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Turning back on Trump, Koch network focuses on Senate

By Steve Peoples Associated Press

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Billionaire industrialist Charles Koch declared Sunday that his expansive political network would not support Donald Trump, but the 80-year-old conservative icon insisted he would not support Hillary Clinton, either.

Koch, a popular target of Democrats, called any rumor that he would back the Democratic presidential candidate “a blood libel.”

“At this point I can’t support either candidate, but I’m certainly not going to support Hillary,” Koch told hundreds of donors gathered for a weekend retreat in a luxury hotel at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.

With Election Day just three months away, Koch and his chief lieutenants were refusing to support the Republican presidential nominee, focusing their tremendous resources instead on helping the GOP win competitive Senate contests in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Koch’s team barely mentioned Trump’s name when asked repeatedly by the handful of reporters permitted to cover the exclusive weekend retreat.

“We think we can be most effective working on the Senate,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a major player in the vast Koch network. “We’re not engaged on the presidential.”

The comments came Sunday, Day Two of a three-day gathering for donors who promise to give at least $100,000 each year to the various groups backed by the Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners – a network of education, policy and political entities that aim to promote a smaller, less intrusive government.

The ambitious Koch network has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to influence politics and public policy over the last decade. The network planned to invest heavily in the 2016 presidential contest, but sharply changed its course after Trump became the Republican standard-bearer.

Koch on Sunday described his first priority as “to preserve the country’s financial future and to eliminate corporate welfare.”

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

Trump has been embraced by many Republican voters, but the Koch network is refusing to accept deep policy differences. The libertarian-leaning Koch opposes Trump’s position on immigration, trade, minimum wage and criminal justice reform.

Trump’s dire warnings of growing crime in America simply aren’t accurate, said Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president of Koch Industries.

“We’re much safer,” Holden said. “That’s what the data shows.”

The day before, Trump thumbed his nose at the Koch gathering from Twitter.

“I turned down a meeting with Charles and David Koch,” the New York billionaire tweeted. “Much better for them to meet with the puppets of politics, they will do much better!”

The weekend’s agenda for the estimated 400 donors gathered in Colorado Springs featured a series of policy discussions and appearances from at least three governors, four senators and four members of the House of Representatives, including House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee, like Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey the night before, avoided discussion of the 2016 presidential contest altogether during panel discussions.

Other Republicans scheduled to appear include Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas. Rep Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado.

Charles and David Koch have hosted such gatherings of donors and politicians for years, but usually in private. The weekend’s event includes a small number of reporters, including one from the Associated Press.

Koch has put the network’s budget at roughly $750 million through the end of 2016.

A significant portion was supposed to be directed at electing a Republican to the White House. It will instead go to helping Republican Senate candidates in at least five states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Wisconsin and Florida, Holden said, noting that the network has dedicated $42 million so far to television and digital advertising to benefit Republican Senate candidates.

In some cases, the network may try to link Democratic Senate candidates to Clinton, he added, but there are no plans to go after her exclusively in paid advertising. The organization may invest in a handful of races for governor and House as well.

“To address the current political crisis, our first objective is to stop the worst federal policies regardless of who is the next president,” Koch said. “We’ve got to remember that Republican presidents advance a lot of bad policies, just like Democrats do.”

Updates with Koch address. With AP Photos.

AP-WF-07-31-16 2004GMT

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