The political advocacy organization backed by billionaire Charles Koch is preparing for life after President Donald Trump as the libertarian-leaning group looks at policies where they may push back and seek possible alliance with President-elect Joe Biden.
The Koch network has had a mixed relationship with the Trump administration. They cheered for Trump’s tax cuts, business deregulation, push for criminal justice reform and his nominees to the Supreme Court. They fought against his implementation of tariffs and the way he treated those participating in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.
The network has been open to backing Democrats in congressional races and refused to help Trump’s bid for reelection. A Koch-backed group known as the Libre Initiative recently supported Democrats, including Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, during his successful primary earlier this year. The Koch-linked Americans for Prosperity, or AFP, backed Republican Senate candidates in 2020.
Still, that slight change of tune by the network could lead to a different relationship with Biden compared with the often tense battles they had with the former vice president’s old boss, President Barack Obama. The group spent millions against Obama during his 2012 reelection campaign and pushed back on a wide array of his proposals, including the Affordable Care Act.
“It’s a very different Koch network that Biden didn’t see much of during his years under Obama,” a longtime associate of the organization told CNBC.
Those who declined to be named in this story did so in order to speak freely.
The network is keeping a close eye on the Georgia Senate fight to determine its priorities in the coming months, according to others briefed on the matter.
At least one Senate race in that state, between Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Raphael Warnock, has been called by NBC News to go to a runoff in January. NBC News has yet to determine whether the other race, between Democrat Jon Ossoff and GOP Sen. David Perdue, will also go to a runoff. Americans for Prosperity recently announced it will be involved with an Ossoff-Perdue runoff.
Both races could decide the fate of which party controls the Senate’s agenda.
AFP declined to comment for this story. A spokesman for the Biden transition team did not return a request for comment.
Dan Garza, president of the Libre Initiative, pointed to Biden’s goal of reaching across the aisle to Republicans as a good sign for his organization. He said further reforms to the criminal justice code, immigration policies and trade proposals could be some of the areas where the network may support the president-elect.
Issues of concern, Garza said, include Biden’s proposal to raise taxes, any move to pack the Supreme Court and what he called a “war on energy production.”
“I see opportunity, but I do see areas where we are going to have to resist,” Garza said in an interview with CNBC.
Some of Biden’s reported goals in his first 100 days in office seem to be at least partially aligned with what the Koch orbit has been pushing for in the later stages of Trump’s term.
Biden, according to The Wall Street Journal, is expected to review the tariffs levied by the Trump administration on a variety of European and Chinese goods. CBS News reported that Biden plans to fully restore the Obama-era DACA program after Trump’s unsuccessful attempts to end it.
Though Trump did sign a criminal justice reform bill known as the First Step Act, Biden appears to want to build off that. His campaign’s plan mentions the idea of creating a “new $20 billion competitive grant program to spur states to shift from incarceration to prevention” and the need to incentivize states to focus on creating jobs and mentorships as a solution to youth incarceration.
A person familiar with the network pointed to Obama’s remarks in 2015 mentioning the Koch network for its efforts on criminal justice reform as a sign that Biden could find a way to work with them.
“You’ve got the NAACP and the Koch brothers,” Obama said at the NAACP annual convention, referring to Charles and his late brother David, who died in 2019. “No, you’ve got to give them credit. You’ve got to call it like you see it,” he said when discussing the groups working to fix the criminal justice system.
Grover Norquist, the president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, told CNBC he’s known the Koch brothers for over 40 years. He supported Trump’s tax cuts and has seemingly opposed all of Biden’s economic proposals. Yet even he admitted that criminal justice reform could be where the Koch network finds common ground with Biden.
He also hinted, however, that outside of trade agreements, a Biden White House could see a plethora of disagreements with the Koch network.
“Some trade agreements possible. But not much,” Norquist told CNBC when asked where Biden and Koch could see eye to eye.
Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor who has attended Koch seminars in the past, says the network might ultimately focus on pushing its goals on trade and protect its other gains.
“Koch will seek to protect the gains made under the Trump administration on taxes and regulatory reform through the Senate majority,” Eberhart told CNBC. “They may try to reset the trade agenda under Biden, who is certainly more committed to free trade than the Trump administration has been.”