Charles and David Koch plan to spend $900 million on the 2016 campaign cycle, more than any pair of private citizens have ever committed to an election in the history of our debased republic. And the billionaire brothers Stand With Scott.
On April 20th, at a fundraising event for the New York State Republican party, David Koch reportedly told the assembled plutocrats that Scott Walker should be the party’s nominee.
While the Kochs later contested that report, the remarks were widely viewed as signaling a key victory for Walker in the invisible primary of the GOP donor class. They also sparked speculation about the source of the Kochs’ apparent devotion to the Wisconsin Governor.
The policy preferences of your average arch-libertarian oil tycoon don’t differ sharply from the stated positions of any 2016 GOP contender. The distinctions between establishment-aligned Marco Rubio and tea-party favorite Ted Cruz are more rhetorical than ideological. Every major Republican candidate believes in cutting welfare spending and taxes on the wealthy, while opposing a carbon tax and new EPA regulations.
And on a couple of the issues where there is divergence of opinion, Walker has actually taken stances contrary to the avowed positions of the brothers Koch.
Take criminal justice reform. This past year, the Kochs helped bankroll the ACLU’s efforts to shorten prison sentences and decriminalize non-violent offenses, while hiring a vocal critic of mass incarceration to a full-time position at their think tank.
Yet, if you were looking to support the 2016 contender whose political identity was most defined by draconian crime policy, Scott Walker would be your man. As Scott Keyes documented in The Nation, Walker spent his nine years as an Assemblyman raking in donations from Wisconsin’s private prison operators, while pushing a cornucopia of tough-on-crime legislation.
Keyes notes that “in just the 1997–98 legislative session, Walker authored or co-sponsored twenty-seven different bills that either expanded the definition of crimes, increased mandatory minimums for offenders, or curbed the possibility of parole.”
If the Kochs want to liberate the poor from the oppression of food assistance AND mandatory minimum sentencing, Rand Paul would seem the logical choice.
Similarly, the Koch Brothers have long been notorious in a certain segment of the right for their putative support of “illegal amnesty.” Yet, the very week that the Kochs made their affections known, Walker questioned the desirability of all immigration, legal or otherwise.
If the Kochs want America to burn coal until melting ice-caps sink Bangladesh AND to provide those displaced Bangladeshis with worker permits, Marco Rubio seems a better fit.
Why then have they backed the man from Milwaukee?
The most obvious explanation is that Walker won their eternal devotion when he successfully pushed the Koch labor agenda past the communists of Madison, Wisconsin.
And in fact, Walker first came to the attention of the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity when, as a Milwaukee County Executive, he laid off a number of county employees to close a gap in his budget.
That organization took a lead role in Walker’s first gubernatorial election, inviting him to speak at their rallies and events starting in 2009. And Koch Industries provided Walker with the largest out-of-state contribution to his 2010 campaign.
In 2011, when Walker’s restrictions on collective bargaining brought protestors to the capital, AFP bussed in a counter-insurgency of tea party activists. In 2012, Koch Industries ramped up their giving to the Republican Governors Association, which proceeded to spend $5 million on attacking Walker’s challenger, former Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
While money qualifies as speech these days, David Koch has also expressed his approval of Walker in old-fashioned spoken English, telling the Palm Beach Post in 2012, “What Scott Walker is doing with the public unions in Wisconsin is critically important. He’s an impressive guy, and he’s very courageous.”
Clearly then, Walker’s success at disempowering both public and private sector unions in a purple state, while winning 3 elections in 4 years, is no small part of his appeal to Kochworld.
Relatively overlooked though, is Walker’s record on the environment, the area of policy that most directly impacts the financial interests of the Kochs, and the survival interests of the human species.
Even among Republican governors, Walker has distinguished himself for the ferocity of his opposition to President Obama’s climate agenda, instructing his attorney general to challenge the EPA’s legal authority to regulate carbon emissions in Wisconsin.
And Walker’s proven himself as staunch an adversary of green energy, as he is a defender of the right to pollute. As noted by Mother Jones’ Tim Mcdonnell, Walker’s latest budget would cut $8.1 million in funding for his state’s renewable energy research center, while committing $250,000 to a study on the potential public health threat posed by wind turbines.
Walker’s tenure also saw a tenfold increase in fracking sand mines, a relaxation of environmental standards for iron mines, and the delay of phosphorous pollution regulations that were opposed by a Koch-owned paper factory.
In 2013, Walker signed a pledge drafted by Americans for Prosperity, vowing to oppose any climate related legislation that would produce “a net increase in government revenue.”
So sure, the Koch brothers support criminal justice reform. And Sheldon Adelson says he supports universal healthcare. But if you want to predict which candidate a Republican billionaire is going to back, better to sweat the details of his financial commitments than his ideological ones.