When Michael Bloomberg entered the 2020 race, some declared his $60bn fortune an asset for taking on Donald Trump, who once claimed he was going to self-fund his own campaign. (This op-ed was first published by the Guardian.)
Trump and his party raised a record-shattering nearly half a billion dollars in disclosed donations last year – a number that does not include the hundreds of millions in dark money non-profit groups will spend on social media and TV ads.
How did we end up with such a broken system where billionaires can openly or anonymously spend millions to distort election results in our representative democracy?
Charles Koch – whose mega-corporation Koch Industries is running a PR campaign with the tagline “We made that” – helped make that, or rather helped break that.
Newly uncovered documents reveal Trump and Bloomberg owe thanks in part to Koch for the power to tap their enormous personal fortunes to run for office.
Koch claimed in 2014 that “it was only in the past decade that I realized the need to also engage in the political process.” The truth is he got involved in elections and trying to overcome election laws 45 years ago.
Archives show that Koch funding for the Libertarian party helped subsidize the legal effort that resulted in the infamous Buckley v Valeo decision, which equated spending money with free speech.
Buckley also created a loophole that allowed David Koch to self-fund his campaign for vice-president in 1980, establishing perhaps one of the most extreme examples of privilege in politics today: most Americans can’t afford to max out in campaign contributions, but a couple of billionaire white guys have what amounts to a supreme court-divined right to spend an unlimited amount on their own elections.
The big money of a tiny few is swamping the voices of most Americans
Until now, however, few people outside the Koch inner circle knew it was really Charles who was bankrolling that political party and its attacks on federal election laws, before David’s failed run.
After Buckley, the FEC gave the Libertarian party an advisory opinion to allow Koch to give the party 25 times the limit Congress had adopted. Koch then bundled money with his family to become that political party’s biggest donor, giving it an amount that seems small now but was big then and was the start of something bigger.
Two years later, he pledged to match at least $50,000 raised by the party (despite the $25,000 limit). The year after that, he was one of the largest donors helping to fund lawsuits attacking federal campaign laws.
Buckley litigation also laid the foundation for the discredited Citizens United decision.
Since that ruling in 2010, American elections have been conducted like the Koch-funded Libertarian wishlist circa 1976: the uber-rich have virtually no real limits on how much they can spend to influence the outcome of our elections because they can deploy non-profits to escape donation and disclosure rules applicable to candidates, political parties, and Pacs.
As a result, non-profit groups collectively spent more than all candidates in 28 congressional midterm races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The $2.6bn in “independent expenditures” in 2018 also exceeded spending by both political parties combined.
And, just days ago, Koch’s operatives announced their biggest election effort ever for 2020. Koch spending down the ballot will help buoy Trump, without naming him, as it did in the 2016 Senate races.
Koch’s use of secret billionaires’ cash to secure the Senate and states is not new. To win in 2016, Koch planned to amass and spend $889m – Koch Industries even bought the URL: 889million.com.
The new reality is that billionaire-funded dark money groups, like the ones run by Charles Koch’s network with its sophisticated voter databases, can operate like a shadow political party but they are more powerful, unbound by donation limits and disclosure rules that govern parties.
And because personnel is policy, this means Koch often gets the policies – and judges – he wants. Despite Charles’s public posture of disdain for the president, Trump policy is largely Koch’s. When Charles Koch decided that Trump represented a “once-in-a-generation” chance to change the tax code to slash taxes for the richest few, Koch got it.
The same goes for Koch helping to pack the supreme court, which Charles flagged as another top priority for his network of billionaires.
Koch has touted the help of Leonard Leo, who sits at the helm of a dark money operation that has spent more than $250m to change the makeup of the federal and state courts through the secretive funding of groups like the Judicial Crisis Network. Leo recently bragged to donors that America is on the precipice of a revolution to roll back nearly a century of legal precedents.
If successful that revolution would mark a return to the robber-baron era of limited democratic control over corporations, which Koch fueled in innumerable ways. But with the devastating climate changes under way, more is at stake than the chains he and Leo want to put on the power of American democracy.
We are in a continuing constitutional crisis, where the big money of a tiny few is swamping the voices of most Americans. And Charles Koch helped make that.
- Lisa Graves is the former chief counsel for nominations on the US Senate judiciary committee and is the founder of the new watchdog group True North Research, where she manages the new clearinghouse website about Charles Koch, KochDocs.org