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Koch Brothers: Secretive Billionaires With Eye on 2012 Creating Vast Database
David and Charles Koch, oil tycoons with strong right-wing views and connections, look set to tighten their grip on US politics
The secretive oil billionaires the Koch brothers are close to launching a nationwide database connecting millions of Americans who share their anti-government and libertarian views, a move that will further enhance the tycoons' political influence and that could prove significant in next year's presidential election.
The database will give concrete form to the vast network of alliances that David and Charles Koch have cultivated over the past 20 years on the right of US politics. The brothers, whose personal wealth has been put at $25bn each, were a major force behind the creation of the tea party movement and enjoy close ties to leading conservative politicians, financiers, business people, media figures and US supreme court judges.
The voter file was set up by the Kochs 18 months ago with $2.5m of their seed money, and is being developed by a hand-picked team of the brothers' advisers. It has been given the name Themis, after the Greek goddess who imposes divine order on human affairs.
In classic Koch style, the project is being conducted in great secrecy. Karl Crow, a Washington-based lawyer and Koch adviser who is leading the development, did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did media representatives for Koch Industries, the brothers' global energy company based in Wichita, Kansas.
But a member of a Koch affiliate organization who is a specialist in the political uses of new technology and who is familiar with Themis said the project was in the final preparatory stages. Asking not to be named, he said: "They are doing a lot of analysis and testing. Finally they're getting Themis off the ground."
The database will bring together information from a plethora of right-wing groups, tea party organizations and conservative-leaning thinktanks. Each one has valuable data on their membership – including personal email addresses and phone numbers, as well as more general information useful to political campaign strategists such as occupation, income bracket and so on.
By pooling the information, the hope is to create a data resource that is far more potent than the sum of its parts. Themis will in effect become an electoral roll of right-wing America, allowing the Koch brothers to further enhance their power base in a way that is sympathetic to, but wholly independent of, the Republican party.
"This will take time to fully realize, but it has the potential to become a very powerful tool in 2012 and beyond," said the new technology specialist.
Themis has been modeled in part on the scheme created by the left after the defeat of John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. Catalyst, a voter list that shared data on supporters of progressive groups and campaigns, was an important part of the process that saw the Democratic party pick itself off the floor and refocus its electoral energies, helping to propel Barack Obama to the White House in 2008.
Josh Hendler, who until earlier this year was the Democratic National Committee's director of technology in charge of the party's voter files, believes Themis could do for the Kochs what Catalyst helped do for the Democrats.
"This increases the Koch brothers' reach. It will allow them to become even greater co-ordinators than they are already – with this resource they become a natural center of gravity for conservatives," Hendler said.
Though Charles, 75, and his younger brother David, 71, are very rarely seen or heard in public, their political importance in the US is hard to exaggerate. They have been steadily investing their wealth in projects designed to drive the country ever more to the right – they have backed the tea parties, funded incubators of radical conservative ideology such as the Mercatus Center at the George Mason University and hosted twice-yearly gatherings of some of the richest and most powerful figures in the country.
"What makes them unique is that they are not just campaign contributors; they are a vast political network in their own right," said Mary Boyle of the watchdog group, Common Cause.
They are estimated so far to have given more than $100m to right-wing causes. Kert Davies of Greenpeace estimates that the sum includes $55m since 1997 funding climate change deniers.
Many of the causes backed by the brothers clearly chime with their own self-interests. To encourage the denial of global warming science is obviously advantageous to businessmen who have made their fortunes in drilling and piping of oil; low taxation suits billionaires wanting to cut their own tax contributions; a bonfire of state regulations over business and the environment would be beneficial to a multinational corporation like Koch Industries, which is the second largest private company in the US.
But the two men are also anti-government ideologues who believe in what they preach, an inheritance from their fiercely anti-communist father Fred, who was a founder of the radical right-wing John Birch Society. David Koch stood as vice-presidential candidate for the Libertarian party in 1980 on a platform of doing away with a host of public bodies including the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the FBI, the CIA, social security, welfare, taxation and public schools.
Though the Kochs have already stamped their influence on the American right, their impact to date looks like small beer compared with their ambitious plans for 2012. According to Kenneth Vogel of Politico, the brothers intend to use their leverage among billionaire conservatives to pump more than $200m into the proceedings, focusing in particular on the presidential race.
Their potential to sway the electorate through the sheer scale of their spending has been greatly enhanced by Citizens United, last year's controversial ruling by the US supreme court that opened the floodgates to corporate donations in political campaigns. The ruling allows companies to throw unlimited sums to back their chosen candidates, without having to disclose their spending.
That makes 2012 the first Citizens United presidential election, and in turn offers rich pickings to the Koch brothers. They have already made clear their intentions. At their most recent billionaires' gathering in Vail, Colorado in June, Charles Koch described next year's presidential contest as "the mother of all wars". A tape of his private speech obtained by Mother Jones said the fight for the White House would be a battle "for the life or death of this country".
Exhorting the 300 guests in attendance to open their sizable wallets and donate to the Koch election coffers, he went on: "It isn't just your money we need. We need you bringing in new partners, new people. We can't do it alone. We have to multiply ourselves."
Which is where Themis comes in. Karl Crow, the spearhead of the new database, was one of the speakers at the June 2010 Koch gathering in Aspen, Colorado, where he described his mission under the heading "Mobilizing Citizens".
"Is there a chance to elect leaders who are more strongly committed to liberty and prosperity," he said, adding that he wanted to put forward a "strategic plan to educate voters on the importance of economic freedom".
At the same gathering, the kernel of the idea for Themis was unveiled as a "micro-targeting" initiative that would allow a more thorough understanding of the electorate. "How can we take advantage of this advanced technology?" the agenda asked.
By dint of the secrecy surrounding the project, it is not known which bodies have signed up for the database. But it is a reasonable guess that groups that are highly influential within the tea party movement such as Americans for Prosperity and Freedomworks, as well as right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, will be among the participants. Between them, they have tentacles that extend to millions of voters.
Lee Fang, a blogger at the Center for American Progress, thinks the combination of the Kochs' capital and their new voter files could have an immense impact in 2012. "This will be the first major election where most of the data and the organizing will be done outside the party nexus. The Kochs have the potential to outspend and out-perform the Republican party and even the successful Republican candidate."