After the influential Koch network announced this month that it would endorse a rival candidate to former President Donald Trump, donors aligned with Mike Pence privately reached out in hopes of securing its backing.
The push from donors to Americans for Prosperity — the advocacy arm founded by the billionaire industrialists Charles G. Koch and the late David H. Koch — was straightforward. According to two people familiar with the ad-hoc conversations, the donors stressed that the former vice president was best aligned with the libertarian worldview that the brothers have supported in the past. Pence has a relationship with the group that spans more than a decade. It was also not lost on anyone that many top Pence aides emerged from the Koch network and seemed poised to help run a presidential campaign when one is announced.
Despite those ties, however, the Koch network is, so far, content to keep its powder dry, looking to survey the field before deciding how to shape it.
Art Pope, the former chair of Americans for Prosperity and a Raleigh, N.C.-based Republican donor, said that the decision by the group to endorse a Trump rival “was not intended to benefit one particular candidate at this time.” Instead, he said, the goal was “to find the best candidate, and more importantly, to be the best president of the United States on the issues that Americans for Prosperity champions.”
Pope, who attended the weekend Koch confab earlier this month in Palm Springs, Calif., said he personally believed Pence was “the best one that meets those criteria.” But he said that the organization will go through an open process to choose a candidate.
A spokesman for the network declined to comment, referring POLITICO to the memo. But according to two Republican consultants close to the network, who were granted anonymity to discuss internal politics, whether Pence will be the Koch candidate remains an open question.
The efforts by Pence donors to secure the Koch network’s backing underscores both the degree to which the 2024 cycle’s shadow primary is raging and the hurdles the former VP faces as he prepares to jump into a potentially crowded field. Few prospective 2024 Republican candidates can boast closer ties to the Koch network than Pence, which could make an inability to secure its support a setback for him and other candidates who have maintained close ties.
“If the vice president were to decide to run, he would welcome the support of organizations like the Koch network that are ideologically aligned with him on issues such as taxes, freedom of speech, and personal liberties,” a Pence adviser said.
But Pence is no longer the one of the most visible paragons of the conservative movement. Instead, he finds himself among a crowded field of the philosophically like-minded. And as the Koch network weighs which non-Trump candidate to endorse and bestow its resources upon, it has a bevy of potential options.
Though Pence has support among some Koch factions, others inside the network favor candidates ranging from former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to Wichita, Kan.’s own Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state who hails from the same town where the Koch oil-and-gas conglomerate is headquartered, and who received their backing during his congressional campaigns. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is also said to enjoy a wellspring of good will among Koch-aligned donors.
“I don’t know if [the decision to endorse] totally helps [Pence],” a national Republican consultant familiar with the Koch network, granted anonymity to discuss their knowledge of political deliberations. “I don’t think it helps one person. I think it’s going to be very difficult for Pence to win. I think it helps everyone who is not Trump.” This person added: “Don’t forget there’s a guy named Mike Pompeo who is very close to the Kochs and is from Wichita. There’s not one lead dog right now.”
The efforts by Pence donors to secure the Koch network’s backing underscores the degree to which the 2024 cycle’s shadow primary is raging and the hurdles the former VP faces as he prepares to jump into a potentially crowded field.
For more than a decade, Pence has cultivated a deep relationship with the Kansas-based, free-market network—one that spans longer than almost any other potential Republican candidate. Among likely contenders, Pence is the only one who spoke at the Koch-backed Tea Party rally on the National Mall on Sept. 12, 2009, a scene he relays in his political memoir So Help Me God.
As Indiana governor, Pence pushed for the kind of tax cuts favored by the network. He went on to employ staffers connected to the Koch world, including his top adviser Marc Short, who left the Koch’s Freedom Partners group where he was president to work on the Marco Rubio presidential campaign. Short still maintains close ties to the network.
In his 2012 gubernatorial bid, Pence received $200,000 in contributions from billionaire David Koch and another $5,000 from Koch Industries. As vice president, Pence huddled with Koch donors in Manhattan in 2018 ahead of that year’s midterm cycle to help them plot strategy.
During the 2016 cycle, before Pence opted against a presidential bid that year in favor of defending his gubernatorial seat, the Koch network had all but anointed him as their favored candidate. Last year, Pence headlined an event for Americans for Prosperity during which he rolled back the price of gas to $2.38 at a Hobart, Ind. gas station.
Pence has been hopscotching the country on his book tour in recent weeks, including a stop earlier this week in Houston, Texas, in advance of a possible presidential campaign — one that if it happens is likely still “months” away, according to an adviser. He is also embroiled in a classified documents scandal and has been subpoenaed by a grand jury in connection with Special Counsel Jack Smith’s investigation of former President Donald Trump’s push to overturn the 2020 election.
But there is a sense within GOP circles that avenues exist for a Trump opponent to secure the party’s presidential nomination. And that’s partly because some of the main donor networks and advocacy arms, like the Kochs’, have expressed interest in moving on from the 45th president.
“They’re going to prioritize the candidate who values free markets, free speech, and free trade,” said Ken Spain, a partner at Narrative Strategies who led corporate communications at Koch Industries. “The Koch network has typically supported candidates that reflect their worldview. Trump was the antithesis of that.”
Spain pointed to Pence and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott as possible winners of the Koch primary. In recent years, Charles Koch has expressed interest in criminal justice and policing reform, a move that some Republicans believe could point them to Scott, who is making calls about a potential presidential campaign and is leading the charge in the GOP Senate on police reform measures. Scott has done several events with Koch-related endeavors, but a person close to him said he wasn’t aware of any recent backchannel efforts between Americans for Prosperity and the senator regarding a 2024 bid.
“Pence and Scott have cleared the bar with the network in the past,” Spain said. “They align from a free market and free speech standpoint. The question is: Where does the network stand today and could they get behind [Ron] DeSantis’ brand of conservatism?”
Winning the Koch network’s nod would be a boon for any candidate: A spokesperson said the network’s imprimatur would include massive grassroots infrastructure, highly targeted door-knocking, phone calls, mail and advertising generated by their vaunted data operation i360. The network spent almost $500 million backing candidates and free-market causes during 2020, and nearly $80 million in the 2022 midterms. That’s not to mention the brick-and-mortar operations in 36 states..
The emerging Koch primary and Pence’s uncertain standing despite years of loyalty and ideological alignment points to the network’s shifting priorities and a realpolitik desire to back a candidate who can win a Republican primary. As Americans for Prosperity Action CEO Emily Seidel wrote in a memo, the group is “prepared to support a candidate in the Republican presidential primary who can lead our country forward, and who can win.”
Natalie Allison contributed to this report