With Senate Control at Stake, Koch Groups Start Endorsing by Name
By CARL HULSE OCT. 6, 2016
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida spoke last year at a Concerned Veterans for America event in New Hampshire. Credit Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for The New York Times
WASHINGTON — The vast and cash-rich Koch political network is intensifying efforts behind preferred Republican candidates in the few crucial races that could decide Senate control.
For the first time, some political groups under the umbrella of the billionaire conservative donors Charles G. and David H. Koch are embracing direct endorsement of Senate candidates — a marked shift from the more generic, issue-oriented ads and outreach such nonprofit organizations typically employ to steer voters to chosen candidates.
The push will be a major test of strength for the Koch network, an effort that has been building over the past decade, born of the brothers’ disenchantment with the performance of the Republican Party. The groups have already spent tens of millions of dollars on Senate campaigns.
One group, Concerned Veterans for America, began significant voter contact efforts this week on behalf of two Republicans in tough re-election fights: Senators Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Marco Rubio of Florida. Libre, another group funded by the Koch-aligned Freedom Partners in hopes of making inroads among Hispanic voters, is explicitly backing Mr. Rubio and Representative Joe Heck, the Republican running against Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat, in the critical Nevada Senate race.
“We as an organization are worried about losing those champions in the Senate,” said Dan Caldwell, the vice president for policy at the veterans group, about why it is taking the “extraordinary step” of advocating expressly on behalf of Mr. Toomey and Mr. Rubio.
The shift to grass-roots appeals by Koch-aligned organizations in hard-fought Senate races comes as the groups on Wednesday ended a monthslong, multistate television advertising campaign, which along with other initiatives cost an estimated $42 million.
The influx of support from outside groups that do not have to disclose the identity of their donors helps explain why Republicans, who have been on defense this election cycle, still have a good chance of retaining control of the Senate.
The new attempt to make direct personal appeals to voters is far less visible than the ads saturating the airwaves in battleground states but potentially more effective at this stage. Officials from the Koch groups see it as the best way to leverage the volunteer networks and advocacy infrastructure the organizations have been creating in three dozen states over the past decade.
“This has been a long-term effort in building up this grass-roots force, and this is where we believe we can have the most impact,” said Mr. Caldwell, who estimated that the new grass-roots program will cost in the “high six figures.”
The switch in strategy also shows races are close enough that the officially nonpartisan organizations are willing to take heat and scrutiny for acting in a partisan manner if they can influence the outcome of the races.
Senator Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania in Washington in April. He is another potential beneficiary of Concerned Veterans for America, a group under the Koch brothers’ umbrella. Credit Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press
Such activity is legal for the nonprofit groups as long as they make sure it is not the majority of their spending, a fairly easy standard for such well-financed groups to meet. Spokespeople say the express advocacy campaigns constitute a small portion of their individual budgets.
Still, campaign finance watchdogs say such activity distorts what tax laws intended those “social welfare” groups to do, while allowing their backers to remain anonymous.
“The idea that these are social welfare organizations is somewhat odd since they are really political organizations involved in politics,” said Lawrence M. Noble, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center.
Leaders of the organizations say they have based their decisions on the merits and records of the candidates, not on their partisan affiliation. They say backing candidates who share their views is their objective, not keeping control of the Senate. They note that they are not working on behalf of another endangered Republican, Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, because of some disagreements with her policy stances.
In Pennsylvania and Florida, Concerned Veterans for America plans to distribute 150,000 doorknob hangers to the homes of voters shown through research to be susceptible to the appeal. The Pennsylvania literature calls Mr. Toomey “the clear choice for Pennsylvania’s veterans” and lists some of his legislative work on their behalf. The door knocking is to be followed up with phone calls, a direct mail campaign and digital advertising.
Mr. Caldwell said the organization’s personnel in Florida include 14 paid staff members and 400 active volunteers, while six staff members and more than 100 volunteers are working in Pennsylvania.
Another Koch-allied group, Americans for Prosperity, has a significant presence in those states as well and has been engaged in direct advocacy since last year. Besides Florida and Pennsylvania, the group is now active in Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Americans for Prosperity recently sent voters in Indiana, Missouri and Pennsylvania hard-hitting pieces of mail urging them to reject Evan Bayh, Jason Kander and Katie McGinty, the Democratic Senate candidates in those states.
“We have found that in instances where there is a real clear policy divide, we can drive a clearer message with our volunteers into the public with express advocacy,” said Levi Russell, a spokesman for Americans for Prosperity.
The tactical shift by the Koch network, which has steered clear of the presidential race, came after a recognition by strategists that trying to persuade voters to split their tickets might not be worthwhile. Instead, the groups are now focused on five million voters they believe share the values of conservative Senate candidates but may not be enthusiastic about the presidential choices or the election over all.
“We feel like that is where we can have an outsized impact,” said James Davis, a spokesman for Freedom Partners, which funds the Koch network.
How pivotal Senate races turn out could reflect whether the groups made the right calculation.