Three Republican Senators Kick Off Koch’s First Massive Donor Conference In Age Of Trump

Christopher Bedford Former Editor in Chief, The Daily Caller News Foundation
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PALM SPRINGS, CALIF. — Republican Sens. Mike Lee, Pat Toomey and James Lankford are scheduled to attend the kickoff to Charles and David Koch’s libertarian Seminar Network in Palm Springs, Calif. on Saturday.

Held twice a year, the seminars are a gathering place for the Seminar Network, a large group of wealthy donors interested in libertarian causes. This weekend’s seminar, held in the temperate desert outside of Los Angeles, will be the first since the election and inauguration of President Donald Trump. The network spent hundreds of millions on advertising and advocacy for limited-government politicians — namely, Republicans — running for the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, but notably stayed out of the presidential primaries and race. They also scaled back their initial spending projections. The network is co-chaired by Charles Koch Institute President Brian Hooks and Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries. (RELATED: As Trump Presidency Dawns, Kochs Plan To Bring Hundreds Of Millions To Bear On Next Two Years)

Of the three senators, Lankford was the only tepid backer of Trump, saying he would support the nominee and frequently dodging press requests to weigh in on specific incidents. Toomey withheld endorsement of Trump, though didn’t rule it out, and was a frequent critic. On Election Day, he said he was voting for Trump. Lee, who is a close friend of Sen. Ted Cruz and represents Utah’s quieter, more conflict-adverse Mormon Republican electorate, urged Trump to quit in October and declined to endorse him throughout the election. Outside of defeated presidential candidates, Sen. Ben Sasse, who is not speaking Saturday night but is attending the seminar, has been Trump’s most vocal critic in the legislature.

The other senator in attendance is David Perdue, who was supportive of Trump and was at one point floated for an administration position. Other elected officials at the seminar include Reps.  Jason Chaffetz and Marsha Blackburn, Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bruce Rauner of Illinois (two Koch favorites), and Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley. All elected officials in attendance are Republicans.

We are coming off  “a presidential election year where we couldn’t get comfortable with either candidate and didn’t think we could be impactful,” Holden told reporters, while expressing optimism for the network’s ability to make a difference in the coming years, on both state and federal levels.

While the organizations supported by the network, mainly Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners, did not engage Hillary Clinton directly, the new administration is more colored by their lieutenants than any in American history. Vice President Mike Pence enjoyed network support as Indiana governor, and one of his former top advisers and the Koch’s top operatives, Marc Short, is now the legislative director for the White House. Short has used his knowledge of the Koch’s key personnel to help staff the executive. In the most famous conservative administration, President Ronald Reagan’s, the Kochs were on the outside. David Koch ran against Reagan on the Libertarian ticket in 1980.

“We’ve had a number of good friends of ours who worked in the network who are in the White House now,” Holden told reporters, adding that, “We had discussions with their team during the campaign, we talked policy with them, they were civil meetings.”

Despite taking the White House and holding both houses of Congress with Trump on the ticket, some Republican holdouts don’t feel they owe the nominee– many won their races with more votes than the president won their states. In the months since the election, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have led their members toward closer ties with the White House.

Called “A Time to Lead,” the meeting is hosted at the Renaissance Indian Wells Resort and Spa, and is focused on local, grassroots initiatives Americans can take in what Hooks called “the key institutions of society”– “education, community, business and government.”

There are around 550 individuals included in the “principals” network meeting, which requires at least $100,000 donation to the network. In addition to these invited people, there are approximately 150 staff and speakers, Seminar Network spokesman James Davis told reporters. There is also a larger press presence than any previous conference has allowed.

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Editor’s Note: Christopher Bedford was a fellow at the Charles Koch Institute in 2010.