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Koch network wants to 'bring government together' after Democrats score big wins

Faced with the new reality of a divided government in Washington, leaders of the influential conservative ne...

Posted: Nov 12, 2018 12:58 PM
Updated: Nov 12, 2018 12:58 PM

Faced with the new reality of a divided government in Washington, leaders of the influential conservative network founded by billionaire Charles Koch say they are launching a multimillion-dollar campaign this week to encourage Congress, business leaders and others to come together on issues such as trade, immigration and criminal justice reform.

The effort will include a renewed push to protect hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants -- known as "DREAMers" -- from deportation, along with new lobbying to pass the First Step Act, which provides a path to faster release for inmates in the federal prison system.

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James Davis, a network spokesman, cast the new campaign as a sweeping end-of-year effort that will deploy the network's influence and deep pockets to encourage lawmakers, business leaders and others to bridge partisan divides "to solve societal problems."

"We think we are well positioned to be part of the solution to bring government together," Davis said in an interview with CNN.

He declined to release a budget but said it would be a multipronged push, featuring paid advertising, direct lobbying of Congress and grassroots activism.

The effect of the midterms

The move comes less than a week after Democrats seized control of the House, splitting power in Washington and positioning Democrats to serve as a check on President Donald Trump and his administration.

Koch and his network of some 700 libertarian-leaning donors have been closely associated with Republicans. The network, which pays staff in 36 states and was projected to spend nearly $400 million on its policy and political goals during the two-year election cycle, rivals the Republican National Committee in size and scope.

Koch groups had mixed results in the midterms, however. They backed Republicans Marsha Blackburn and Josh Hawley in their successful quests to win the Senate races Tuesday in Tennessee and Missouri, respectively. But they failed in their efforts to help elect Republican Adam Laxalt as Nevada governor and could not topple one of their top targets: Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who defeated Republican Leah Vukmir.

Even before Election Day, Koch and his allies worked to assert their independence from Trump and the Republican Party and reposition themselves away from partisan politics. Over the summer, Koch broke sharply with Trump on trade issues, criticizing the President's tariff battles with China and other countries and warning they could trigger a recession.

Trump responded with Twitter broadsides, denouncing the Koch brothers as "globalist" and saying they promote "bad ideas."

The Kochs' new campaign highlights one area in which they have found common cause with parts of the Trump administration: criminal justice reform.

Trump and Koch groups have backed the First Step Act. The measure, which passed the House earlier this year, expands prison employment programs and other efforts to reduce recidivism within the federal inmate population. It also would speed the release of prisoners by providing them "good-time credit" for participating in training programs while still in prison.

The effort has hit roadblocks in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Koch operatives, who view tough sentencing laws as an example of government overreach, long have made overhauling the criminal justice system a top agenda item.

And to win some of the key battles on that front, they are crossing party lines. For instance, they joined the American Civil Liberties Union and Democratic groups to support Tuesday's successful ballot measure in Florida that restored voting rights for people with felony convictions who had served their time. (The measure carves out exceptions for those who committed murder or sex crimes.)

"When we support the formerly incarcerated and give them a real second chance to succeed, the data shows that they can transform themselves," Mark Holden, a key Koch lieutenant, said in a statement.

As part of the new campaign, the network also wants to encourage others in the business world to hire former inmates and donate to education and job-training programs aimed at reducing recidivism, Davis said.

A slickly produced five-minute video that's part of the campaign to highlight the network's increasingly nonpartisan approach spotlights Café Momentum, a nonprofit Dallas restaurant underwritten by donors in the Koch network. Most of the staff comes from an unlikely place: teens from Dallas County's juvenile system.

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