KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Facing an uphill battle with voters in the fall election, Democrats are stepping up their criticism of gubernatorial candidate Sam Brownback's ties to Wichita-based Koch Industries.
The company is one of the largest private companies in the world. Two of the richest people in America run it: Charles and David Koch.
Democrats point out that Koch-related interests have given Brownback, a Republican, hundreds of thousands of dollars over his 16-year career, more than any other candidate. Indeed, they claim the Kochs may have played a key role in Brownback's most important race — in 1996, when he won a close contest to take Bob Dole's open Senate seat.
And some Democrats believe that long relationship could lead to favors for Koch if Brownback wins in November.
"No other contributor (to Brownback) can claim what the Kochs can... and we want to have a discussion with voters about that," said state senator Tom Holland, Brownback's Democratic opponent.
Senate Minority leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, a 34-year veteran of the Legislature, puts it more bluntly: "If Sam becomes governor, I think essentially Koch Industries will have the key to the governor's office."
Brownback dismisses questions about Koch's support, arguing that it's no different than other campaign donors and that he won't give them any special treatment if he's elected governor.
"We have over 4,000 contributors," Brownback said when asked about Koch's involvement in his campaigns.
To be sure, Brownback and the Kochs don't see eye to eye on every ideological issue. As libertarians, the Kochs have been largely silent on abortion — an issue of deep concern to Brownback. And Brownback favors renewable energy incentives, which the Kochs oppose, his spokeswoman noted.
"He (Brownback) doesn't expect to agree with all of his supporters on every issue," said Sherriene Jones-Sontag. "In his mind there's no reason to single them (Koch) out."
Koch officials declined on-the-record interviews about the nature of the relationship and its possible implications for Kansas policy.
A Koch spokeswoman issued a one-sentence statement.
"Koch companies have supported Sen. Brownback because he has been a champion for fiscal responsibility and free markets, both of which are critical to the success and survival of our state and our country," the statement said.
Charles Koch, who lives in Wichita, and David Koch, a New York City resident, are worth a combined $32 billion, according to Forbes magazine. That fortune was built from a company involved in oil refining, storage and transportation, as well as such consumer products as paper towels, napkins and toilet paper.
They've given a good chunk of their fortune to a wide variety of pro-business causes. Among the beneficiaries: The Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, the Center for Applied Economics at the University of Kansas, several lobbying firms and hundreds of political candidates and campaigns, including Brownback's.
He's unquestionably one of their favorites: By 2007, when Brownback was running for president, Koch-related interests had given Brownback's Senate campaigns and his political action committee almost $200,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — tops among Brownback donors.
Charles Koch and his wife, Elizabeth, gave Brownback's presidential campaign $2,300 each — the maximum then allowed in the primary season.
In 1998, Democrats on a Senate committee found "circumstantial evidence" that the Kochs provided $1 million for groups affiliated with an obscure political operation called Triad Management Services Inc. Roughly $400,000 of that money, Democrats charged, ended up paying for last-minute third-party commercials in Brownback's victorious 1996 Senate campaign against Jill Docking.
The pro-Brownback ads "may have changed the results" of the race, the committee's Democrats claimed.
Complaints about Triad's role in the campaign eventually led to a $19,000 penalty for Brownback's campaign committee and a $9,000 penalty for his in-laws, both levied by the bipartisan Federal Election Commission. Triad's owner also was fined as part of a federal court case.
The Kochs, who were never penalized, have never confirmed any indirect payment to Triad, as the Democrats alleged. Charles Koch did not answer written questions from the committee.
Brownback later said he had "no knowledge of Triad," and his lawyer blamed the FEC's complaints on "baseless partisan opinions."
But the Kochs' involvement in Brownback's campaign for governor this year is not in doubt: Koch-related interests have given Brownback's committee $10,000, according to reports compiled by the National Institute for Money in State Politics.
The Kochs declined to comment for this story. Instead, spokeswoman Melissa Cohlmia referred The Star to the company's website for a general discussion of the Kochs' political philosophy and approach toward government.
"Unfortunately, some of those who disagree with a market-based point of view continue to try to demonize the Kochs' 40 years of unwavering, well-known, lawful and principled commitment to economic freedom and market-based policy solutions," the website statement said.
Jones-Sontag, Brownback's spokeswoman, released a statement defending the Koch contributions and others made to the campaign.
"Lots of Americans are concerned about the threat posed by the Obama agenda and many are exercising their First Amendment right to speak out," she said.
The Koch agenda
The Kochs' support for Brownback predates Obama's election as president.
And some Democrats and other observers contend the Koch-Brownback relationship is less about national politics than it is about creating a low-corporate-tax, low-regulation, pro-business environment in Kansas.
House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said he worries what Koch Industries' "narrowly defined agenda" might mean for a Brownback administration.
"This is definitely an entity that wants something from government and elected officials," Davis said. "What they want is to be essentially free of any form of taxation or regulation whatsoever. That's something that people ought to be very concerned about."
When pressed, though, Democrats couldn't provide examples of specific legal or regulatory changes that a Gov. Brownback would pursue on behalf of the Koch companies and no one else.
They also conceded that Democrats — including former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius — have relied on Koch Industries' expertise to help analyze state budget issues while in office. In fact, Koch gave $2,000 to Sebelius' 2007 inaugural fund.
And not all Democrats believe Koch is up to something nefarious.
"I think of them as good corporate citizens," said outgoing Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat. "Everybody in this country has an incredible opportunity to be involved in the political process. Some people are smart and know how to do it. Koch has figured out how. That's what America is all about."
Wide political support
Koch's financial support for Kansas politicians certainly isn't limited to Brownback.
Since 2008, the National Institute on Money in State Politics found that Koch-related interests have contributed more than $225,000 to various Kansas candidates, including 26 members of the state Senate and 67 members of the House — a majority of the 165 sitting state lawmakers.
Koch interests also have given thousands of dollars to the Kansas Republican Party and GOP campaign committees in the state.
That support won't necessarily buy the company more access to state government, some critics acknowledge, noting that with more than 2,000 employees in Kansas, Koch already gets that.