Three top Republican Senate candidates heaped praise on the political network built by the conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch during a secretive conference held by the brothers this past summer, according to audio of the event.
Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst and Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton directly credited donors present at the June 16 retreat in Dana Point, California, for propelling them forward. Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner told attendees that his race would likely be decided by the presence of “third party” money — an obvious pitch for generosity from the well-heeled crowd.
The presence of Gardner and Cotton was previously reported by The Nationmagazine, though it is unclear if Cotton ever confirmed his appearance. Ernst’s attendance had not previously been reported.
For all three, the association with the Koch brothers’ network is likely to provide kindling for their opponents, who have already argued that the Republicans are steered by deep-pocketed conservatives.
Audio of the event, held at the St. Regis Monarch Beach resort, was obtained by The Undercurrent and shared exclusively with The Huffington Post. In it, the three Republican candidates, appearing on a panel titled “The Senate: A Window of Policy Opportunity for Principled Leaders,” speak for several minutes each about the state of their respective races. Because the discussion took place in mid-June, some of the comments are dated. In addition, some of the audio was redacted to preserve the anonymity of the individual who provided it — “a source who was present at the event,” per an official with The Undercurrent — and to remove sections with too much cross-talk. A separate source, who helped organize the retreat, confirmed each candidate’s participation.
During their speeches, both Cotton and Ernst noted that this was actually the second Koch brothers’ retreat they had attended. Last year, the two had gone to the New Mexico event as politicians of less stature. The Koch network has since helped usher them to the doorsteps of the United States Senate.
“I was not known at that time,” Ernst said. “A little-known state senator from a very rural part of Iowa, known through my National Guard service and some circles in Iowa. But the exposure to this group and to this network and the opportunity to meet so many of you, that really started my trajectory.”
“We are going to paint some very clear differences in this general election,” she said earlier in her talk. “And this is the thing that we are going to take back — that it started right here with all of your folks, this wonderful network.”
Cotton went further, crediting Koch-funded groups for helping change the political landscape of Arkansas.
“Americans for Prosperity in Arkansas has played a critical role in turning our state from a one-party Democratic state [inaudible] building the kind of constant engagement to get people in the state involved in their communities,” he said.
Such discussion is franker than that offered during the daily grind of the campaign trail — for obvious reason. The talk was private. At one point, Cotton flatly claims that former Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his seat because he “endorsed immigration principles.” At a separate panel on congressional races, the audio of which was also sent to The Huffington Post, officials with two Koch-funded organizations — Americans for Prosperity’s president, Tim Phillips, and Freedom Partners’ president, Marc Short — also spoke more candidly about Senate races than they would have on a public panel.
“Michigan is a state that’s basically an uphill climb honestly,” said Short, mentioning the battle to replace Sen. Carl Levin (D).
“Minnesota, everyone’s favorite comedian, Al Franken. He, against all expectations, actually has kept his head down and not made stupid comments, and has been in decent shape in a relatively blue state,” said Phillips, referring to another Democratic senator, who is up for re-election this year.