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Inside the optimistic, wonky, largely Trump-free meeting of big Koch donors

They’re playing a long game with the president.

The Broadmoor resort
Jim Tankersley/Vox

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — There was no swirl of chaos at the five-star Broadmoor resort this weekend. No protesters and no angry tweets. At the semi-annual gathering of major donors to the conservative Koch network of political and philanthropic organizations, there was no sign of carnage, American or otherwise.

There were broad smiles, victory celebrations and, again and again, speakers assuring one another that they live in the world’s greatest nation, where the best is still to come. “I do not have bad days,” the unlikely scene-stealer of the event, NFL legend Deion Sanders, said onstage Sunday afternoon. “They do not exist.”

Hundreds of wealthy conservatives nodded their approval.

There was a constant optimism radiating from nearly every speaker here, in defiance of the imperiled Obamacare repeal effort and the riptides of the government’s Russia investigations.

“There tends to be a pretty pessimistic narrative in the country right now,” Brian Hooks, co-chair of the Kochs’ Seminar Network, told reporters as the gathering opened on Saturday. “We reject the notion that we need to lower our expectations, and we reject the notion that America’s best days are behind us.”

The Kochs and their donors have had months now to digest the strange circumstances they find themselves in. For the first time since early 2006, Republicans command both houses of Congress and the presidency. That should be a prime opportunity to advance the agenda that Charles and David Koch, and the many contributors to their efforts, have advocated for years: rolling back regulations, cutting taxes, trimming government spending on the social safety net and other programs.

Except that the president is Trump, a candidate Charles Koch lambasted during the 2016 election; a dissenter from free-market orthodoxy on trade and immigration; and a sower of pessimism and controversy from the day he was inaugurated, when he gazed upon the National Mall and promised, “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

Washington under Trump has delivered a few wins for the ambitious, government-limiting Koch agenda — but also more than a few frustrations. Trump shows no appetite for the criminal justice reforms — meant to reduce the time and money the government spends incarcerating non-violent offenders, particularly when it comes to drug offenses — that the Kochs have increasingly championed in recent years. Under his watch, Republicans are pushing a health care bill that no one here considers true repeal of Obamacare, and which might not pass anyway.

Yes, he has appointed conservative judges. Yes, he has signed many bills rolling back regulations finalized in the dying days of the Obama administration. But he is not the president for a true Koch moment, and so, for many moments of the weekend, the people here looked hopefully beyond him.

The stars of the conference were senators, governors, and Deion Sanders

The Broadmoor sits 6,000 feet above sea level, its rooms and pools and golf courses splayed around a small lake. The Koch conference filled a tower on the lake’s west side. It drew more than 400 attendees, a majority of them having given $100,000 or more each to the Network’s various affiliates. A dozen of them were prominent Republican governors or members of Congress.

One of them was Sanders, a former superstar cornerback who began the festivities by announcing a partnership with the Network to fight poverty in Dallas, and who lit up attendees’ Sunday afternoon by showering praise on Charles Koch in a center-stage discussion.

When Trump was mentioned in the sessions here, it was to praise a specific action he has taken, such as his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. He was never given the hero’s hailing that often preceded the senators and governors when they were introduced. All weekend, Koch staff counted their victories over the past six months, and they dwelled first and longest on actions taken not in the White House, but in the states.

Almost every session was upbeat. The Network’s initiatives, attendees heard over and over, have won victories for free speech on college campuses, over labor unions in state legislatures, and against poverty and government dependency in communities throughout the land. They exalted in Trump’s signing of GOP-passed measures to kill some Obama-era regulations.

Even the disappointments were catalogued philosophically. Discussing the Trump Justice Department’s decision to pursue maximum sentences for certain drug offenders, reversing an Obama policy the Kochs had supported, Seminar Network co-chair Mark Holden said, “We respectfully disagree with that failed, top-down, big-government approach.” Assessing the health care bill, Tim Phillips, the head of the policy advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, said, “In all candor, we’ve been disappointed that movement has not been more dramatic toward full repeal … but we are not walking away.”

The most urgent was reserved for the areas Koch officials see their best opportunities to work hand in hand with Trump — particularly on what several leaders here called a once-in-a-generation chance to cut tax rates and simplify the code.

Speakers and attendees stressed that Trump and pro-growth conservative groups have a narrow window for that effort, perhaps a year at most, and that the task appears daunting.

They also said the president and congressional leaders would enjoy their Network’s full-barreled support in their efforts, including television ads to drive up support for whatever bill emerges. (First, though, the groups are determined to kill a provision of the House GOP’s reform blueprint, called border adjustment, which Koch officials loathe.) Throughout the weekend reporters pushed lawmakers and Koch leaders to talk, somewhat reluctantly, about the health care bill; attendees gleefully brought up tax reform on their own.

The most notable things about Trump were left unsaid

The only pessimistic sessions served to preview the upcoming midterm elections, when, attendees were told, history suggests Democrats have a strong chance of winning big gains in the House and Senate. Losing either chamber, Koch officials warned, would effectively ice the conservative agenda in DC until at least 2021.

Left unspoken was the possible drag on Koch-backed candidates from Trump, whose approval ratings are well underwater at the moment. But it wasn’t the most notable omission where the president was concerned.

At the start of Sunday’s political strategy panel, titled “Lighting the way to a brighter future for all,” the enormous stage screens in a Broadmoor ballroom showed a video filled with people and politicians grouching about the state of the country.

There were TV news segments on polls showing a plurality of Americans saying the nation’s best days were behind it. There were clips of an angry Bill Maher. There were several shots of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a who opposes the Koch position on nearly every major issue, telling an interviewer she believes the country’s finest days stretched from 1935 to 1980. There was even a quick clip of Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, making a case for border adjustment in his tax bill.

The lengthy video identified obvious enemies.

Trump, conspicuously, was not among them.