DANA POINT, Calif. (AP) — One by one, the wealthy conservative donors stood up Monday and pledged millions of dollars to the favorite causes of billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.
For more than two hours over lunch, hundreds of donors gathered at a luxury resort overlooking the Pacific Ocean told each other how much they will give to the various groups backed by the Koch brothers' Freedom Partners — a network of education, policy and political entities that aim to promote a smaller, less intrusive government.
That network in January set an eye-popping goal of raising $889 million over two years, with the two entities most directly involved in the 2016 elections, Americans for Prosperity and a super PAC, planning to spend $325 million through Election Day.
After Monday's lunch, the Koch groups are on track to meet that goal, said James Davis, a spokesman for Freedom Partners.
The three-day Koch meeting that wrapped up Monday with the pledge lunch was the biggest yet of the brothers' twice-annual gatherings, drawing donors — one-third first-time attendees — who must promise to give at least $100,000 a year to Koch-approved groups to score an invitation.
"It's been about making policy changes for the positive, for a free society, of which one part is ultimately providing resources and information to the elected leaders who implement those decisions," said Art Pope, a donor who was at the Kochs' first conference in 2003 and helped start Americans for Prosperity.
"You can have all the academic debate you want to, but eventually it takes people electing leaders who want to change the laws and change policy," said Pope, the CEO of a retail wholesaler and a former North Carolina state representative.
The weekend's agenda featured a spread of political leaders that included five Republican presidential candidates, five senators and five governors. Donors also heard several times from Charles Koch, the 79-year-old chairman and chief executive officer of the privately held Koch Industries.
"We talk here about dollars and raising money, and they are absolutely critical to getting this done, but they alone will not do the job," Koch said.
"It took the full commitment of our Founding Fathers or Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King and the thousands of other leaders of successful movements," Koch said. "To defy the tremendous odds stacked against them, they all, not just the Founding Fathers, had to commit their lives, their fortune and their sacred honor. That's the challenge before us, and the question is, will we rise to it?"
Donors did rise, literally, at the Monday pledge lunch, specifying how much they will give to each of the Koch-approved groups. The best-known is Americans for Prosperity, which advertises and sends activists to knock on doors as it opposes policies such as President Barack Obama's health-care law.
Through a company called i360, Koch donors have invested for six years in data-mining efforts that Republican candidates can use to connect with voters. The Koch network also has put money into efforts to reduce the nation's prison population, and the Koch brothers have personally given more than $25 million to the United Negro College Fund — an organization Charles Koch promoted to donors over the weekend.
Though the work of the Koch network is a mix of politics and other kinds of outreach and education, there's a clear focus on elections. Tax documents show that Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, the membership organization that sponsors the donor conferences, took in more than four times as much in the year leading up to the 2012 election as it did in the year after.
Democrats have used the $889 million budget figure in their own fundraising pitches, too, decrying the influence of money in politics. One Democratic super PAC, American Bridge 21st Century, has a whole unit of employees dedicated to scrutinizing the Kochs.
The Kochs and their fellow donors have started to push back on what they say are misleading information and personal attacks about their efforts. For the first time, some reporters were invited to cover portions of the donor conference, on the condition that they not identify donors in attendance without their permission.
About 20 donors did talk to reporters Sunday night, and they were eager to portray the network as policy-oriented rather than a simple arm of the Republican Party, as they say it has been unfairly portrayed.
"This isn't nearly as political as people have said. It's all about pursuing personal freedom and the principles of the Constitution," said Bob Fettig, the chief executive of a metals fabrication company in Wisconsin who has attended the conferences for about six years. "Charles Koch embodies all of that."
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