Photo provided by The Seminar Network
COLORADO SPRINGS — The conservative resistance movement on Sunday celebrated its victories and plotted strategy for the 2018 election at a luxury resort in Colorado nestled between a placid lake with two snuggling swans and the picturesque mountains near Pikes Peak.
The political network backed by the Koch brothers gathered more than 400 of its wealthiest donors at The Broadmoor for a three-day retreat that emphasized its work in states across the nation.
Led by the organization’s political arm, Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs declared the state legislative sessions in 2017 as the network’s most successful ever. In Colorado, conservatives highlighted victories in equalizing state spending on charter schools and defeating a major tax hike to improve the state’s crumbling roads.
“We are seeing a once-in-a generation renaissance of freedom and prosperity policies being enacted at the state level, said Tim Phillips, one of the top Koch network strategists, in an interview. “The untold story is the dramatic policy advancements that are actually helping people at the state level.”
Koch network leaders credited the investment at the state level for their successes — one that rivals, if not exceeds, the investment made by the Republican Party at the national and state levels.
What made the difference, the leaders told donors at a strategy session, was the ability to define candidates on positive terms early in the race and and mobilize voter outreach efforts to boost turnout.
“This network is the only group that can engage this way because you support us with significant resources all year round,” said Emily Seidel, a top political strategist at Freedom Partners, a Koch network organization.
But the pitch to donors — all of whom gave at least $100,000 to attend the event — included a sobering message for 2018.
“Make no mistake, this midterm election cycle is far more difficult than in recent years,” Seidel said. “For one, we are facing a reinvigorated progressive left. Their activists are energized and their donors are giving at unprecedented levels.”
The Kochs aim to spend $300 million to $400 million nationwide in the 2018 cycle, the most ever for their organization, and suggest the spending is “headed to the high end of that range.”
In Colorado, the movement against President Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress is particularly active, boosted by a cadre of well-established and well-funded liberal organizations in the state.
“We are still a swing state, and Democrats win here more than Republicans do,” said Laura Chapin, a prominent liberal activist. “The trend line is in our favor not theirs.”
Both sides are supported by big donors at the state and national level, and it’s no surprise that Colorado is once again in the spotlight ahead of the 2018 election.
U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman’s seat in Aurora is one of 23 Republican-held districts in the nation Democrat Hillary Clinton won in 2016 — and once again, a target in the next election. Clinton beat Trump in the 6th District by nine percentage points. Coffman claimed an eight-point victory against his Democratic opponent.
And the race to replace term-limited Gov. John Hickenlooper is one Democratic post Republicans are hoping to flip.
The two races were among the targeted contests mentioned in the strategy session, but it remains unclear how much the Koch network will invest in Colorado in 2018. “Winning these races is critical to continuing the renaissance of reforms that we’ve seen in the states in recent years,” Seidel said.
If the network decides to prioritize the contests, it will rely on the significant investments made in Colorado in recent years.
The Koch footprint in Colorado is bigger than previously known, including two centers on college campuses that promote free-market ideas and open dialogue; a nonprofit that focuses on outreach to minority communities to teach financial literacy and entrepreneurship; and a community organizing outfit that promotes conservative policies with phone banks and canvassing operations.
One of the most powerful assets, dubbed a secret weapon, is the Grassroots Leadership Academy, a six-week training program run through the Americans for Prosperity nonprofit foundation that teaches like-minded conservatives “how to be an effective activist.”
“The program takes people who are passionate … and shows them how to do it,” said Chris Fink, one of the directors of the national program.
The academy began in Colorado three years ago, but it operated mostly under the political radar. Right now, the program is teaching activists in Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, running them through courses about how to contact their lawmakers and other campaign tactics.
In addition, the program hosts one-off seminars on conservative issues, such as the Greenwood Village session on corporate welfare in July and another on being “shackled by debt” in Lakewood in August.
The effort is seen as a way to counter the current energy on the Democratic side, where organizers are hosting events to energize the resistance movement against Trump.
Chapin, the Democratic operative in Colorado, doubts if all the money spent in Colorado will pay off, particularly given the Kochs’ focus on repealing the federal health care law.
“I think at some point you can only have so much infrastructure until it runs up against reality — and right now the reality is people are very, very scared of losing their health care,” she said.
Chapin continued: “When you’re at the door and someone says, ‘My husband has cancer and we are about to lose insurance,’ there’s no amount of Koch brothers’ training that can compensate for that.”