WASHINGTON -- One of the top officials responsible for electing Republican governors this November lauded the partnership between his organization and a leading arm of the Koch brothers' political network during a mid-summer conference.
Phil Cox, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, was a guest speaker at a June 16 event hosted by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch in Dana Point, California. During his speech, audio of which was obtained by The Undercurrent and shared exclusively with The Huffington Post, Cox spoke frequently about the strong relationship that his group has enjoyed with Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-funded political advocacy group.
"We've been very blessed because of your support of this seminar," Cox said at the beginning of his remarks, praising a range of Koch groups. "We've really had no stronger partner over the last four years than Americans for Prosperity. So thank you for all that you do."
Close work between campaign entities and outside groups is hardly novel in the post-Citizens United era. Democratic candidates have also leaned heavily on deep-pocketed donors, networks of donors (such as the Democracy Alliance) and third-party organizations to fill in the gaps of their campaigns. What stands out about Cox's remarks is his unfiltered description of the relationship. According to Cox, Americans for Prosperity and the Republican Governors Association aren’t just like-minded ideological entities pulling in the same direction. They are institutional supplements, working together in the legally murky corners of campaign finance law.
"The RGA works with multiple groups to promote free market principles, limited government and lower taxes," said RGA spokesman Jon Thompson when asked about Cox's comments. "Americans for Prosperity has been a leader for these policies that help grow jobs and success in the states, and the RGA is proud of our strong partnership."
On his panel, titled "2014 Debate: Immediate Opportunities to Defend Freedom," Cox followed Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, and Marc Short, president of Freedom Partners, another Koch-backed group. His comments focused primarily on the state of play in gubernatorial contests, then five months before the elections. (Portions of the audio were redacted to protect the anonymity of the individual who provided it -- "a source who was present at the event," according to an official at The Undercurrent.)
The map was tilted in the Democratic Party’s favor, Cox said back in June. Six states with gubernatorial races and Republican governors looked competitive this fall -- Florida, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin –- compared to just three with Democratic governors -- Arkansas, Connecticut and Illinois.
The outlook appears largely the same today, save for Ohio where the Democratic candidate's campaign has imploded.
But for the help of the Koch network, Cox said, the landscape could well have been worse. He gave credit to Americans for Prosperity "and other groups" who were "heavily involved" in the 2012 recall election that failed to unseat Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R).
"In Wisconsin," Cox said, "it was a really tough battle in 2012. AFP was a tremendous partner."
In Florida's gubernatorial battle this year, Cox said, the presence of outside money would help Republicans keep pace in what he called "the most expensive race this cycle," Senate contests included. He said the Republican Governors Association would spend more than $20 million to assist Gov. Rick Scott -- "the largest single expenditure in the RGA's history." But that would be only part of the money going into the election. Cox predicted that "well over $100 million" would be spent in all, "maybe as much as $150 million."
At other points in his presentation, Cox spoke in more specific terms, giving conference attendees a small window into the Republican Governors Association’s 2014 playbook. Having already spent $18 million to help Walker in Wisconsin over the past four years, Cox said, "This is a race we're going to have to be engaged in right on until the end." In Arkansas, he noted that his group was tying Gov. Mike Ross (D) to the stimulus and the auto bailout in attack ads and pledged "literally millions of dollars in get-out-the-vote activities." And in Michigan, he said, the group "has, can and will continue to correctly invest in the state party," stating that its investment "can impact get-out-the-vote effort that can help [Republican Senate candidate] Terri Lynn Land."
Underscoring the complementary role that he saw Americans for Prosperity playing in the 2014 elections, Cox concluded with a thanks to "David specifically" -- presumably David Koch -– "for his very strong support of the RGA and AFP's great partnership over the last four years."
Americans for Prosperity declined to comment for this article. Listen to Cox's comments below:
For good-government watchdogs, the admission of a partnership between an ostensibly issue-oriented entity and a campaign apparatus sets off alarm bells. But several campaign finance lawyers told The Huffington Post that nothing in the Cox discussion likely crossed legal boundaries.
"A general discussion about a partnership, strong partnership, great partnerships, unique partnership, whatever, doesn't really mean anything by itself," said David Mason, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. Mason noted that because the Republican Governors Association reports its activities to the Internal Revenue Service and not the FEC, "it might mean that there is no federal issues at all."
"Nothing you described to me sounds unusual or illegal," he concluded.
But just because it's legal doesn't make it seemly. And other lawyers saw the Koch brothers' retreat as yet another example of the current, everything-goes culture of campaigns.
"We are in a free-for-all legal world where there is a full-blown attack on what is left with the existing law," said Stan Brand, a Washington lawyer with long experience in political cases. "We are back in the Wild West and the sheriff can't control anything because it's not clear what's against the law."
As Brand noted, cavalier treatment of federal campaign rules isn't a feature unique to the Republican Governors Association or the Republican Party at large. Democrats have built up alliances of their own. President Barack Obama has appeared at fundraisers for super PACs supporting Senate and House Democratic candidates. He's also attended a fundraiser at the home of top Democratic super PAC donor and hedge fund founder/environmentalist Tom Steyer, who himself has been a guest at the White House.
Steyer also happens to be a friend of the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin. Steyer's group, Next Generation Climate, has spent heavily on ads in key gubernatorial races this year: $1.2 million so far in Florida and $1.5 million in Pennsylvania, with designs on Maine as well.
"We are competing in an open and transparent way," said NextGen Climate spokesman Bobby Whithorne, "trying to level the playing field against the Koch brothers and their entrenched special interests. We know it's an uphill battle and see this as David against the big oil Goliaths. ... NextGen Climate is working in these races for the public interest, while the other side is spending its money on its own economic self-interest."
Whithorne's argument that NextGen Climate will be dramatically outspent by the Koch network is true on paper. The former group has plans to raise $100 million. At the June conference, Koch network officials confirmed that they plan to spend $290 million in 2014. But that comparison doesn't tell the whole story: Other PACs, advocacy groups, unions, campaigns and campaign committees are pouring money into the November elections, too.
One indisputable fact is that there is a close relationship between the Koch brothers and the Republican Governors Association. In 2010, David Koch wrote a $1 million check to the association, which can take unlimited contributions from individual donors. In 2012, he upped the ante to $2 million. Through June 2014, he has donated $3.75 million while Koch Industries itself has given $525,000.
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