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Are the Koch Brothers Undermining the Republican Party or Helping It?

It all depends on your definition of party.
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(Photo: Ana Phelps/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Ana Phelps/Shutterstock)

Steve Benen had a great catch last week, picking up on a news item about a rift between the Koch brothers and the Republican National Committee. In 2014, Benen notes, the Kochs had "an army of field organizers, blanketed the airwaves with political ads, and even had their own voter lists." It seems, that is, that they have been "creating a political party of their own."

This is a pretty interesting development, and it's clearly concerning to some Republican Party insiders. Katie Walsh, the RNC's chief of staff, even goes on record warning:

I think it’s very dangerous and wrong to allow a group of very strong, well-financed individuals who have no accountability to anyone to have control over who gets access to the data when, why and how.

So what exactly is going on here? Are the billionaire Kochs undermining the GOP? Are they trying to supplant it with their own party? Are they just helping the party with their own resources? In many ways, the answer depends on just what you consider a political party to be.

The Koch brothers are undermining the Republican Party only if you consider the Republican National Committee to be the party. And yes, the RNC is an important part of the party. But it ends up not making a whole lot of sense to see the formal national party committee as synonymous with the party itself.

A party, to go with a popular current definition in political science, is a collection of intense policy demanders who seek to achieve their goals by electing loyal agents to positions of power. Basically, it's a group of people trying to use government or move it in some direction by winning elections. The RNC is part of that on the Republican side. It helps to allocate information and money to what it believes to be the best set of candidates—candidates who will advance the Republican agenda but also have a decent chance of winning.

But the RNC is only one part of this overall party. Interest groups, activists, officeholders, major donors, and some conservative media personalities are all key components. They are part of the dialogue over which candidates the party should nominate for office, from president on down. And by channeling money, information, expertise, and endorsements to their preferred candidates, they can determine who gets nominated and define just what the party stands for.

The Koch brothers are very much a part of the Republican Party. They have a long history of activism on behalf of the party and have spent roughly the GDP of Belize on behalf of its more conservative candidates. They have a policy agenda on a range of issues and work to help candidates who share their views win election. Somewhat surprisingly, they have vowed not to get involved financially in the current Republican nomination battle; although they have publicly indicated that they prefer Scott Walker, they will likely generously support whomever the party ends up nominating.

All this is to say that they do the things that Republican Party insiders do. They certainly spend more than most others do, and they develop more infrastructure than most do, but the difference is more one of scale than kind.

This whole discussion is reminiscent of the debates political observers have had over whether non-traditional funding organizations (527s, super PACs, etc.) are helping or hurting the parties. Some have expressed concern that 527s are producing campaign ads that are off-message, undermining what the candidates are trying to do. In fact, as Richard Skinner, David Dulio, and I found in a series of studies, 527s are well integrated within modern party networks. The same people who run 527s have also run presidential campaigns and worked in the White House or on Capitol Hill. These aren't some alien organizations undermining the current party system; they're a feature of the current party system and a natural (and predictable) adaptation to campaign finance reforms that limit what individuals can directly donate to candidates.

Now, this doesn't mean that what the Kochs are doing is OK with other GOP insiders. Party insiders may disagree on goals, and they may disagree on tactics even when they agree on goals. It's also quite possible that this spat between the Kochs and the RNC is largely professional jealously; the RNC has been playing a particular role for a long time and isn't keen on having some other people taking over that role. But to portray the Kochs as undermining the party is, I think, to misrepresent what a modern American party is.

Besides, Republican insiders as a whole have been most welcoming of Koch money in past election cycles, and candidates have been pretty damned deferential to them. If Republican insiders are bothered that the Kochs are suddenly throwing their weight around within the party, they have only themselves to blame.

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.