The invitees are all potential 2016 presidential contenders.
By Kenneth P. Vogel
1/19/15 11:24 PM EST
Updated 1/20/15 8:44 AM EST

Four leading Republican presidential prospects are expected to appear this weekend in the California desert before an exclusive gathering of rich conservatives convened by the Koch brothers’ political operation, several sources tell POLITICO.

Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin received coveted invitations to speak to the vaunted network assembled by the billionaire industrialist megadonors Charles and David Koch, the sources said.

The meeting, set to be held at a Palm Springs hotel, is the annual winter gathering of Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, the nonprofit group that oversees the network of fiscally conservative groups formed with help from the Kochs and their operatives.

None of the White House prospects invited to the meeting this weekend responded to questions about whether they planned to attend and, if so, what they planned to discuss. A spokesman for Freedom Partners declined to comment on the function, which is closed to the press.

It comes at a pivotal time for both the Koch network, which has become increasingly involved in partisan politics, and for the sprawling Republican presidential field, which some party insiders fear could be headed for a chaotic and costly primary.

Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, both of whom are eyeing runs of their own, are considered the favorites of rich Republican donors from the party’s establishment wing, who traditionally have exerted great sway over presidential nominating fights.

But neither is necessarily a perfect fit for the donors and operatives in the Kochs’ expanding donor network, where small government, free-market policies tend to be valued over aggressive stances on military intervention or social issues. That could present an opening for prospective presidential hopefuls who have emphasized fiscal issues more than foreign policy, like Paul, Walker and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

Pence is not expected in Palm Springs this weekend. But he has spoken at past gatherings and is considered a favorite of the Kochs’ allies, as is Walker, whose fight against his state’s public employee unions over collective-bargaining rights made him something of a test case for the expansion of the Koch network and its most robust political arm, Americans for Prosperity.

Stan Hubbard, a billionaire Minnesota media mogul and megadonor who has attended Koch donor gatherings, but is not headed to Palm Springs, called Walker “a hell of a good man.” Yet, Hubbard also had positive things to say about Bush, a former Florida governor (“a really nice guy”) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (“a good communicator”), while dismissing Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, as “a terrible candidate,” and questioning whether Cruz or Paul could win a general election.

“What scares me is the ultra-right-wing people — which I would be, but you can’t get elected being ultra-right-wing — so what scares me is them screwing it up by supporting someone like the senator from Texas,” said Hubbard of Cruz. “I mean, forget it.”

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