Mar 21, 2023, 7:08pm EDT

Did Donald Trump break the Koch machine for good?

Charles Koch
Patrick T. Fallon for The Washington Post via Getty Images

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The News

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Koch family cannonballed into the 2024 conversation last month with a plan for its flagship political group, Americans for Prosperity, “to turn the page” and “write a new chapter for our country” in the Republican primaries.

Everyone in politics understood what they meant: A massive, high-profile investment in ditching Donald Trump, who was not mentioned in a memo announcing their intentions. Sources told Semafor they were pledging $75 million to the effort. (An AFP official did not confirm the exact number, but said the group intended to raise and spend much more.)

For AFP, it marked a return to high-stakes national political spending after a period in which the Koch network experimented with more bipartisan causes while tagging along with other groups in the midterm races.

But in interviews with former staffers and allies within the Koch network, many saw the effort as more of a last gasp than a rebirth. In their eyes, a machine that once rivaled the RNC in influence during its tea party heyday has been relegated to the sidelines as the GOP continues to shift away from its positions on immigration, free markets, and criminal justice reform. One of the iconic “Koch Brothers,” David, died in 2019, and some question whether AFP will survive at all after its remaining family founder, Charles Koch, retires or passes on.

“I really think they lost focus. They lost drive. It wasn’t clear anymore what they wanted to achieve,” said Frayda Levin, a former AFP board member and founder of its now-inactive New Jersey chapter, and a member of Club for Growth’s board. “I really wonder what their mailing list is these days. My sense is that there’s not a whole lot of energy, that they’re trying to recreate something that isn’t there.”

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David's view

AFP and the broader Koch network spent Trump’s presidency notching wins when they could, maintaining a powerhouse that they hoped could outlast him. But the changes Trump wrought appear to be sticking. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the only Republican who polls close to Trump in 2024 trial heats, is closer to Kochworld on economic issues, but has made a political signature out of using state power to dismantle progressive causes, offending some libertarians.

In the meantime, they clearly see their chance of a conservative revival as stronger with Trump decisively gone. And the network’s best case against him, which ran throughout AFP President Emily Seidel’s February memo, may be electability rather than ideology. Seidel referred not-so-mysteriously to a GOP nominee who “represents a new chapter” and “can win,” after AFP Action spent $33.4 million on 2022 candidates who lost, including Trump-backed candidates like Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Herschel Walker in Georgia.

At last week’s “national conservative forum” in South Carolina, activists heard AFP’s opening pitch to “save our country” and “make a difference in the presidential elections” by getting paid $20 per hour to knock doors and expand AFP’s voter network.

"Are you aware that 400,000 conservative South Carolinians did not vote in the last presidential primary?" asked a pamphlet provided by AFP. Onstage, between speeches from candidates Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy, AFP government affairs vice president Akash Chougule urged activists to join the winning team.

“We have not just the best infrastructure but the best data, the best technology, and, I will tell you, the best people,” Chougule said. “We’re launching the most aggressive, biggest, boldest effort that we ever have in the history of our organization over the next two years, because that's what we think the next two years demand.”


In AFP’s telling, the group has been growing its reach and influence, involving itself in 457 races last year, including 22 federal primaries and nearly 200 state-level primaries. Across the cycle, “grassroots advocates” knocked on 7 million doors, and more than 100 million pieces of AFP literature were sent to voters.

But sources around the Koch network, which rebranded as Stand Together in 2019, fretted that AFP had tarnished its brand within the conservative movement, especially after the forced departure of longtime president Tim Phillips. One ex-AFP organizer summed up Kochworld’s Trump-era priorities — and how they looked to MAGA voters — as open borders and getting criminals out of jail.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, AFP channeled a conservative backlash into rallies and agenda-setting conferences that sought to focus tea party energy on their longtime small government causes. Heading into the 2016 cycle, some commentators argued their network had grown so large and powerful that it had essentially become a political party in its own right.

Then came Trump, who the network refused to invite to one of its last big grassroots events, and whose campaign they refused to let access its in-house data network, i360. Trump sarcastically wished “good luck” to the “puppets” who “traveled to California to beg for money etc. from the Koch Brothers” at their donor conference in 2015.

His unexpected White House win divided Kochworld. Some operatives headed into his administration, and others stayed in the network, setting themselves apart from the new GOP. Americans for Prosperity spent millions to support Trump’s 2017 tax reform legislation, but a D.C. rally that year to show support for dismantling Obamacare got a fraction of the tea party-era crowds. Their biggest achievement was probably the First Step Act, a sentencing and prison reform bill that Trump signed in 2018 before rising crime turned the party sharply against similar efforts.


As Trump’s presidency went on, Kochworld rebranded. Chase Koch, Charles’s son and now the executive VP of Koch Industries, cultivated a post-partisan image as his role grew. “I have found that focusing on the things you can agree on can lead to amazing opportunities to solve problems, even if you disagree on a whole host of other issues,” the younger Koch told Politico in 2018.

The coalition that had tried to smother Obamacare in the crib was adopting a similar new image, looking for bipartisan wins in a time of maximum polarization. After the murder of George Floyd, Stand Together CEO Brian Hooks co-authored an op-ed that celebrated how “laws that criminalize poverty and reinforce systemic racism are being changed.” And after that year’s election, Charles Koch told the Wall Street Journal that he regretted the “partisanship” his network had engaged in, refusing to say whether he’d voted for Trump or for Joe Biden.

AFP’s new approach reflects that attitude — less government-bashing, more talk about personal empowerment. Still, AFP allies would tell critics on the right that they’ve had plenty of success quietly lobbying for conservative bills in GOP-led legislatures. The question is whether their current pitch still has purchase with MAGA-era Republicans in a presidential contest.

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The View From Koch World

Former AFP president Nancy Pfotenhauer told Semafor that the group conducted “a no holds barred analysis in 2020,” identifying problems with its previous tactics before any critics could show up and second-guess it. And they believe the results show they’re still on track to be a successful organization.

“AFP was more effective on every measure than it had ever been: more activists, more effective and successful policy engagement, including economic issues, and greater financial stability,” Pfotenhauer said in a statement. “It’s remarkable what they have done in the states. And as you know, states lead federal efforts on the policy front.”

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  • AFP’s donors seem uninterested in backing Vice President Mike Pence in 2024, Politico reports, despite his conservative credentials and longtime ties to the group’s operations.

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