Influential GOP donors weigh benefits and risks of Trump's off-the-cuff style

At a private Republican retreat hosted by the Koch brothers this weekend to discuss strategies for midterm elections, many donors expressed doubt about President Trump's role as a party ambassador but others admit they are 'warming up' to his approach. 

Pheben. M. Ebenhack/AP/File
Americans for Prosperity Foundation Chairman David Koch speaks on Aug. 30, 2013 in Orlando, Fla. Billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch are leading influences in the Republican Party and expressed concern at a weekend retreat about President Trump's public persona.

For the Koch brothers and their powerful donor network, the trouble with President Trump isn't what he's doing. It's how he's doing it.

Huddled at a private retreat in the California desert, the conservative movement's elite money men worried aloud this weekend that the Republican president's undisciplined behavior is clouding his achievements – and making it harder for the GOP to protect its grip on Congress heading into the 2018 midterms.

"President Trump is not helping get many Republicans elected," said Tom Shepherd, a Cincinnati-based businessman who joined roughly 550 Koch donors at a private retreat in the California desert this weekend. "I think he's doing more harm than good because he's distracting people from the good work which is happening, which is either happening because of him or in spite of him."

The frustration with the unorthodox president comes as the Kochs begin to implement their strategy to protect Republican majorities in the House and Senate this fall.

The GOP has no more powerful ally than the vast political and policy network assembled by the Midwestern industrialist icons, long demonized by the left and revered by the right for their short- and long-term efforts to reshape American politics and culture.

The Koch network's chief lieutenants renewed their vow this weekend to spend up to $400 million on politics and policy to shape November's midterm elections nationwide.

That's more than the combined resources spent by the Republican National Committee, the National Rifle Association, and the Chamber of Commerce in the 2016 election cycle.

The Koch network's 2018 investment includes $20 million to help sell the recently adopted tax overhaul to a skeptical American public through a series of public rallies, phone banking, and paid advertising.

Despite the extraordinary investment, the men and women who filled the luxury resort outside Palm Springs this weekend acknowledged a difficult road ahead.

Some blamed history more than the regular distractions from Mr. Trump. The party in the White House traditionally struggles in the first midterm election of a new presidency.

"It's a challenge regardless of the president," said Tim Phillips, president of the Kochs' political arm, a group known as Americans for Prosperity.

But the donors who pledged at least $100,000 this year to the Koch network – there were an estimated 550 on hand this weekend – were less cautious when asked about the president's leadership

Many opposed his candidacy before the 2016 election. The Kochs refused to endorse Trump, fearing that his style and policies might undermine conservative priorities.

"I didn't support him," said Frank Baxter, a retired investment banker from California who served as the ambassador to Uruguay under former President George W. Bush. "The results are kind of changing my mind."

Like others, he praised the tax overhaul, Trump's judicial appointments, and regulatory cuts. He added, "I still don't like what he says or does."

Gary Lynch, whose Iowa livestock business employs roughly 700 people, said he and his business have benefited from the Republican tax overhaul. He said, however, that Trump's behavior "doesn't help" his party promote the benefits of the plan.

"He hasn't got it down yet," Mr. Lynch said of the president, noting that he doesn't mind Trump's style personally.

Another former Trump critic, North Carolina-based donor Art Pope, said he's warming to the president as well.

"The policies of this administration have really benefited the American people," Mr. Pope said. He's still worried about the political climate heading into the midterms: "It's going to be a tough election."

Democrats need to pick up at least 24 seats nationwide this fall to claim the House majority for the last two years of Trump's first term. Recent Democratic wins in Alabama and Virginia, backed by Trump's low approval ratings, suggest the GOP is in trouble.

When asked about his party's 2018 prospects, Rep. Mark Meadows (R) of North Carolina, among a handful of elected officials who attended the Koch conference, acknowledged that the House majority is at risk.

"I can make the case for losing 18 seats and no more. I can make the case for 28 seats," he said. "It's a long ways off. It depends what we do between now and November."

As the White House and Republicans nationwide work to highlight the strong US economy, Trump intensified a weekend feud with the rapper Jay-Z on Twitter.

The musician said over the weekend the president's recent vulgar comments about African countries and Haiti were "disappointing" and "hurtful."

Trump punched back on Twitter, urging his followers to inform Jay-Z that "because of my policies," unemployment among black Americans is at the "LOWEST RATE EVER RECORDED!"

Back at the Koch retreat, prominent Trump donor Doug Deason said he enjoyed the president's social media habits, which allow him to speak directly to the American people.

"I don't think it helps. I don't think it hurts," Mr. Deason said.

He noted that the Koch network would "spend a lot of money" to ensure the benefits of the tax overhaul aren't overshadowed by any distractions.

"Who gives a crap about Jay-Z?" Deason asked. "I don't."

This story was reported by the Associated Press. 

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