The conservative Koch brothers' network declared Monday that it will not help elect the Republican Senate candidate in North Dakota, turning its back on the GOP in a marquee election — at least for now — after determining that the Republican challenge is no better than the Democratic incumbents.
The decision sends a strong message to Republican officials across the country that there may be real consequences for those unwilling to oppose the spending explosion and protectionist trade policies embraced by the Trump White House in recent weeks.
And little more than three months before Election Day, it leaves a top-tier Republican Senate campaign without the assistance of one of the conservative movement's most powerful allies as their party fights to maintain control of Congress.
"For those who stand in the way, we don't pull any punches, regardless of party," Tim Phillips, who leads the Kochs' political arm, told hundreds of donors while outlining their midterm election strategy on the final day of a three-day private Rocky Mountain retreat.
The announcement marks a new chapter in the strained relationship between the Trump administration and the expanding conservative network created by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, who refused to endorse the Republican president in 2016.
Trump has effectively taken over the modern-day Republican Party on almost every level, even after ignoring long-held conservative beliefs on government spending, free trade and foreign policy. The billionaire Kochs and their nationwide army of conservative activists, however, are not giving in.
That's not to say they're punishing every Trump loyalist in the 2018 election season.
The Kochs' political arm, Americans for Prosperity, still plans to focus its resources on helping Republican Senate candidates in Tennessee, Florida and Wisconsin.
The midterm strategy could change in the coming weeks, but the Kochs currently plan to ignore North Dakota's high-profile Senate contest, where three-term Republican Congressman Kevin Cramer is trying to unseat Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. She's considered among the most vulnerable Senate Democrats in the nation.
"He's not leading on the issues this country needs leadership most right now," Phillips said of Cramer, specifically citing spending and trade. "If Cramer doesn't step up to lead, that makes it hard to support him."
Ahead of the announcement, Charles Koch told reporters that he cared little for party affiliation and regretted supporting some Republicans in the past who only paid lip service to conservative principles.
Network leaders over the weekend repeatedly lashed out at the Republican-backed $1.3 trillion spending bill adopted in March, which represented the largest government spending plan in history. The Trump White House budget office now predicts that next year's federal deficit will exceed $1 trillion, while reaching a combined $8 trillion over the next 10 years.
The Kochs were equally concerned about the Trump administration's "protectionist" trade policies, which have sparked an international trade war and could trigger a U.S. recession, Koch said.
"We're going to be much stricter if they say they're for the principles we espouse and then they aren't," Koch vowed. "We're going to more directly deal with that and hold people responsible for their commitments."
The Koch network has demonstrated in recent months — albeit on a limited basis — a willingness to praise Democrats and condemn Republicans in specific situations.
After first running attack ads against Heitkamp earlier in the year, the Kochs last month launched a digital ad campaign thanking the North Dakota Democrat for voting to roll back Obama-era banking regulations. At around the same time, they launched an advertising blitz to criticize 10 Republican House members, including Pennsylvania GOP Senate nominee Lou Barletta, for supporting the massive spending bill.
Yet Monday's announcement marked a dramatic escalation in the Kochs' willingness to buck partisan loyalties. And some Trump loyalists were furious with the Kochs' work to undermine Trump and his agenda even before Monday's news dropped.
Former White House counselor Steve Bannon questioned the true influence of "the Koch network management," seizing on the lack of accountability in the organization's spending in recent years given that most of the details are not publicly available.
"Where did the money go, what do they really spend it on, and how much, if anything, do they really put into the network?" Bannon asked in a brief interview with The Associated Press.
And prominent Texas-based Trump donor Doug Deason, who attended the weekend retreat, said Republican candidates should not be punished for embracing the Republican president's agenda.
"That's not right," he said before Monday's announcement, condemning the Koch network's recent decision to praise Heitkamp.
"Heitkamp, we're going to knock her out of the water. She's gone," Deason predicted.
The decision to ignore the Republican candidate in North Dakota certainly caught some by surprise, but there appeared to be overwhelming support from others — even if the plan hurts the GOP's push to maintain its House and Senate majorities.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, among a handful of elected officials who mingled with donors at the weekend confab, said there should be political consequences for those who deviate from conservative principles.
"If in fact you have people espousing these in name, but not in practice, yeah, they're not going to be supported, nor should they be," Bevin said in a brief interview. "I think this network supports people who truly respect those principles. And I think they're agnostic, from what I've seen, with respect to what party a person is."
At the same time, Bevin defended Trump's push to apply billions of dollars in tariffs on goods from China, Canada, Mexico and the European Union. He dismissed the outcry from businesses in Kentucky and elsewhere as a short-term problem.
Colorado-based energy investor Chris Wright, a longtime Koch donor, said the Republican Party may have lost its way in the age of Trump. He and his wife, Liz, encouraged the Koch network to ignore Republican candidates who turn their back on key conservative principles out of loyalty to Trump.
"They don't deserve to be funded if they don't uphold our values," Liz Wright said.
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