President Trump isn’t afraid to make enemies. Since he took down the Bush and Clinton dynasties—and many other opponents—in his upstart bid for the presidency in 2016, he seems to think there’s no foe able to derail his crusade.
But other Republicans aren’t as slippery, and Trump is making enemies on their behalf that could doom his own party dearly in the November midterm elections. Trump recently took aim at the huge political operation built by Charles and David Koch, the libertarian billionaires who flood millions of dollars into Republican election efforts. The Kochs are strong free-trade supporters, and Trump chided them for opposing his tariffs and other protectionist measures. “Total joke,” Trump tweeted on July 31. “I don’t need their money or bad ideas. Their network is overrated.”
Trump may not need Koch money, but a lot of other Republicans do. The Kochs didn’t support Trump in the 2016 election, but they didn’t oppose him either. And their network of donor organizations, including Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners, spent nearly $250 million politicking for other candidates who support their agenda, almost all of them Republicans. That spending undoubtedly helped push some Republican Congressional candidates over the top in tight races, solidifying GOP control of Congress and allowing the Trump tax cuts and other legislation to get through.
Dependent on the Koch network
Republicans need more help in 2018 than they did in 2016—and the Kochs are signaling they’re not likely to support Trump bandwagoners who back trade protectionism, tough restrictions on legal immigration and increased deficit spending. The group recently indicated it wouldn’t back Republican Senate candidates in North Dakota, Indiana and Nevada, all of which political analyst Larry Sabato rates as toss-ups that could potentially swing control of the Senate to Democrats.
If Trump further antagonizes the Koch network, their lack of support could be decisive in November. “The Republican party has grown to be dependent on the Koch donor network for hundreds of millions of dollars in election support,” says Robert Maguire of the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-finance watchdog. “It’s hard to downplay the impact their pullback would have on Republicans’ ability to make the case for their candidates in one of the most important midterms in a generation.”
Republicans hold the House by 23 seats, and there’s a good chance they could lose that many, or more, in the midterms, allowing Democrats to take control of at least one chamber. The Senate is a tougher prize for the Dems, but controlling the House would be enough to block most Republican legislation, mount aggressive investigations into Trump controversies, and possibly vote to impeach Trump.
The Kochs aren’t kingmakers, as Trump’s victory in 2016 proves. Their favorites for president included Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Trump trounced them all. But the Koch network can target large sums of money in tight House or Senate races where a flurry of negative ads against an opponent might provide a crucial edge in the waning days of the campaign. Since most of the Koch spending takes place through so-called super PACs, there’s no limit on how much they can spend. And some of that spending is by groups that don’t have to report who the donors are.
Does Trump have a plan to provide an alternate source of funding for Republicans shunned by the Koch network? Not clear. There are super PACs that support Trump’s agenda, such as America First, Great America and 45Committee. But they seem unlikely to raise as much money as the Kochs, who have a base group of 700 wealthy activists committed to donating a minimum of $100,000 each. The pro-Trump groups may not be as willing to share the bounty with other Republicans, and they may not be as nimble at the Congressional level as the Koch operations.
Trump may also think his Twitter endorsement for favored candidates is the equivalent of a big, costly ad blitz – but that hasn’t proven out in general elections, so far. Trump endorsed Republican candidates who ended up losing in an Alabama Senate race last December and a Pennsylvania House race in March. He has endorsed other Republicans who won, but by smaller margins than in prior elections, suggesting the Trump stamp of approval may not stop a surge of Democratic voters.
Trump seems to be giving Democrats another advantage by intensifying his trade protectionism, even as stories mount of Americans hurt by those policies. The latest tightening of the screw is a plan to raise the possible tariff on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports from 10% to 25%. Trump has already imposed tariffs on $91 billion of imports, which has triggered retaliatory tariffs of similar magnitude on U.S. exports. About 20% of all U.S. agricultural exports are now subject to higher tariffs, which is hurting farm income along with Trump’s popularity in farm states.
Trump seems to be ratcheting up the pressure on China in the hope they’ll blink and give him a deal he can call a victory before the November midterms. But the Chinese could have another plan: They might stall until November, leaving Trump’s tariffs in place along with various retaliations aimed at Americans. That way, they’d be giving American voters the chance to punish Trump for his tariffs, which would weaken Trump’s hand in negotiations, while strengthening China’s. Trump’s enemies have many targets, and if they hurt Trump’s enablers they will hurt Trump himself.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman