How the billionaire Koch brothers became 2 of the most influential political donors in America

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Charles (left) and David Koch (right). The Seminar Network via YouTube/Getty Images
  • Charles and David Koch have been titans of industry and politics for decades.
  • David, 79, has died, the family announced on Friday.
  • The company their father founded, now known as Koch Industries, is the second-largest company in the US with an annual revenue of $US100 billion.
  • Libertarians who favour small government and few taxes, the Kochs have tangled with President Donald Trump, as they oppose many of his policies, including tariffs, the travel ban, and immigration.
  • Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories.


The Koch network, started and led by billionaires Charles and David Koch, has played an instrumental role in the American political system over the last several decades.

David, 79, has died, the family announced on Friday.

The Koch brothers‘ influence in politics has been particularly felt in Republican and Libertarian circles, as the group has primarily raised money for conservative candidates who align with their political philosophies.

Their influence has only increased and become more scrutinised since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010, which allowed corporations to make an unlimited number of donations to candidates.

But the Koch network has shown an openness to supporting Democrats as it has slowly distanced itself from President Donald Trump and the GOP.

Here’s how the Koch brothers became two of the most influential and politically active donors in modern history.


Charles and David’s father, Fred Koch, founded the family business in Wichita, Kansas in 1940. Fred was originally an engineer before becoming an industrialist.

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Source: SEC


While Charles joined the family business in 1961, David did not join the company until 1970 after working at a number of consulting firms. The two both got their Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Sources: KochIndustries, SEC


The business was originally called Rock Island Oil & Refinery Company. But when Charles became the company’s president in 1966, he renamed it Koch Industries in honour of his father.

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Source: SEC


Koch Industries is now the second-largest company in the US with an annual revenue of $US100 billion.

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Sources: Forbes, Koch Industries


In the political world, Fred was a founding member of the John Birch Society, a group dedicated to combatting communism and limiting the size and role of government.

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A sign from the John Birch Society advocating US withdrawal from the United Nations in Pittsburgh in 2008. TheZachMorrisExperience/Wikimedia Commons

Source: Investopedia


That influence led Charles to co-found the Cato Institute in 1977 to promote libertarian causes, such as free markets and individual liberty. With an operating income of $US37 million in 2017, it is one of the most influential think tanks in the US.

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A panel at the Cato Institute on June 17, 2015 in Washington. AP Images

Source: Investopedia, Cato Institute, Cato Institute annual report


David once ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980. But he and presidential candidate Ed Clark only won 1% of the vote.

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Source: Britannica


He ran on the platform to abolish several significant government programs, including social security, welfare, minimum wage laws, the Federal Reserve Board, and corporate taxes.

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Businessman David Koch arrives at the Met Ball in New York on May 5, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Source: The Famous People


After David lost in 1980, Charles said traditional politics “tends to be a nasty, corrupting business.” He added that he was “interested in advancing libertarian ideas.”

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Source: Investopedia


David left the Libertarian Party in 1984 and joined the GOP after it supported eliminating all taxes.

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David Koch. AP Photo/FIle

Source: The Famous People


That same year, the Koch brothers created a conservative political group called Citizens for a Sound Economy. The group was dedicated to free markets and called for personal involvement in public policy activism. In 2004, it was renamed FreedomWorks.

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Source: The Famous People/The New Yorker


Charles has also gone on to start the Institute for Humane Studies, the Mercatus Centre at George Mason University, and the Bill of Rights Institute to further his policy initiatives. He has also funded scholarships and research grants for economists.

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Charles Koch at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference 2016. Business Insider/Julie Bort

Source: The Charles Koch Institute


The Koch’s donations to advocacy groups has led to them sometimes oppose politicians they supported in elections. For example, they once donated $US10 million to the ACLU to fight the implementation of the PATRIOT Act under former President George W. Bush.

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US President George W. Bush speaks at the White House on October 14, 2008. Reuters

Source: Investopedia


In 2004, the Koch brothers founded Americans for Prosperity, their primary political organisation. It’s considered one of the most influential conservative advocacy groups in the country today.

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Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) speaks during an Americans For Prosperity rally on Capitol Hill April 6, 2011 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Source: The Famous People


The Koch brothers have also been strong advocates against climate change and its impact on the planet. In the mid-2000s, they became the biggest donors of groups that questioned the severity of climate change and how humans are causing it.

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The Kochs have donated millions to fund museum exhibits, including $US35 million to the Smithsonian’s new dinosaur and fossil hall. Donald E. Hurlbert / Smithsonian Institution

Sources: Britannica,The New Yorker, Washington Post, The New York Times


The Koch brothers reportedly gave $US246 million to non-profits and public policy research related to libertarian causes from 2004-08.

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Charles Koch David Koch YouTube

Source: Investopedia


In 2008, the Koch brothers donated to over 30 political and policy organisations that they either founded or help direct.

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Charles Koch David Koch Getty Images/YouTube

Source: The New Yorker


Because of the size and scope of influence that the group has, the Koch political network has been described as a rival to the Republican National Committee itself.

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President Donald Trump speaks at the Republican National Committee winter meeting at the Trump International Hotel on February 1, 2018 in Washington, DC Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Source: Politico


Americans for Prosperity played a significant role in the growth of the Tea Party Movement in the 2010 midterm elections, as the Koch brothers spent $US45 million organising rallies, mobilizing voters, building policy, and pushing ads.

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Sources: Britannica,Forbes


In 2011, Charles’ foundation contributed $US25,000 to a conservative and libertarian public policy think tank called The Heartland Institute, which often attacks climate science. The Koch brothers also donated $US2.6 million to candidates that year.

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Sources: The New York Times, Mother Jones


In the 2012 presidential and congressional elections, the Koch brothers and their network of donors spent $US400 million.

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Charles Koch David Koch YouTube/Getty Images

Sources: Washington Post, The New York Times


Two recipients of Koch-network funding that year were Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

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Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, (L-R) wave together during a campaign event at Monterey Mills on June 18, 2012 in Janesville, Wisconsin. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Sources:
Mother Jones, LA Times


The Koch brothers have also been opposed to the Obama-era Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank.

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David Koch Charles Koch Getty Images/YouTube

Sources: New York Magazine, USA Today


The Koch brothers largely opposed the Obama administration and criticised it for what they saw as “big government” policies with increased spending and eroding individual liberty.

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President Barack Obama. Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Source: The New Yorker


But in 2015, they and former President Barack Obama were on the same page about one thing: He praised their efforts at reforming the criminal justice system.

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President Barack Obama speaks at the NAACP’s 106th national convention at the Philadelphia Convention Centre, on Tuesday, July 14, 2015, in Philadelphia. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Source: The Wall Street Journal


At a 2015 meeting with GOP donors, the Koch brothers said they were prepared to spend almost $US900 million in the 2016 presidential and congressional campaigns.

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Charles Koch David Koch YouTube/AP

Source: The New York Times


After the GOP primary, the Koch’s did not donate to Trump and strictly gave to Senate and House races.

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Donald Trump reaches out to hug a supporter after he spoke at the National Federation of Republican Assemblies on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. Mark Humphrey/AP

Source: Newsweek


While there is no evidence that he donated to her campaign or supported her, Charles said in July 2016 it was possible that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would make a better president.

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Former U.S. Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during the LA Promise Fund’s Girls Build Leadership summit in Los Angeles, California, U.S., December 15, 2017. Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Source: The Guardian


“Since it appears that neither presidential candidate is likely to support us in [our] efforts,” Charles said in 2016, “we’re focused on maximizing the number of principled leaders in the House and Senate who will.”

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Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Source: The Guardian


Despite primarily supporting Republican candidates, David supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage. The Koch network opposed the Iraq War and has backed a non-interventionist foreign policy.

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David Koch, executive vice president of Koch Industries, applauds during an Economic Club of New York event in New York. Reuters/Brendan McDermid

Sources: CNN, Washington Post


In a Washington Post opinion piece in 2016, Charles said he agreed with former presidential candidate and current Sen. Bernie Sanders on the unfairness of corporate welfare and the need for criminal justice reform.

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Bernie Sanders Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Sources: Washington Post, Bernie Sanders


The Koch network has been critical of Trump’s travel ban and, in June 2018, financed a multi-million dollar campaign to oppose Trump’s tariffs.

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Ralph Garcia, who works for Volvo in South Carolina, joins other Americans who work for international auto companies demonstrating against trade tariffs they say will negatively impact US auto manufacturing, on Capitol Hill, July 19, 2018. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Source: BBC News,The Independent


In June 2018, David announced he would be leaving the business and politics world of the Koch network due to declining health.

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Source: Business Insider


Charles said to donors at a meeting in July 2018 that he is open to backing Democratic candidates if they align with the group’s platform and philosophy. Koch said “the divisiveness of this White House is causing long-term damage.”

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Source: Business Insider


Trump took to Twitter to respond to the Koch network’s rebuke of his administration, calling them “overrated.”

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US President Donald Trump. AP

Source: Business Insider


In August 2018, Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said accused the Koch network of putting business ahead of politics, as the RNC has now distanced itself from the Koch family.

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Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ronna Romney McDaniel arrives before then President-elect Donald Trump takes the stage at a rally at DeltaPlex Arena, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016, in Grand Rapids, Mich. Andrew Harnik/AP

Source: Business Insider


And in January 2019, the Koch network announced already that it would not be supporting Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

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President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on December 11, 2018. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Source: Business Insider


A spokesman for Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-funded group, told the Washington Post it will “support policy champions in Senate, House and state races, build broad-based policy coalitions, and to launch a major new initiative to fight poverty in America.”

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Charles Koch stands for a portrait after an interview with the Washington Post at the Freedom Partners Summit on Monday, August 3, 2015 in Dana Point, California. Patrick T. Fallon for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Source: Washington Post


On August 23, 2019, the family announced that David had died. He was 79.

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Source: Business Insider