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Behind The Koch Comeback: Trump And Movement Conservatives Unite As 2018 Nears

Donald Trump’s fledgling presidency is drawing unprecedented levels of support from grassroots conservatives who were once skeptical that the billionaire real estate mogul could serve as an effective ideological standard-bearer.

Nowhere is that more apparent, perhaps, than in the quiet rapprochement that is occurring between the Trump and the funding and advocacy network of the Koch Brothers, one of the leading right-leaning philanthropies that refused to support Trump’s candidacy in 2016.

Since Trump’s inauguration, organizations funded by the Kochs, including the Americans for Prosperity (led by Tim Phillips) and Freedom Partners, have gained enormous access to the administration highest councils and have helped influence the contours of policy debate on issues ranging from the repeal of Obamacare and overhaul of the Veterans Administration to elimination of the border tax and sweeping regulatory reform.

Largely unreported in the mainstream press, long-time members of the Koch foundation network have quietly assumed top positions in the new administration, among them Marc Short, who is Trump’s key point man in the Congress. Short helped launch and led the Koch-funded political action group that evolved into Freedom Partners. Previously, he served as the Republican House Conference director under then-Indiana senator Mike Pence.

Part of the reunification of Trump and the Kochs is no doubt due to Pence, who, unlike Trump, has enjoyed close relations with the family foundation for years. The Kochs had hoped that Pence would run for president and like many conservatives, backed Senator Ted Cruz to the hilt when he didn’t — and they were aghast when Trump managed to wrest the nomination away from their preferred candidate.

As vice president, Pence has worked with Short to coordinate meetings with operatives of Koch advocacy groups, as recently as last week. That alliance with the Koch network was largely responsible for the successful House vote to repeal Obamacare two months ago, insiders say.

Other former members of Koch advocacy groups have joined the administration as top aides to Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin and Veterans Affairs chief David Chulkin, among others.

The Kochs have expressed considerable surprise at the warm welcome they have received from Trump after his victory given the mutual hostility that developed between them during the campaign.

Despite the withdrawal of the Kochs, Trump was able to secure support from other leading conservative philanthropies, including the Mercer Family Foundation and the Pittsburgh-based Sarah Scaife Foundation. Mercer helped promote the involvement of Steve Bannon and Kelly Anne Conway in Trump’s campaign and Scaife-funded organizations met with at least half of Trump’s transition team after he won the election to offer policy and staff support for his administration.

Not since the heady days of Ronald Reagan and the “New Right” have conservative foundations had this much entree to a victorious presidential candidate. And yet their influence is likely to be even greater under Trump because so many veterans of past Republican administrations—including Reagan’s – have refused to get involved with Trump. Conservatives, though still skeptical of Trump’s conservatism, have offered to fill the void — indeed to a degree not seen even during the Reagan years.

Trump and the Kochs do not see eye to eye on all issues. In addition to past highly publicized disagreements with Trump over the “Muslim travel ban,” the Kochs are known to espouse a softer line on immigration and are staunch supporters of criminal justice reform. And while backing repeal of Obamacare, they are not completely sold on Trumpcare as a solution.

In these and other areas, disagreement and some measure of antipathy may well remain.

But it also likely to be overshadowed by the shared desire of Trump and conservatives to prevent the Democrats from regaining control of the House and Senate. The Kochs did not actually sit out the 2016 campaign; they simply focused their efforts on expanding Republican control of Congress. That effort – and a push toward strategic and tactical unity with the White House — is likely to accelerate as the 2018 midterms approach. And it could also prove vital to the success of tax reform, another pet Koch cause.

Liberal analysts like David Callahan, who publishes Inside Philanthropy, an ongoing analysis of charitable giving trends, insists that the Kochs have developed a bad reputation in American politics that limits their effectiveness as a grassroots constituency. But that view is more of a reflection of the left’s own ideological echo chamber, which like the mainstream media, has sought to stigmatize the Kochs as far-right “crazies,” ignoring their ability to mobilize key voter groups.

In fact, the Kochs’ return to national politics is one of the clearest signs yet of just how unified movement conservatives have become under Trump – and just how influential the Kochs are likely to remain.

At an overflow $100,000-a-plate dinner at a Colorado luxury resort last month, Charles Koch touted the extraordinary progress his organization has made since the 2016 election and exhorted the 400 attendees to rise to the moment.

“When I look at where we are — at the size and effectiveness of this network — I’m blown away,” he said. “I’m more optimistic now than ever.”

Many attendees at the event had nothing but praise for Trump.

“He’s walks the walk,” said Al Hartman, CEO of a property management firm in Houston. “He’s doing exactly what everyone wants done.”