In reboot, Koch network launches new PACs

The sprawling conservative network affiliated with billionaire Charles Koch is launching four new political action committees and plans to wade into upcoming state and congressional primaries to back incumbent politicians who side with Koch and his allies on trade, immigration and other issues.

The new moves announced by Americans for Prosperity, Koch’s long-standing grassroots arm, come as the vast philanthropic and political network founded by the Kansas industrialist engages in a sweeping reset of its priorities and works to distance itself from the Republican brand in the era of President Donald Trump.

As part of the new direction, Americans for Prosperity will back sitting lawmakers of any political persuasion — including Democrats — “who lead by uniting with others to pass principled policy and get good things done,” the group’s CEO, Emily Seidel, said in a letter to its staffers and activists.

The Koch network also will create four issue-specific political action committees to contribute directly to candidates. Those PACs will focus on trade, immigration, free speech issues and “economic opportunity,” she wrote.

The goal of the new approach, Seidel said, is to find “nonpartisan solutions that enable people who are passionate about the issues that matter to stand more firmly on their principles rather than be forced to abandon them for the sake of helping one or the other political party win the next election.” She said Americans for Prosperity will “support the primary election of lawmakers, regardless of political party, who stick their necks out to lead diverse policy coalitions.”

Network officials sat out the 2016 presidential race and previously have said they will not engage in the 2020 White House contest either. Last year, they sparred publicly with Trump over his trade policies, which top Koch officials criticized as protectionist and harmful to American consumers. In response, Trump lashed out on Twitter at the “globalist Koch Brothers, who have become a total joke in real Republican circles.”

Koch, who sits at the helm of one of the country’s largest private companies, also has disagreed with Trump’s hardline positions on immigration.

Seidel’s letter does not mention Trump but says elevating “civil discourse” will be a key focus of Americans for Prosperity and its political arm in state and congressional elections in 2019 and 2020.

“If candidates engage in personal, ad hominem attacks and other divisive tactics during their election, it makes it difficult to work productively with others after the election,” she wrote.

Despite the clashes with Trump, Koch officials have worked with the administration on several key issues — including an overhaul of prison and sentencing laws, known as the First Step Act, that brought together Republicans and liberal activists. Koch operatives view that effort as a road map for future collaborations across party lines.

Although the influential network long has rivaled the national Republican Party in spending and influence, the libertarian-leaning Charles Koch has always cast himself as less interested in politics than his younger brother, David Koch.

David Koch, who ran for vice president in 1980 on the Libertarian Party’s ticket, resigned from the network and Koch Industries in 2018, citing health issues.

The Koch network, long known in Koch world as the Seminar Network — for the twice-yearly “seminars” it conducts for contributors who give at least $100,000 a year — recently changed its name to Stand Together. It also has adopted a new slogan, “Greater your good,” as it moves to shift from partisan politics to building what it describes as a broad philanthropic effort that works in communities around the country on issues such as education and combating poverty.

Americans for Prosperity is the network’s advocacy arm, with operations in 35 states and a standing army of 3.2 million activists affiliated with the organization.

Koch groups have supported Democrats in the past. In 2018, for instance, Americans for Prosperity ran digital ads that thanked centrist Heidi Heitkamp, then a Democratic US senator from North Dakota, for supporting a measure that eased bank regulations. She lost her seat to Republican Kevin Cramer.

But Americans for Prosperity’s announcement marks the first time the group is pledging to wade into primaries in this fashion.

It’s not clear how much any Democrat will welcome political support from the network.

On the campaign trail and on Twitter, Koch remains a target for some Democratic presidential contenders, such as Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Charles Koch is one of the wealthiest men alive, with a fortune Forbes estimates at nearly $50 billion. His Wichita-based company produces a range from products from gasoline and electronic components in mobile phones to well-known consumer brands such as Stainmaster carpets and Angel Soft toilet paper.

CNN’s Annie Grayer contributed to this report.