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Who are the Koch brothers? (2017)
01:45 - Source: CNN
Colorado Springs, Colo. CNN  — 

The influential conservative Koch network opened up their summer meeting with an emphasis on bipartisanship while also delivering sharp critiques of President Donald Trump and his administration.

“The divisiveness of this White House is causing long-term damage,” said network co-chair Brian Hooks, who also chided elected officials who are “following” his lead.

The Koch network’s influence, even among Republicans, has come into question in the conventional-wisdom-shredding era of Trump. The network has during the past year and a half fruitlessly pushed for comprehensive health care and immigration reform; and like other leading conservative groups, the network has been powerless to persuade the President to rethink his strategy on trade generally and tariffs specifically.

The weekend conference comes with fewer than four months until the midterm elections, as the network, led by billionaire Charles Koch, gears up to spend millions to protect Republican majorities in Washington. Yet the networks’ leaders did not sound like they were on war footing on Saturday, instead highlighting bipartisan cooperation.

“It is radical, particularly given the divisive climate that we’re in right now and how polarized and factionalized the country is in many ways,” said James Davis, a spokesperson for the network. “But we want to focus on aggressively finding areas of common interest where we can make progress on some issues, even if we disagree on other issues.”

Although the Koch network has not adjusted its spending projections for the midterms, its thematic shift suggests the GOP-aligned group could be contemplating a new power dynamic in Washington and its place in it. Indeed, in spite of significant investments by the Koch network and like-minded groups, Democrats have maintained an advantage in generic polling and appear as well positioned to compete for majorities in Congress now as they did earlier this year.

The Koch network has dabbled in working with and supporting Democrats when their interests have aligned, and the network alarmed some Republicans earlier this year when it funded a digital ad campaign applauding North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s support for rolling back bank regulations. Heitkamp is one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents this year, and her race could help decide partisan control of the Senate.

Briefing reporters on Saturday, network leaders also touted their past work on criminal justice reform with former President Barack Obama’s administration. “I think we’ve shown we can work with both parties,” said Davis, adding that the network “(needs) to earn some trust” among Democrats.

The group remains unambiguously pro-Republican by reputation. Only Republican elected officials plan to attend the Koch network’s meeting over the course of the weekend, as is standard — including a few, like Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a candidate for Senate in Tennessee, who will count on the deep pockets of Koch network donors in competitive races this fall. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who is also running in a marquee Senate race, will also be on hand, as will the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn, among others.

But the administration’s tariffs have stung uniquely for this group, which traces its roots to 2003, when Charles Koch and a group of like-minded business leaders grew alarmed at the rapid growth of government programs and the implementation of steel tariffs under President George W. Bush.

“So, we find that there are some similarities to where we are today,” said Davis.

In a video message that will be shown to the network’s donors during this weekend’s meeting, set on the lush grounds of the Broadmoor hotel here in Colorado Springs, Charles Koch warns that “protectionism is perverting the key institutions of our society.”

The Koch network has pledged a “multi-year, multi-million dollar” commitment to fighting tariffs and other policies they believe are protectionist. “We see this as a long-term endeavor,” said Davis.

Even beyond some glaring policy disagreements, the Koch network has not exactly enjoyed a cozy relationship with Trump, having voiced stark concerns about him during the presidential election and recoiled at his brand of Republicanism. Once Trump won, however, the network resolved to work with him where they could, and following his first year in office, their public view turned rosier. In January, Tim Phillips, the president of the network’s political arm, Americans for Prosperity, touted the network’s “partnership” with Trump and cheered the administration’s work to roll back regulations and nominate conservative judges.

As the political ground shifts, the network is also grappling with a fundamental transformation of its own. The shorthand for the network was once the “Koch brothers,” a reference to Charles and David Koch, its patrons and figureheads. But David Koch, 78, formally resigned from his role with the network earlier this year, citing declining health.

The network’s leaders have emphasized that the group originated with Charles Koch, 82, while David Koch “came along later,” Davis said, and focused his energies more on Americans for Prosperity, the network’s political arm. Charles Koch has also for years established himself as the more public face and voice of the network.

“There’s only one Charles Koch,” said Davis, “but fortunately he’s going really strong.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect to correctly attribute the following quote to Koch network spokesman James Davis: "I think we've shown we can work with both parties," said Davis, adding that the network "(needs) to earn some trust" among Democrats.