Koch network says it is withholding support for Heitkamp challenger for now

Koch network says it is withholding support for Heitkamp challenger for now

The Koch political network announced Monday that it does not currently plan to support Republican Kevin Cramer in his effort to unseat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for reelection this November.

Heitkamp’s race is a top pickup opportunity for Republicans, who are trying to retain their slim two-seat majority in the Senate. Heitkamp, the only Democrat who holds statewide office in North Dakota, is running for reelection in a state that Donald Trump won by more than 35 points.

The network’s decision places it at odds with President Trump, who campaigned for Cramer at a rally in Fargo last month.

The network — which is backed by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch and like-minded donors — also has no current plans to back Senate candidates in Nevada and Indiana, two key red-state races that are pickup opportunities for Republicans this fall, according to details it released Monday.

The decision by the conservative political network to withhold its firepower in pivotal races — at least for now — comes as top Koch officials are expressing frustration with Republican Party leaders and Trump over trade policies and the rhetoric in Washington.

As Koch officials laid out their plans for the 2018 midterms for more than 500 donors gathered at a luxury resort here, they warned that the GOP should not take its resources for granted.

Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, the network’s main political arm, said the group is more carefully assessing which candidates it will back, based on their support of the network’s free-market policy priorities.

“We’re raising the bar,” he said. “We’re raising expectations because we’ve got to change the trajectory of this country.”

Phillips said that “if this were 2016 or 2014, we would likely have just gone ahead and endorsed” Cramer. But he said the three-term congressman has been “inconsistent” on a range of issues, including the Affordable Care Act, free trade and immigration policies. He also noted Cramer’s support for agriculture subsidies.

“If Cramer doesn’t step up to lead, that makes it harder to support him,” Phillips said.

Earlier this year, AFP ran a digital ad thanking Heitkamp for co-sponsoring a bill that rolls back regulations placed on banks after the 2008 financial crisis.

On Monday, AFP chief executive Emily Seidel sought to underscore the importance of the network’s independence, saying a GOP senator who she did not name reportedly told colleagues at a Republican caucus meeting: “Don’t worry about the Kochs. They’re going to support Republicans regardless.”

“And by Kochs, he was talking about all of you,” she told donors. “We can’t keep falling into the trap just doing what we need to do to get through November.”

AFP is still expected to be a powerful force for conservative candidates and causes this midterm cycle. Officials have reiterated their plan to spend up to $400 million in the cycle on public policy issues and political campaigns.

The network will get involved in dozens of races this fall, with plans to back GOP Senate candidates in Wisconsin, Missouri, Florida and Tennessee and gubernatorial candidates in Michigan and Nevada, officials said Monday.

Among the Republicans who will get robust support from Koch groups is Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who is running for U.S. Senate in Tennessee.

The network is also plowing resources into supporting the confirmation of Trump’s second pick for the Supreme Court, federal judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, including in states where Democrats are the most vulnerable this fall. AFP has mobilized its nationwide network of activists, focusing on senators in Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio and West Virginia.

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