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Why Charles Koch says "it's possible" he could support Hillary Clinton

Patrick T. Fallon for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Charles Koch must be a very disappointed man. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that he and his allies have spent to shift the Republican Party in a more libertarian direction, Donald J. Trump is moving closer and closer to being the GOP's new standard-bearer.

Trump's protectionist populism stands at odds with almost everything the Kochs have fought for — so at odds that Koch has now said publicly that "it's possible" he could support Hillary Clinton for president.

Imagine predicting a year ago that Charles Koch would be publicly weighing support for Hillary Clinton. It would have seemed inconceivable. But a lot has changed in a year. Something is very different about the politics of 2016.

Obviously, there is much Koch and Clinton disagree on, most notably what to do about the threat of climate change and the size of government more generally. But a Hillary Clinton administration would probably push strongly for expanded immigration, expanded global trade, and a reduction of mass incarceration — all issues the Koch brothers have actively supported. And that's a lot more consonance than the Kochs would have with a Trump administration.

More broadly, Koch's dilemma stands in for a dilemma that many socially liberal, globally minded business leaders are probably having right now. What if they have more in common with the Democratic candidate than the Republican? And if they do, does that mean that American politics is entering into a new alignment, and that it's therefore time to make some new political investments?

How the Kochs lost out in the GOP primary

Last April, things were looking up for Charles Koch and company. He and his team had identified five Republican candidates they liked, and pledged to raise almost $900 million to spend on the 2016 election.

The conventional wisdom was that the Koch brothers most of all favored Scott Walker, who they had worked with closely for years. But then Walker dropped out after failing to gain traction. By November, Charles Koch appeared increasingly unhappy with the Trump-led GOP field, saying he would not endorse anybody.

In early January, Charles Koch told the Financial Times that "it is hard for me to get a high level of enthusiasm because the things I'm passionate about and I think this country urgently needs aren't being addressed." Though he had made his priorities clear to the candidates, they weren't listening: "It doesn't seem to faze them much. You'd think we could have more influence."

The underlying problem for Koch was that his very free-market libertarian agenda had never been very popular with the Republican voters. Even in the early days of the Tea Party, nobody wanted to cut government spending. As Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson noted in their excellent book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, "not a single grassroots Tea Party supporter we encountered argued for privatization of Social Security or Medicare along the lines being pushed by ultra-free-market politicians like Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) and advocacy groups like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity."

Instead, the Tea Partiers wanted to protect the benefits that they felt they deserved. They were far more worried about illegal immigrants and other perceived freeloaders getting benefits they didn't deserve, while Tea Partiers felt they paid the price with high taxes.

While the Koch groups pushed for amnesty and expanded immigration, Trump gained momentum by promising to build a wall on the US–Mexico border. Even their beloved Scott Walker broke with the Kochs on immigration. While the Kochs advocated the benefits of free trade, Trump channeled anger at US manufacturing jobs disappearing overseas because of bum trade deals.

The Kochs also seem especially disturbed by the anti-Muslim rhetoric that both Trump and Cruz have been spewing. Charles Koch's response to Trump's proposed Muslim registry was strong: "Well, then you destroy a free society … Who is it that said, 'If you want to defend your liberty, the first thing you've got to do is defend the liberty of people you like the least?'"

In short, almost all of the Kochs' policy ideas have been rejected by Republican primary voters, and all of the candidates they liked either turned on them, dropped out of the race, or both. It has been a bad year for them. No wonder they are flirting with the other team.

But could Charles Koch really support Democrats?

A more cynical take on Charles Koch potentially supporting Clinton is that he's playing the long game, and understands that a Democrat in the White House would make it more likely for Republicans to continue to control state legislatures and governors' mansions. After all, the Koch network of organizations has had considerable success at the state level over the last few years by working closely with Republican allies there, as Theda Skocpol and Alex Hertel-Fernandez have documented.

Or perhaps in his increasingly old age (he'll turn 81 this November), Charles Koch has come to value the social part of libertarianism more highly than the economic part, and is genuinely disturbed by the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Republican Party. Perhaps he understands that the public is not with him right now on truly shrinking the size of government, and therefore that he has more work to do in funding groups to make the case to a younger generation. By contrast, the social issues, like reducing mass incarceration and legalizing marijuana, are more ripe for immediate change.

Most likely, the simplest answer is probably the right one. Koch, like many libertarian-minded, global business leaders must be struggling with this election. Like Koch, they are probably horrified by the nasty tone this race has taken. They are generally pro-trade, pro-immigration. They also must feel personally disappointed that the GOP voters have solidly rejected their libertarian agenda, despite all the money they spent.

Obviously, Democrats are not their natural allies, either. After all, as Koch caveated his endorsement of Clinton, "We would have to believe her actions would be quite different than her rhetoric. Let me put it that way."

Still, given the choice between the socially liberal, mostly pro-business Hillary Clinton (despite some of her rhetoric in the primary) and the angry insular populism of Donald Trump, Koch and his allies may be forced to admit they have more in common with Clinton.

If this is indeed the case, it is another indicia of what looks more and more like a coming realignment, in which cosmopolitan business leaders gradually shift to the Democratic Party, leaving Trumpism more and more the dominant position in the Republican Party.

A Clinton presidency would no doubt accelerate this, both because Clinton's political instincts will likely lead her to pick the fights that split the Republican Party, and because she will actively fundraise from these business leaders.

For now, the Kochs and their allies will likely continue to fund Republican House and Senate candidates, as well as work at the state and local level, where they have had the most success. But longer term, the terrain is shifting. And as it does, strange and new alliances will continue to emerge.

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