Charles Koch Pulls a Political Stunt at a Nevada Gas Station

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LAS VEGAS—The wait near this fueling station stretched back a dozen cars, a queue reminiscent of Jimmy Carter-era gas lines. The crowd demanded a cheaper resource than a rare one. Gas at $2.38 was what it was back when President Joe Biden assumed office.

The stunt was admittedly done by the Stand Together-aligned organizations under Charles Koch’s banner and the libertarian-minded friends who funded it. But it wasn’t a bad stunt, either, especially as the Koch network is trying to harness voters’ anxieties about their wallets. Nevada is the state with the most inflation, and gasoline prices are second to California in Lower 48. And with Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s re-election bid essentially a coin toss, anything reminding voters how much costs have skyrocketed in the last two years can be an edge for Republicans.

“It’s terrible. I’m spending $130 a week to keep on the road. Everything is so expensive, I just don’t know how we keep it up,” said Tiffany Russell, a 36-year-old Las Vegas resident whose friend called her when she spotted the cheaper gas on Flamingo Road, just one block off the neon-hued Las Vegas Strip. “I don’t know what they’re doing in Washington, but it isn’t working for us here in Nevada.”

The $2.38 per gallon that Russell and 250 others paid to fill up was a steep break from the station’s normal $5.69 price, with the Koch network picking up the difference. For a little less than $1,000—plus the cost of the staff and volunteers and two promotional sign-trucks—the Koch orbit here and in other key markets have caught the attention of local news stations and newspapers, a few people on Twitter, and (admittedly) this column. People like Russell also called to warn them about the price of gasoline, so the Kochs could be hoping for more attention from the inflation sting.

It is a clear encapsulation of the shifting strategy inside the Koch orbit’s many organizations, led in the political space through Americans For Prosperity. For years, the super-rich who share Koch’s vision of a limited government standing on pure capitalism and whittled-down regulations pumped millions onto airwaves looking to shape the public debate, whether it was on advocacy for policy or, to a lesser degree, explicit political outcomes. Americans For Prosperity, its affiliates and nearly $48 Million in outside funds were spent by Americans For Prosperity in 2020. This money was used to support its pet projects and stop Joe Biden from becoming the president. The final number? More than 59 million voter contacts—the combined populations of California and New York—across 272 distinct races, according to an internal report obtained by TIME. They are winning at an astonishing 78%. Even with Biden winning, their rate of victory is staggering at 78%

This is impressive, no doubt. It was impressive, but it meant that a lot of money had been spent on television which has become an inefficient method to reach voters. Koch strategists now want to focus on direct engagement via digital targeting, mail and other guerilla marketing. These tactics, even though they were considered lowbrow, are being embraced by a network of high-minded people who distribute philosophy texts and disruptor manifestos to their conferences. In a post Trump world there’s a realisation that what made MAGA possible is either an opportunity or threat. The Koch organizations—and their seemingly limitless ambition to reshape every corner of American life—don’t want to stay on the sidelines.

Take the debate over Biden’s social infrastructure package. Americans For Prosperity aggressively target Democratic Sens. Joe ManchinKyrsten Sinemapublic opinion on the matter, purchasing ads in the D.C. media market targeting handlers from Arizona, West Virginia, and Arizona. Manchin seems to have gotten to a yes, but Sinema’s silence has D.C. spooked and AFP officials optimistic that may have moved the needle on the famously unpredictable lawmaker. It’s the Koch machine in micro, one focused on putting pressure where it can make a difference, not necessarily where it draws praise from “the Establishment.”

One example of ignoring established fact is what the stunts at the pump show. The President on his own doesn’t control gas prices or inflation, but American tradition is to blame the person in that role for everything, and the Koch orbit isn’t above a bankshot as it bankrolls an effort that strategists say is bigger than anything they’ve mounted before. Its impact can spread down-ballot, especially if it weakens the President’s ability to boost his Democratic allies. In the most recent Emerson poll, Biden is rated 33% in job approval. Nevadans also blame 42% for rising gas prices and 46% for high inflation.

“There was some excitement over the infrastructure bill. However, as we finished the major projects, unemployment rose. It was quite a bit of finger-pointing. When someone is unemployed, they get frustrated,” says Frank Hawk, the president of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, which counts unionized carpenters from Colorado to the West Coast as members. He and his members played a key role in the transformation of Las Vegas. They staffed 18 million hours in one year, helping to change the Strip’s skyline and create big-box retail as well as pro-sports venues. As the building boom has slowed, that number has fallen to just 2 million hours per year. Sitting in a union hall conference room due west from Harry Reid International Airport, Hawk is blunt when asked how his members view the President: “lukewarm” is the best he can do, acknowledging 28% of his membership is Republican.

It’s that sentiment that has created a field ripe for Republicans and Koch affiliates to exploit. The Koch organizations have already made major investments in this year’s Republican primaries. They helped Nancy Mace, a moderate Republican in South Carolina, to defend her seat from a Trumpist. Iowa’s Zach Nunn won the nomination by the Koch group over Ted Cruz’s first-time candidate, who was based on parental rights. On Tuesday, Koch’s muscle will be put to the test in Missouri’s Senate primary. Americans For Prosperity supported Eric Schmitt, Missouri’s incumbent Attorney General, with over 410,000 doorknocks and 6.8million pieces of direct mail.

It is clear that the Koch orbit does not have any affinity to Trump. However, the Oval did work with Trump on shared priorities, such as 2017 tax cuts and 2018 criminal justice overhaul. While Trump is often seen as an oddity in politics, many Koch funders see him occasionally as a valuable resource that allowed them to achieve goals they might not have achieved if there was another Republican president. Many are looking to leave the political realm altogether. Instead, they are earmarking their money for projects like tech disruption, economic development experimentation, charter schools and other educational initiatives. Take a cue from Kevin Costner’s tearjerker. The Koch technocrats are willing to build it if you pay them.. (Costner, for what it’s worth, is making political headlines this week with his endorsement of Liz Cheney.)

But with the 2022 races looking downright positive for Republicans and Trump poised to return as a candidate in 2024, the Koch network is coming off the sidelines and engaging in major—even Trumpian—ways, especially on the economy. It’s in many ways the latest variation on the theme that made campaign operatives famous—and rich—after Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign that boiled its message down to the simple slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Charles Koch isn’t one to call anyone stupid, but he can spot a winning slidedeck when it comes across his desk in Wichita, Kansas.

It is no wonder that cars lined up to get cheaper gas on Friday, as there was a bright sun and an infectious DJ beating, turning the gas station near Las Vegas Strip into a dance floor with Avicii. The majority of people didn’t even know who was paying the tab and few cared. Families want to take advantage of any extra money they can get, as the cost of everything is rising at an alarming rate. Two tables distributed campaign-style flyers with information on who paid for the stunt, and the government’s options to reduce the cost of a tank. However it wasn’t easy to sell the idea to neighboring families just trying to make ends meet.

“I have no idea who is making this happen, but I can’t help but thank them,” says Maricela Quijada, a 42-year-old recruiter visiting Las Vegas from Phoenix. “We are spending $120, twice a week to keep this on the road,” she said while sitting in her black SUV. “It’s just too much.”

It might be more impactful for the Koch organizations to spend a few dollars on unleaded subsidized than spending millions on TV. It might also be impossible for Democrats to brush off; it’s one thing to point at vague economic indicators to argue the economy isn’t as bad as it seems, but it’s another when an hour’s work at a minimum wage job in Nevada won’t even pay for two measly gallons of gas.

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