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A 2007 photo of conservative megadonor Charles Koch. Credit - Bo Rader—Wichita Eagle/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
The Koch political machine, which fuels the most powerful donor network in conservative politics, is declaring itself as part of the NeverTrump effort for 2024, aiming to deny former President Donald Trump a third nomination for the White House.
The declaration, released in a recent memo to staffers and activists, never explicitly mentions Trump, but it’s abundantly clear from the tone in Americans for Prosperity CEO Emily Seidel’s message that the grassroots behemoth she leads has no plans of being a passive player in Republican politics when it comes to the White House. “Our country must move past the current political situation—we’ve got to turn the page on the past several years,” she wrote. “If we want to elect better people, we need better candidates. And if we want better candidates, we’ve got to get involved in elections earlier and in more primaries.”
Americans for Prosperity is perhaps the most forward-facing arm of the Koch political orbit, organized more than two decades ago by billionaires Charles and David Koch. They went all-in on Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012, a move many of the network’s members to this day regret. The groups were no fans of Trump in 2016 but many of their donors were, so they officially stayed out of the primary after flirting with a flex. By the time Trump 2020 arrived, the groups had seen mixed records on their goals—tax cuts and criminal justice reform were good to their minds; the administration’s efforts on immigration and isolationism were not—and instead stayed largely out of the race.
But, in the intervening time, many of the Trump apologists in the Koch orbit have soured on the ex-President. The deadly Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021, was a last straw for many, and the threat posed by a leader without respect for the rule of law—a key tenant for the free-market donors central to the Koch orbit—was too much to ignore. So, heading into the early days of the 2024 jockeying, it’s clear that the massive vault of cash controlled by these groups is up for grabs. It alone won’t be enough to win anyone the nomination—and maybe not enough to deny it to Trump—but it’s a force that doesn’t have a peer.
Last year, the groups engaged in 457 races, with the knocking of 7 million doors and the mailing of more than 100 million pieces of messaging bankrolled by their efforts, according to their post-election audit. Of those races, just 22 were federal, meaning their real impact was on the hyper-local races where the GOP is building its bench. Their win rate? Over 80%, according to the audit, suggesting that the Koch influence was less of a thumb on the scale and more of an elephant.
In the weeks since, insiders have been pushing the groups to get involved in the presidential race, and the leadership is clearly now ready to engage. The quants did the math, and they are convinced a Koch network involvement in the primary can make a difference.
“The loudest voice in each political party sets the tone for the entire election. In a presidential year, that’s the presidential candidate,” Seidel wrote. “And to write a new chapter for our country, we need to turn the page on the past. So the best thing for the country would be to have a president in 2025 who represents a new chapter.”
A new chapter, to be clear, is one where Trump is not bullying the Republican Party into submission for another round. In fact, Seidel all but taunted Trump as a loser: “AFP Action is prepared to support a candidate in the Republican presidential primary who can lead our country forward, and who can win.” (The emphasis on win was Seidel’s.)
That’s why the Koch machine’s announcement that they won’t stay neutral for a third round is notable—and why Trump’s team in Florida would do well to note their newest foe.