KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Charles and David Koch, the conservative billionaire brothers, are finding themselves in an interesting spot in 2018. Eight years ago, they supported the Tea Party movement, which helped Republicans take control of the House in the midterm elections during President Obama's first term. Now if historical trends hold true, the Democrats could make big gains in President Trump's first midterm, which puts the Kochs on the defensive. The Koch donor network is mapping out a strategy at a meeting near Palm Springs, and NPR's Tim Mak has been there. And he's with us now. Hey, Tim.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey, there.
MCEVERS: So what is the Kochs' strategy for the upcoming midterm elections?
MAK: So it all revolves around their donor network. To be part of their inner circle, you've got to donate at least $100,000 a year. And there are 700 high-dollar donors in their network. Hundreds of them, they came to this swanky hotel here in California to debate their next moves and ultimately how to protect the Republican majority. So they're planning to spend almost $400 million total on politics and policy over the course of the entire 2018 midterms. That's things like digital and TV advertisements, policy work, advocacy and public town halls on issues they care about, like immigration, criminal justice reform and reducing regulations in America.
MCEVERS: How does the money that they're planning to spend in these midterms this year compare to what they've spent in the past?
MAK: Look, it's a huge investment. They're spending 60 percent more on midterms than they did on the 2016 presidential elections. So eight years ago, they became really famous for funding a lot of these efforts that led to the Tea Party movement. But back then in 2010, they only spent $125 million. So that's the context for you. Back in 2010, they benefited from a wave election. And now that a Republican is in office, that wave is coming back and they find themselves on the opposite side of that trend.
MCEVERS: Interesting. But talk about their strategy in terms of messaging. Like, how are they going to fight this potential Democratic wave in November? What are they going to say?
MAK: So they're really hanging their hat on the tax cuts that Congress passed. So they know they're facing a really challenging midterm environment, but they want to press home that there are some benefits from the legislation that Congress put forward to the president and the president signed last year. The Koch network is going to spend $20 million selling the GOP tax cuts to voters. And that's on top of the 20 million they already spent advocating for the cuts to be passed in the first place.
The real wildcard here in the midterm, both Dems and Republicans feel this way, is how will voters react to the economy? Is it still going be strong in November? And if it is, does that mean that voters will stick with the Republicans long enough to kind of stem some of this democratic momentum, prevent Democrats from winning back the House? Here's Koch network spokesman James Davis.
JAMES DAVIS: There's a lot of demagoguery that is happening on both sides, right? And so most of Americans are now looking at the economic indicators around things like tax reform and they're seeing, you know, a lot more confidence in the economy in general.
MCEVERS: How are the donors there really feeling about this coming campaign? What are they telling you?
MAK: In conversations, they'll admit, hey, the energy really is on the left right now. And they say it is scary looking at some of the historical trends and how that usually does not benefit the incumbent president's party. A lot of them also admit that President Trump isn't very helpful and that he gives the left a lot of reasons to get excited and kind of mobilize against the Republican Party. So they're hoping that as the economy improves, they'll get credit for it. But it's a harder sell to sell legislation than it is to oppose things like they did in 2010 when they opposed Obamacare. It's just the frank reality of politics.
It's easier to criticize and oppose than it is to lobby the public on details of complicated tax legislation. So it's a real uphill battle for them.
MCEVERS: NPR's Tim Mak, thank you.
MAK: Thanks a lot.
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