Koch Network Won't Back GOP Challenger to Democratic Senator

(Bloomberg) -- The powerful public policy and political network led by billionaire Charles Koch on Monday broke from its traditional approach of backing Republican candidates by saying it wouldn’t work for the party’s challenger to a potentially vulnerable Democratic senator, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

The network’s decision not to support Representative Kevin Cramer was cast as a warning to other Republicans who might be tempted to stray from the free-market, fiscally restrained approach backed by Koch and his followers.

“We can’t support him at this time,” said Tim Phillips, president of the Americans for Prosperity, the network’s flagship political organization.

Heitkamp is one of 10 Senate Democrats who face re-election in November in states President Donald Trump won in 2016. While polls and analysts suggest Democrats have a strong chance of winning the 23 seats they need to gain control of the House, their odds of winning Senate control are much lower.

Bipartisan Face

The decision not to back Cramer, as the network is trying to put forward a more bipartisan face, was announced at a briefing for more than 500 network donors gathered for a three-day meeting that’s concluding at a luxury resort in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The network, with more than 700 donors who give at least $100,000 each per year, has convened such gatherings twice annually since 2003.

Phillips criticized Cramer’s votes in support of spending bills and farm legislation as well as the U.S. Export-Import Bank.

“He’s inconsistent across the board on these issues,” he said. “He’s not leading on the issues where this country needs leadership.” Cramer had been told of the decision before it was announced, Phillips said.

Cramer said in a statement that he respects the group’s decision but that he votes in Congress with residents of his state in mind.

“My voting record may not be exactly what every national organization wants, but it is exactly what the majority of North Dakotans expect,” Cramer said.

When Heitkamp voted with Republicans on legislation rolling back Dodd-Frank rules for regional and community banks, the network ran online ads praising her.

Heitkamp raised $1.9 million during the second quarter and started July with $5.2 million in her campaign account, while Cramer raised $1.4 million and ended the quarter with $2.4 million. Trump won the state by 36 percentage points.

Emily Seidel, the chief executive officer of Americans for Prosperity, made clear the organization was trying to make an example of Cramer.

“Why would Cramer or any other Republican feel like they needed to listen to this network if they knew we’d just support them anyway?” she asked. “We can’t keep falling into the trap of just doing what we need to do to get through November. That’s short-term thinking.”

AFP said it was remaining involved in Senate races in Wisconsin, Missouri, Tennessee and Florida, as well as governor’s races in Michigan, Nevada and Florida. While the network may still run television ads, it said earlier in the year that its strategy was to focus more on get-out-the-vote activities in the final three months of the campaign using the grassroots activists it has in 36 states.

Midterm Elections

Throughout the weekend gathering, the network sought to play down its role in this year’s midterm congressional campaign, even as ads it funded have hammered Democrats in battleground states. Planned spending on campaign-associated activities was prominent when the network last assembled in January.

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Koch indicated a willingness to work with Democrats, so long as they embrace free-market solutions.

“I don’t care what initials are in front of or after somebody’s name,” he said. “I would like there to be many more politicians who would embrace and have the courage to run on a platform like this.”

Koch also indicated he wants the network to do a better job of holding Republicans accountable when they stray from their promises. The network is going to be “much stricter” in holding people it supports to their "commitments," he said.

Plans call for the network to spend about $400 million on state and federal policy and politics during the two-year cycle that culminates with November’s balloting, a 60 percent increase over 2015-16. Besides trying to influence electoral politics, the network also works on education, criminal justice, workforce and poverty issues.

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