Web Video: How the Koch brothers turned into political power brokers

Jan. 29, 2015 AT 11:09 a.m. EST

Potential presidential candidates for 2016 have started to court donors -- and vice versa. Charles and David Koch, influential libertarian billionaires, plan to spend nearly a billion dollars in the next election cycle. Matea Gold of The Washington Post joins Gwen Ifill to discuss their sway over American politics.

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GWEN IFILL: Charles and David Koch may not be running for president, but they are certainly poised to decide who will. The billionaire brothers are raising their collective profile this year as political kingmakers, courting presidential hopefuls and making plans to spend nearly a billion dollars on the 2016 election, outstripping both major political parties.

The Kochs, who have used their fortune to create a network of conservative and libertarian think tanks, foundations and super PACs, have become the focus of Democratic criticism. But they are also major philanthropists, who give money to education, the arts, and, we should say, projects that are aired on public television.

Matea Gold of The Washington Post is just back from covering a weekend meeting hosted by Freedom Partners, the tax-exempt business lobby that acts as the hub of the Koch political operation. And she joins us now.

Matea, Democrats see the Koch brothers as boogeymen of politics, and Republicans see them, perhaps, as their savior. Which is it, or is it both, a little bit of both?

MATEA GOLD, The Washington Post: Well, I think if we have learned anything about the Kochs over the last several elections, is that they really are independent players in a lot of ways.

They are clearly devoting the most of their resources in the political arena to help Republicans, but they’re not working in lockstep with the Republican Party. And this announcement about the amount of money that their network is going to put in over the next two years, which I should note is not all going to political activity, that really upends the balance in.

And it takes away a lot of power from the RNC, you could argue.

GWEN IFILL: I’m actually surprised that they — we even know that number. Their reputation has been of a shadowy bunch of political financiers. Is this their attempt to be more open, transparent?

MATEA GOLD: We have seen a really interesting evolution in their approach to the spotlight over the last several elections.

I mean, as Democrats have really tried to vilify them and create this kind of caricature of puppeteers pulling the strings behind the Republican Party, we have seen actually both Charles and David Koch and their company, Koch Industries, engage more in the public eye and where there is actually an ad campaign now touting Koch.

GWEN IFILL: Which we can show. Let’s take a look at it.

NARRATOR: You may not always see our name on the products you use, but we help make better food, clothing, shelter, technologies, and other necessities. Here, we build on each other’s ideas to create more opportunities for people everywhere. Together, we are Koch.

GWEN IFILL: Nothing like babies in diapers and men on horseback with cowboy hats on to feel real.

MATEA GOLD: All-American.

And one point that needs to be made is a lot of people don’t realize what Koch Industries is, and their ad campaign is an attempt to fill that void. This is one of the largest privately held companies in the country. Not only do they have energy interests, which is usually the focus, but they’re in timber, they’re in pipelines. They’re involved in the production of components that go into iPhones. They are an incredibly diversified company.

GWEN IFILL: If you use Brawny paper towels, you are using a Koch product.

So, there is the business empire. There is the political empire. And there’s also the philanthropic empire.

MATEA GOLD: Sure.

And David Koch, in particular, has been known for his incredibly generous donations to medical institutions working on cancer research, also to the arts. He lives in New York City. And you can see his name on a lot of cultural institutions there in Manhattan.

Charles Koch is also giving a lot of money now on criminal justice issues. He says this is now a major concern of his, or it has been for a while. And now he is talking about it openly. But I think really what’s caught the attention of people is the amount of money they’re going to spend over the next two years and how that will reshape the political atmosphere.

GWEN IFILL: Well, explain that to me. That — it does look like a big chunk of money. As you point out, it’s not all for political activity, but it could certainly tip a lot of balances.

MATEA GOLD: Yes.

And I think that it’s too soon to say whether it will be primarily devoted into those sort of hard-hitting campaign ads that we have seen coming out of a lot of their outfits. But there’s no question that they are growing incredibly muscular and really taking on a lot of the functions that traditional political parties have.

They have an operation that does technology development. They are working on — they’re working on data and collecting data about voters. They have an incredibly vast network of volunteers and staff on the ground as part of a national field operation. These are things the parties used to really have a lock on.

GWEN IFILL: Is it fair to say that many of — that several of the people who won elections in 2014 owe their election in part to that kind of financing?

MATEA GOLD: Well, there were a half-a-dozen newly elected U.S. senators who were at the donor seminar this last weekend in Rancho Mirage.

And they had a huge of amount of support from Koch-backed groups. I think it’s very hard to say they owe their election completely to those organizations. But there’s no question that having such organizations with such deep resources that are really united in their message about promoting these candidates was a huge assistance.

GWEN IFILL: You were in California this weekend covering that. These — many of these guys — candidates had just come from Iowa, where they had done the presidential cattle call. Then they went straight, straight to California to appear at the Koch summit. Is there a significance to be read into that?

MATEA GOLD: Well, sure. I mean, it underscores the priorities right now of anyone contemplating running for 2016.

You need to really make sure you’re reaching those activists in Iowa, which is going to be the first key state. And you need to be reaching the donors. And the Koch network has some of the largest wealthy conservative donors, not all of them, but a large group of people that could really help determine the primaries.

GWEN IFILL: Can Democrats match this? Is there anyone who is like the Koch brothers on that side of the aisle?

MATEA GOLD: There are plenty of wealthy Democrats that have a lot of resources at their disposal.

It’s hard to imagine they could muster the same sort of dollar-for-dollar investment that this network of donors, which I should note is not going to be just the Kochs, but hundreds of other of donors, are planning on putting in. But I think that we’re going to — we’re not going to see a lack of resources on behalf of Hillary Clinton, for example, if she jumps in the race.

GWEN IFILL: Oh, my. What a free-spending spigot this is going to be this year again.

Matea Gold of The Washington Post, thank you.

MATEA GOLD: My pleasure.

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