COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. â€“ Officials with the powerful political network overseen by conservative billionaire Charles Koch on Monday said they do not currently plan to help the Republican nominee in one of the GOPâ€™s top Senate pickup opportunities this year.
The Koch networkâ€™s reluctance to back Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., comes as the group seeks to distance itself from President Trump and Republicans in Washington, citing their deep disagreement with Trumpâ€™s trade policies and his hardline stances on immigration
Cramer, who wants to oust Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in November, is â€œinconsistent across the boardâ€ on the spending and trade issues that matter to the Koch network, said Tim Phillips, president of its grassroots arm, Americans for Prosperity (AFP). â€œWe canâ€™t support him at this time.â€
In a statement released by his campaign, Cramer said he respected the Koch network’s decision to stay out of his race and that he works to represent the people of North Dakota.Â
“My voting record may not be exactly what every national organization wants, but it is exactly what the majority of North Dakotans expect,” Cramer said. “I look forward to working with the Koch organization on the things we agree on in the United State Senate.”Â
The announcement was made to hundreds of conservative donors who gathered for a three-day retreat to talk about their free-market agenda and plot midterm strategy less than 100 days before Election Day.
During their conclave, which ends Monday, Koch officials repeatedly sought to declare their independence from the Republican Party, saying lawmakers had taken their election support for granted, only to buck them by passing a massive $1.3 trillion federal spending bill in March opposed by the group.
â€œWe are raising expectations,â€ AFPâ€™s CEO Emily Seidel said. â€œWe canâ€™t keep falling into the trap of just doing what we need to do just to get through November. Thatâ€™s short-term thinking.â€
The network of 700 donors who contribute at least $100,000 annually has been one of the most influential groups in Republican politics in recent years and this weekend reiterated plans to spend up to $400 million in the two-year-election cycle.
But the libertarian-leaning organization has sharply parted with Trump and congressional Republicans on trade, immigration and other issues. And they say they were willing toÂ form alliances with Democrats to achieve top objectives.
â€œI donâ€™t care what initials are in front or after somebodyâ€™s name,â€ Charles Koch told reporters during a rare, on-the-record interview here.
In another sign of contention: Kochâ€™s umbrella group, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce on Monday released a new TV ad, called â€œTrade Not Aid,â€ criticizing Trumpâ€™s $12 billion aid package to farmers affected by his administrationâ€™s tariff battles with China and other countries.
The move to single out Cramer could cause some friction among donors.
Heitkamp is a top target for Republicans seeking to increase their majority in the Senate. The networkâ€™s decision earlier this year to run a digital ad praising her vote to ease regulations on small- and medium-sized banks annoyed some network members, said Doug Deason, a Dallas investor who is a longtime contributor to the network and has close ties to Trump and Vice President Pence.
â€œSome people didnâ€™t comeâ€ to the summer gathering â€œbecause they were so pissed off,â€ Deason said in an interview Sunday night.
Deason said he backed the decision on the Heitkamp ad. â€œI donâ€™t put party first,â€ he said. â€œI put whatâ€™s right for the country first.â€
Withholding support for Cramer could be a fairly low-stakes political move for the network. Trump captured North Dakota by nearly 36 percentage points in 2016, and toppling the nine other Democratic senators are up for re-election in Trump states would expand the GOPâ€™s hold on the Senate.
Continuing GOP ties
And in a variety of other ways, the Koch network remains closely aligned with the Republican agenda.
AFP already has made more than 500,000 calls to promote President Trumpâ€™s pick for the Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh in the three weeks since his nomination, Koch officials said. And the network already is engaged in Senate races to help Republicans in Wisconsin, Missouri, Tennessee and Florida.
But trade â€“ and Trumpâ€™s aggressive actions on tariffs â€“Â remain a sticking point for some of the Koch stalwarts.
Art Pope, a North Carolina retail magnate and long-time Koch ally, did not support Trumpâ€™s bid for the White House. But he embraced Trumpâ€™s moves during the first year of his presidency, including the $1.5 trillion tax package Trump signed into law late last year that instituted a 40% permanent tax cut for corporations.
But Trumpâ€™s recent tariff battles with China, Mexico and other countries have cooled Popeâ€™s enthusiasm. And he worries that the economic growth surge of 4.1 percentÂ in the second quarter is a temporary blip, driven by foreign buyers racing to stock up on American goods and commodities in anticipation of a trade war.
â€œA lot of the good that the presidentâ€™s policies have done for the country so far can be undone by trade wars and tariffs,â€ Pope said in an interview Sunday evening.
Other Koch donors said they still were taking a wait-and-see approach on Trumpâ€™s trade policies to see if they worked.
John McConnell, who owns a Missouri-based company that manufactures laboratory equipment, said rising steel costs already have cut into profit margins.Â While Trump â€œis a bit of a bomb-throwerâ€ on trade, he said, â€œI think weâ€™ll find a resolution.â€
Related: Charles Koch seeks to declare independence from the Republican Party
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