”

Or, as an unnamed source said to be “close to the RNC” told Ward, “It’s pretty clear that they don’t want to work with the party but want to supplant it.”

The Kochs doubtless have no intention of creating their own party—at least not in the official sense. It’s far more advantageous for them, in the post-Citizens United age, to use their constellation of nonprofit groups, insulated from revealing their funding sources, to act as a party while remaining beyond the purview of Federal Election Commission regulations. And that’s where the threat to democracy comes in.

The Kochs’ RNC voter data base appears to have come about via the vaunted (and ridiculed) post-mortem that Priebus issued in response to the 2012 elections, which saw the GOP vanquished in the presidential election and unsuccessful at gaining control of Congress. In order to foster the kind of competition that free-marketeers claim always leads to innovation, Priebus invited voter-targeting firms to have at the existing RNC voter database in order to build new and more effective platforms for turning out the vote. But the data-sharing agreement forged between the RNC and i360 has since expired, and as displayed in Ward’s report, the warfare has moved from behind the scenes into the open, especially since i360 became the platform of choice for so many candidates in part by making keen use of the data it gleaned from the RNC. Now it’s a powerhouse and could run away with the game, keeping its data from Priebus’s operation, and leaving the RNC as something of an empty shell.

It’s all rather rich, when one considers that Priebus won his post at the helm of the GOP’s political operation by playing so nicely with Koch World operations—particularly, Americans for Prosperity—when he was chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party. In fact, there he apparently shared the party’s voter-roll information with Tea Party groups involved in a voter-caging scheme executed by Mark Block, then the Americans For Prosperity state chapter chair that was designed to elect Scott Walker to the governor’s mansion.

With its superior data operation, the Koch brothers, through i360, could have enormous sway in choosing the next Republican presidential nominee.

In 2012, the Kochs played somewhat nicely, helping Herman Cain play a court jester role as a stalking horse in the Republican field—a candidacy designed to push other contenders to Koch positions on tax reduction and deregulation.

Once the nomination was settled, David Koch got behind Mitt Romney, attending the Republican National Convention as a delegate.

This time around could be different.

David Koch has already indicated his preference for Scott Walker as the next GOP standard-bearer, according to an April report by The New York Times’s (and former Prospect staff writer) Nicholas Confessore.

If Walker achieves that goal, it will be thanks to masses of voter data gathered by a firm whose investors enjoy freedom from scrutiny, thanks to funding by the Kochs’ nonprofit Freedom Partners operation. It will be thanks to mighty ground operation led by the Kochs’ nonprofit Americans For Prosperity, and organizing by the Kochs’ nonprofit Generation Opportunity (for millennials), 60 Plus (for the AARP set) and other such operations, all which are funded by mystery donors.

One thing you can be sure of, though: All of the Koch-backed operations that will likely fuel Walker’s campaign are wholly unaccountable to the American people, save for the regulations on business that they hope to dismantle.

Should Scott Walker win the presidency, and succeed at the Kochs’ ultimate aim of killing the labor unions—thus depriving Democrats of their party’s ground operation—the Kochs could pretty much own America.

So, as you carry your tub of popcorn to your couch to delight in the dark comedy of the Republican primary debates, remember who’s playing for all the marbles. In a proxy war between the GOP establishment and the Koch brothers, the Kochs just might win. Which makes Reince Priebus democracy’s last best hope.

Can I get you a brewski?

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