Charles Koch and David Koch are backing a network of advocacy groups that plans to spend nearly $1 billion on the 2016 presidential election.

By Matea Gold
January 26, 2015 at 4:00 PM

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — A network of conservative advocacy groups backed by Charles and David Koch aims to spend a staggering $889 million in advance of the next White House election, part of an expansive strategy to build on its 2014 victories that may involve jumping into the Republican primaries.

The massive financial goal was revealed to donors here Monday during an annual winter meeting hosted by Freedom Partners, the tax-exempt business lobby that serves as the hub of the Koch-backed political operation, according to an attendee. The amount is more than double the $407 million that 17 allied groups in the network raised during the 2012 campaign.

The figure comes close to the $1 billion that each of the two major parties’ presidential nominees are expected to spend in 2016, and it cements the network’s standing as one of the country’s most potent political forces. With its resources and capabilities — including a national field operation and cutting-edge technology — it is challenging the primacy of the official parties. In the 2012 elections, the Republican National Committee spent $404 million, while the Democratic National Committee shelled out $319 million.

The new $889 million goal reflects the anticipated budgets of all the allied groups that the network funds. Those resources will go into field operations, new data-driven technology and policy work, among other projects, along with likely media campaigns aimed at shaping the congressional and White House elections.

The group — which is supported by hundreds of wealthy donors on the right, along with the Kochs — is still debating whether it will spend some of that money in the GOP primaries. Such a move could have a major impact in winnowing the field of contenders, but could also undercut the network’s standing if it engaged in intraparty politics and was not successful.

The three-day conference was held at a luxury resort perched on a rocky hillside near Palm Springs, Calif., with stunning views of the palm-tree-speckled desert floor below. The event drew 450 attendees, a record number, as well as the largest number of first-time contributors to the network.

Saturday’s opening dinner, held on the resort’s wide lawn under strings of twinkling lights, celebrated a crop of new U.S. senators whose victories helped put the Senate back in GOP control. Their bids were lifted by the Freedom Partners network, which had pledged to spend close to $300 million in the run-up to the November elections.

Sens. Steve Daines (Mont.), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Thom Tillis (N.C.), David Perdue (Ga.) and Cory Gardner (Colo.) were on hand to thank donors, according to people familiar with the event.

But much of the weekend was spent looking ahead to 2016.

Sizing up the 2016 field

Freedom Partners President Marc Short said in an interview that “2014 was nice, but there’s a long way to go,” noting that the group’s ultimate goal is to make free-market ideals central in American society. “Politics is a necessary means to that end,” he said, but not the only one.

Much of the conclave served as an information-gathering exercise for network officials, who are assessing whether financiers will coalesce around a single candidate in the GOP presidential contest. At this point, some contributors have said they have little interest in putting money into a bloody internal fight, and many others are not yet set on a candidate.

Few here suggested they would support 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, who is considering another run in 2016. Among the favorites are Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.).

“It’s not as if there’s one perfect champion and five bad individuals,” said one person familiar with donors’ views, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private conversations.

The Kochs’ moves are being carefully watched by operatives throughout the party, who are well aware of how the brothers could alter the trajectory of the race if they took sides in the primaries.

“It’s not like a Chicago political boss where Charles would say, ‘We’re all for this guy,’ ” said conservative activist Grover Norquist, who has attended past Koch donor seminars. “But if he said, ‘I really like this guy’ and did an op-ed, it would matter.”

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