Conservative donors and operatives who gathered on a mountain shrouded resort this past weekend for the Koch brothers’ annual winter retreat know that they’re up against a historical tide in this year’s midterm elections. The party in power often loses Congressional seats after a President’s first two years in office, even if the President isn’t a controversial figure like Donald Trump. But they’re hoping grassroots mobilization, monetary resources and a strong economy can help them beat back the challenges.
“Lets be frank, right up front: these elections are going to be brutally tough,” Emily Seidel, Chief Executive Officer of Americans for Prosperity, the political arm of the Koch Network, told the 550 donors who had convened for the seminar on Monday. “We’ve never faced a challenge like this one.”
Tim Phillips, the President of Americans for Prosperity who was presenting with Seidel, noted that Democrats only need to gain 24 seats in the House of Representatives to regain the majority — and he views 80 seats as competitive. Shortly before he was supposed to speak, another Congressman, Rodney Frelinghuysen, announced he was retiring, giving Democrats another opening. “Math is not my strong suit but these are daunting numbers,” said Phillips.
The network is combatting these numbers with figures of their own. Officials from the Koch network announced this weekend at the Seminar that they were planning on investing an additional $20 million to tout the tax reform package this year. In total, they will invest a historic $400 million in the politics and policy arm of the network, 60 percent more resources than they’ve ever spent during a cycle. “We’re going all in,” said Seidel.
And that spending, Seidel and Phillip said, starts right now. The network will spend the first half of the year engaging in paid media ads — “before anyone else is on air,” said Seidel—and will begin deploying a grassroots effort in the late summer and early fall. Particularly crucial to their strategy is the belief that the American people will ultimately be swayed by the benefits of the tax reform package, a hope that was heightened after a multitude of companies announced the legislation had spurred them to offer bonuses to their employees.
“We need to make sure people are connecting the benefits from the reform,” Phillips said. “Its not enough to do the right thing; we have to make sure Americans understand it.”
“It’s also going to be a persuasion election – persuading people that they have benefitted from Republican policies,” Art Pope, a North Carolina businessman and Koch donor, told reporters this weekend. “And again with the economy, lower unemployment, I think that will favor Republicans to … keep the majority.”
Phillips, for example, noted that the group had held Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Bill Nelson, up for reelection in Wisconsin and Florida respectively, accountable for voting against the tax reform bill, and indicated they would continue to do so. In particular, he cited the power of the network’s grassroots movement in Wisconsin, noting that they have more activists than the state’s members of the teachers union. They have already used those resources to highlight that Baldwin voted against the tax reform bill, spending $3 million on ads and holding town halls and knocking on doors to explain why she should support the legislation. “Today, Senator Baldwin has one of the lowest approval ratings of any of the 24 Democratic Senators running for reelection this year,” he said to applause.
But this example only further illustrates the Republicans’ uphill battle. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates Baldwin’s seat as “likely Democratic” — meaning she has a relatively good chance to retain it.
(Disclosure: Time Inc., TIME’s parent company, has agreed to be acquired by Meredith Corp. in a deal partially financed by Koch Equity Development, a subsidiary of Koch Industries Inc.)