This article was republished with permission from Sludge, an investigative money-in-politics website. Visit readsludge.com to subscribe to its weekly newsletter.
Charles Koch, the billionaire CEO of Koch Industries who leads a vast, conservative political network, has made a habit of pointing out his disagreements with President Donald Trump, but sometimes money speaks louder than words.
Despite Republican Ron DeSantis’ fawning praise of Trump, whose trade tariffs and immigration policies have made Koch bristle, Koch’s political network is spending big to help the current congressman and Florida gubernatorial candidate edge out Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum. The progressive policies championed by Gillum would surely increase environmental regulations and government spending, two initiatives that Koch and his network of wealthy rightwing donors viciously oppose.
Billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam—the biggest donors to outside political spending groups of the 2018 election cycle—have put up big bucks to assist DeSantis as well.
A Sludge analysis of state campaign finance data shows that these two GOP royal families have poured millions of dollars into this tight gubernatorial contest. In addition to direct contributions to DeSantis’ political committees from Koch Industries and the Adelsons, three independent spending groups financed by Koch and his donor network have spent millions of dollars backing DeSantis.
Koch Industries, which operates a global oil, chemicals and materials conglomerate, has several facilities in Florida, including for its paper company, Georgia-Pacific, and its synthetic materials business, Molex. Georgia-Pacific has been fined for dozens of environmental and workplace safety/health violations, as recently as 2017, and Molex was cited in 2012 for workplace safety/health violations, according to Good Jobs First. Overall, Koch Industries has had to pay $737 million for federal and state violations.
In the early 2000s, according to American Bridge, Koch Industries used the Koch political network’s ties to then-Gov. Jeb Bush to loosen environmental regulations just as Koch Industries purchased Georgia-Pacific, which operates waste pipelines that run through Florida and may have contributed to algae blooms in state rivers.
Gillum is running to “transition Florida to clean energy as rapidly as possible” and to crack down on “corporate polluters,” goals that would hurt Koch Industries’ bottom line.
For the Adelsons, uncritical support for Israel and its current government is their top issue, and DeSantis has been a leading booster of the Trump brand of Middle East diplomacy. Absent any proof, DeSantis has called Gillum an anti-Semite. DeSantis recently claimed that if elected, he would be the most pro-Israel governor in the country.
The Koch Groups
DeSantis is about as pro-Trump as you can get. His campaign’s first election ad this year featured DeSantis, a self-proclaimed “pitbull Trump defender,” teaching his daughter to “build that wall” and to say, “Make America Great Again.”
In January 2016 DeSantis attended the Koch network’s invitation-only donor summit at a luxury resort in Indian Wells, Calif.. At these semi-annual gatherings, Koch and other rightwing billionaires and multi-millionaires get together to talk political spending strategy. Operatives invite various Republican candidates to audition before the donors of the Koch network.
It appears DeSantis passed the test, and even played golf with Koch at another donor summit in Colorado in June 2017.
A few months later, Americans for Prosperity’s Florida branch featured DeSantis at three events concerning tax cut legislation, which Congress passed in December to the Koch network’s delight.
In July 2018, Koch network super PAC Freedom Partners Action Fund (FPAF) endorsed DeSantis, giving him a big boost in the Republican primary where polls had him behind the frontrunner. Since then, FPAF, which is linked to Koch’s trade group and “central bank” of the Koch political network, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, has spent $323,000 on mailers and digital ads supporting DeSantis.
FPAF recently released information on its 2018 third-quarter federal donors, including Charles Koch ($3 million) and Koch network donors Dick DeVos ($1 million) and Darwin Deason ($1 million), but its list of donors submitted to the Florida Division of Elections is extremely thin, amounting to only $25,000.
Another Koch super PAC popped up in September, this time tied to the Koch-backed social welfare nonprofit Americans for Prosperity. Americans for Prosperity Action, funded by FPAF ($5 million) and individuals such as Mountaire Corporation CEO Ronnie Cameron ($1 million) and private equity executive Wayne Laufer ($500,00), announced a digital ad and mailer campaign attacking Gillum, but no AFP Action documents appear on the Florida Division of Elections website. An AFP Action spokesperson told Sludge that the organization has spent $316,000 in the governor’s race. The committee had filed its registration papers weeks ago and that the Division of Elections was wrapping up the application process on Oct. 18.
Republican Governors Association
Both the Adelsons and Koch Industries have bankrolled the Republican Governors Association, a 527 political committee that spends on gubernatorial races around the country, this cycle. The Adelsons combined to donate $4 million to the RGA, while Koch Industries added $1 million, according to the group’s latest IRS filing.
The RGA created a Florida-based spending group, Florida Facts, and has donated $7.4 million to it so far. Florida Facts has spent nearly all of that total on TV ads attacking Gillum, including one that portrays him as a “radical, far-left” candidate and depicts him as an alien planet.
Sheldon and Miriam Adelson donated $6,000 directly to the DeSantis campaign, but gave far more to an affiliated political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, which can accept unlimited amounts of money. Giving to Friends of Ron DeSantis are GOP megadonors who make up his campaign’s formidable Finance Leadership Team, including the Adelsons, who gave half a million dollars. Also on the team are current and former Koch network donors such as Foster Freiss ($10,000), Wayne Laufer ($75,000), Rebekah Mercer ($25,000) and Richard Uihlein ($500,000). The family of Education Sec. Betsy DeVos gave $200,000, including $50,000 from her husband, Dick. Koch network donor John Childs, a private equity executive, donated $600,000, and Ronnie Cameron gave $100,000. The Republican Governors Association also gave $1 million to the PAC.
Friends of Ron DeSantis also took in nearly $2.5 million from another committee, Fund for Florida’s Future, which is financed by several Koch network donors, including members of the Texas fracking billionaire Darwin Deason ($25,000) and his son, Doug ($10,000)—who are also on the leadership team—Laufer ($25,000) and Uihlein ($250,000), as well as other big donors, such as Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus ($250,000).
Gillum wants to end Florida’s school voucher program, which offers public scholarships for students to attend private and often religious schools. DeVos and her family are huge proponents of school vouchers, as well as school choice, and DeSantis’ proposal to expand “school choice” would certainly appeal to them.
DeSantis was able to transfer funds from his U.S. House campaign and his federal leadership PAC to Friends of Ron DeSantis. Koch Industries’ PAC donated $5,000 to DeSantis’ House campaign, which has transferred $1.1 million to Friends of Ron DeSantis. KochPAC also gave $5,000 to DeSantis’ leadership PAC, First Principles Fund, which later transferred $50,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis.
Gillum has a billionaire benefactor, too. Liberal hedge fund manager Tom Steyer kicked in $2 million to Gillum’s Forward Florida PAC, and his NextGen America political nonprofit will reportedly spend $5 million to help Gillum’s bid for governor.
So far DeSantis’ campaign committee has raised roughly $12.3 million and spent close to $6.6 million, while Gillum’s campaign has received $13.4 million and spent roughly $9.6 million. But Friends of Ron DeSantis has gotten nearly $32 million in donations and spent almost all of that amount. Gillum’s Forward Florida has raised roughly $19.3 million since its inception in 2016 and has spent $16.6 million.
Additional Koch Ties
At least one member of DeSantis’ campaign team has worked for Koch-funded initiatives in the past. Communications strategist Sarah Bascom joined DeSantis’ campaign communications team in late September. In 2016, Bascom was the spokesperson for an anti-solar energy ballot measure campaign in Florida that was partially bankrolled by the Koch-backed political group 60 Plus Association.
The DeSantis and Gillum campaigns did not return requests for comment.