Three top Republican Senate candidates heaped praise on the political network built by the conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch during a secretive conference held by the brothers this past summer, according to audio of the event. Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst and Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton directly credited donors present at the June 16 retreat in Dana Point, California, for propelling them forward. Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner told attendees that his race would likely be decided by the presence of "third party" money -- an obvious pitch for generosity from the well-heeled crowd. The presence of Gardner and Cotton was previously reported by The Nation magazine, though it is unclear if Cotton ever confirmed his appearance. Ernst's attendance had not previously been reported.
The Republican line on Charles and David Koch, better known as the Koch brothers, has always been a little tricky. As we discussed in June, GOP politicians certainly welcome the massive amounts of campaign cash the Kochs are willing to spend, but as the Kochs have become better known, Republicans have also struggled to defend the idea that voters should support candidates backed by controversial billionaires.
Earlier in the summer, Dan Sullivan, Alaska's Republican Senate hopeful, was asked whether he would benefit from the Kochs' support. Sullivan "paused for 25 seconds" before dodging the question.
But away from the cameras and notepads, Republicans tend to be a little more forthcoming about their wealthy benefactors. Sam Stein reported overnight:
Iowa's Ernst, in particular, said it was the Kochs and their allies that "really started my trajectory" towards the U.S. Senate, adding, "And this is the thing that we are going to take back -- that it started right here with all of your folks, this wonderful network."
To be sure, this doesn't come as a huge surprise, and nothing improper is being alleged. The Kochs are obviously allowed to hold functions like these, and candidates are welcome to show up and credit their donors for the strength of their campaigns.
That said, the revelations still matter. Reports like these, for example, help justify the Democratic preoccupation with the Koch brothers -- if competitive, high-profile candidates are crediting the Kochs' network for putting them in a position to win, it's hardly unreasonable to think the Kochs' policy wish list is worthy of close scrutiny.
Indeed, it seems the obvious question for GOP candidates like Gardner, Cotton, and Ernst is, "If you're in a position to win because of the Kochs and their friends, how do you intend return the favor if elected?"