President Donald Trump turned his Twitter account against Wichita’s most prominent business family on Tuesday, calling the Koch brothers a “total joke in real Republican circles.”
The insults pitted a Republican president who easily won Kansas in 2016 against the Kochs, major local employers who are known nationally for giving to Republican candidates.
In Wichita, politicians voiced support for the Kochs after Trump’s tweets.
U.S. Rep. Ron Estes, a Republican representing south-central Kansas, said he appreciates the work of Koch Industries and its leadership “in promoting free and fair trade, limited government and personal liberties.”
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Charles Koch, who lives in Wichita, warned earlier this week that Trump’s trade tariffs could lead to a recession. The administration has placed tariffs on billions of dollars of good and retaliatory measures by China have made farmers in Kansas and elsewhere uneasy.
Trump has never enjoyed the full support of the Koch brothers, who have opposed his spending and trade policies. Charles, along with brother David, who lives in New York, did not support Trump in the 2016 election.
But Trump’s early morning tweets marked a significant escalation in his conflict with the brothers, who maintain a sprawling political network that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting free market policies..
“The globalist Koch Brothers, who have become a total joke in real Republican circles, are against Strong Borders and Powerful Trade. I never sought their support because I don’t need their money or bad ideas,” Trump said.
He said the Koch brothers support his tax cuts and efforts to reduce regulation and judicial nominations. But their network is “highly overrated, I have beat them at every turn.”
“They want to protect their companies outside the U.S. from being taxed, I’m for America First & the American Worker - a puppet for no one. Two nice guys with bad ideas,” Trump said.
A muted response
The Koch brothers didn’t swing back at Trump’s punches. The Koch Network, an umbrella group for the family’s political operations, issued this statement in response:
“We support policies that help all people improve their lives. We look forward to working with anyone to do so,” Koch Network spokesman James Davis said.
Jeff Glendening, director of the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which was created by the Koch brothers, said “our principles have not and will not change.”
The Koch brothers are known nationally for their spending on Republican candidates. Locally, their businesses are a significant economic driver in Wichita. Koch Industries employed more than 3,200 locally in 2017, according to the Greater Wichita Partnership, placing it among the 10 largest area employers.
They have also given millions to local charities and projects, from overhauling Wichita State University’s arena, now called Charles Koch Arena, to plans to fund a new private school on campus. Various foundations and trusts also give money to the arts and schools across the country.
“Virtually anything that is charitable or important in my community, one way or another the Koch family has had their finger in it,” said Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat.
He added that it is sometimes difficult for a Wichita Democrat to judge the Koch family the same way a Democrat might in another community. He noted that the Koch brothers sometimes support causes embraced by Democrats, such as criminal justice reform.
“On the other hand, Democrats in Wichita obviously have fear in the back of their mind that some campaign the Kochs just decide to bury you,” Carmichael said.
Estes backs Koch Industries
Wichita and Kansas as a whole tend to be conservative and Trump supporting. In the 2016 election, Trump won the state with 56.2 percent of the vote. In Sedgwick County, where Wichita is located, Trump garnered 54.4 percent.
National political figures in Kansas, such as Estes, will have to figure out how to navigate the Trump-Koch feud, said Russell Arben Fox, a political scientist at Friends University in Wichita.
“On the national level, it’s going to create some real divisive situations,” Fox said.
Koch Industries PAC has given $15,000 to Estes’ campaign over the past two years. In that time, Estes has largely supported the president, though he has straddled the line on tariffs. He has said he supports Trump’s desire to negotiate with trade partners but wants a “targeted approach” and has warned that unrest in the commodities markets hurts farmers.
Asked to respond to Trump’s tweets, Estes released a statement that doesn’t mention the president.
“Koch Industries employs thousands of people across America, especially right here in our own community,” Estes said. “I appreciate the work of Koch Industries and its leadership in promoting free and fair trade, limited government and personal liberties, all of which I support.
“I will continue fighting for these conservative values shared by a majority of Kansans, which stand in sharp contrast to the failed socialist policies of big government being espoused by the likes of Bernie Sanders.”
Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, campaigned for Democrat James Thompson in July. Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist.
Thompson, who lost to Estes in a 2017 special election and is again seeking the Democratic nomination, jumped on Trump’s tweet. He said in his own tweet that Estes will be running in circles trying to figure out whether to support Koch or Trump.
“Anyone have some popcorn? This should be fun to watch!” Thompson said.
Colyer doesn’t take sides
Fox said he doesn’t know how much local and state Republicans will have to reposition themselves to hold onto Koch support amid a Koch-Trump fight.
State lawmakers, for instance, don’t have to engage as much in debates over policies – like tariffs – that are relevant to Trump’s feud with the Kochs, Fox said. It is easier for them to side with Trump on some issues and Koch on others.
“As a Wichitan, I think it’s unfortunate whenever anybody picks on one of our largest employers,” said Rep. John Whitmer, a Wichita Republican. “Regardless of their politics, that company is a phenomenal company and they contribute a heck of a lot to our economy and I hate to see anybody denigrate them, regardless of their politics.”
After voting in Overland Park on Tuesday morning, Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer avoided taking sides in the Koch-Trump conflict.
“I support the president, and it’s about — you know — I’m focusing on my race right here,” Colyer said.
Contributing: Edward McKinley of The Kansas City Star and The Associated Press