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LAS VEGAS—The wait near this fueling station stretched back a dozen cars, a queue reminiscent of Jimmy Carter-era gas lines. But instead of a scarce resource, this crowd wanted a cheap one: gas at $2.38, the price it was when President Joe Biden took office.
It was admittedly a stunt from the groups operating under the banner of billionaire Charles Koch and his libertarian-minded political pals who fund the Stand Together-aligned groups. But it wasn’t a bad stunt, either, especially as the Koch network is trying to harness voters’ anxieties about their wallets. Inflation is tied in Nevada for the highest of any state and gas prices second only to California in the Lower 48. And with Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s re-election bid essentially a coin toss, anything reminding voters how much costs have skyrocketed in the last two years can be an edge for Republicans.
“It’s terrible. I’m spending $130 a week to keep on the road. Everything is so expensive, I just don’t know how we keep it up,” said Tiffany Russell, a 36-year-old Las Vegas resident whose friend called her when she spotted the cheaper gas on Flamingo Road, just one block off the neon-hued Las Vegas Strip. “I don’t know what they’re doing in Washington, but it isn’t working for us here in Nevada.”
The $2.38 per gallon that Russell and 250 others paid to fill up was a steep break from the station’s normal $5.69 price, with the Koch network picking up the difference. For a little less than $1,000—plus the cost of the staff and volunteers and two promotional sign-trucks—the Koch orbit here and in other key markets have caught the attention of local news stations and newspapers, a few people on Twitter, and (admittedly) this column. And, in folks like Russell, who also called friends to alert them to the limited offer of cheaper gas, the Kochs may be hoping that the sting of inflation will resonate that much more.
It is a clear encapsulation of the shifting strategy inside the Koch orbit’s many organizations, led in the political space through Americans For Prosperity. For years, the super-rich who share Koch’s vision of a limited government standing on pure capitalism and whittled-down regulations pumped millions onto airwaves looking to shape the public debate, whether it was on advocacy for policy or, to a lesser degree, explicit political outcomes. In 2020, Americans For Prosperity and its affiliates spent almost $48 million in outside money to boost its pet projects and deny Joe Biden the presidency by dinging the Democratic brand. Their final tally? More than 59 million voter contacts—the combined populations of California and New York—across 272 distinct races, according to an internal report obtained by TIME. Their rate of victory? An eye-popping 78%, even with Biden prevailing.
Impressive, to be sure. But that was a whole lot of money spent on television, an increasingly inefficient way to reach voters. Now, Koch strategists are starting to pivot to more direct engagement through digital targeting, mail, and some guerilla marketing that even a short time ago would be dismissed as low-brow tactics beneath the dignity of a high-minded network that distributes philosophy texts and disruption manifestos at its conferences. But in a post-Donald Trump world, there is a realization that the forces that made the MAGA movement possible can either be an opportunity or a threat. The Koch organizations—and their seemingly limitless ambition to reshape every corner of American life—don’t want to stay on the sidelines.
Take the debate over Biden’s social infrastructure package. Americans For Prosperity aggressively targeted Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema on social media to stand against the measure, buying ads targeting handles in West Virginia, Arizona and the D.C. media markets. Manchin seems to have gotten to a yes, but Sinema’s silence has D.C. spooked and AFP officials optimistic that may have moved the needle on the famously unpredictable lawmaker. It’s the Koch machine in micro, one focused on putting pressure where it can make a difference, not necessarily where it draws praise from “the Establishment.”
The stunts at the pumps are another example of thumbing the nose at established fact. The President on his own doesn’t control gas prices or inflation, but American tradition is to blame the person in that role for everything, and the Koch orbit isn’t above a bankshot as it bankrolls an effort that strategists say is bigger than anything they’ve mounted before. Its impact can spread down-ballot, especially if it weakens the President’s ability to boost his Democratic allies. After all, Biden has a 33% job approval rating in the latest Emerson poll of the state, and 42% of Nevadans blame the Biden administration for inflation and 46% of them blame it for high gas prices.
“There was some excitement over the infrastructure bill. But when we were wrapping up the big projects, our unemployment went up. There was a lot of finger-pointing. When someone is unemployed, they get frustrated,” says Frank Hawk, the president of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, which counts unionized carpenters from Colorado to the West Coast as members. His members have been instrumental in reshaping Las Vegas, at one point staffing 18 million hours of labor in a year to shift the skyline of the Strip and build big-box retail and pro-sports stadiums alike. (That number has since fallen to 2 million hours of work annually as building has leveled off.) Sitting in a union hall conference room due west from Harry Reid International Airport, Hawk is blunt when asked how his members view the President: “lukewarm” is the best he can do, acknowledging 28% of his membership is Republican.
It’s that sentiment that has created a field ripe for Republicans and Koch affiliates to exploit. The Koch organizations have already made major investments in this year’s Republican primaries. In South Carolina, they helped moderate Rep. Nancy Mace defend her seat against a Trumpist. In Iowa, the Koch team played a role in ushering Zach Nunn to the nomination over a Ted Cruz-backed first-time candidate who ran on parental rights. And, on Tuesday, the Koch muscle will be tested in the Senate primary in Missouri, where Americans For Prosperity supported incumbent Attorney General Eric Schmitt with more than 410,000 door knocks and 6.8 million pieces of direct mail.
The Koch orbit notably holds no meaningful affinity for the Trump team. But while Trump was in the Oval, it did, when possible, work in concert with him on shared priorities like the 2017 tax cuts and the 2018 criminal justice overhaul. Many of the Koch funders view Trump as an anomaly in the political world, but occasionally a useful one that helped them deliver on goals that might have been impossible with a different Republican in the White House. Many want out of the political space altogether, instead earmarking their checks for projects like charter schools, economic development experiments, and tech disruption. To crib from a Kevin Costner tear-jerker, if you fund it, the Koch technocrats will build it. (Costner, for what it’s worth, is making political headlines this week with his endorsement of Liz Cheney.)
But with the 2022 races looking downright positive for Republicans and Trump poised to return as a candidate in 2024, the Koch network is coming off the sidelines and engaging in major—even Trumpian—ways, especially on the economy. It’s in many ways the latest variation on the theme that made campaign operatives famous—and rich—after Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign that boiled its message down to the simple slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Charles Koch isn’t one to call anyone stupid, but he can spot a winning slidedeck when it comes across his desk in Wichita, Kansas.
Which is why, on a recent Friday afternoon with a blazing sun overhead and a pulsing DJ beat turning a Las Vegas Strip-adjacent gas station into a disco pulsing with Avicii, cars lined up for less expensive gas. Most had no idea who was picking up the tab, and even fewer cared. With the price of everything climbing at a rate that outpaces wage increases, families just want any slack they can find. There were two tables distributing campaign-style fliers with details on the groups footing the bill for this stunt and what the government can do to lower the price for a tank, but it was an admittedly soft sell to neighbors who are just trying to get by.
“I have no idea who is making this happen, but I can’t help but thank them,” says Maricela Quijada, a 42-year-old recruiter visiting Las Vegas from Phoenix. “We are spending $120, twice a week to keep this on the road,” she said while sitting in her black SUV. “It’s just too much.”
For the Koch orgs, shelling out a few bucks on subsidized unleaded might end up having more of an impact than millions spent on TV. It might also be impossible for Democrats to brush off; it’s one thing to point at vague economic indicators to argue the economy isn’t as bad as it seems, but it’s another when an hour’s work at a minimum wage job in Nevada won’t even pay for two measly gallons of gas.
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Write to Philip Elliott at [email protected]