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Koch Brothers Gather Conservative Donors To Hear GOP Candidates


The first official debate in the Republican presidential primaries comes up later this week, on Thursday night. This past weekend was a milestone as well. New disclosures reveal the extent to which super PACs funded by ultra-wealthy donors have outraised the candidates' own campaigns. And five of the GOP candidates auditioned before an elite set of contributors who collectively have pledged nearly a billion dollars for this election cycle. NPR's Peter Overby explains.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The donor network of libertarian brothers David and Charles Koch gathered for its semiannual meeting this weekend at a California resort. Five Republican presidential candidates appeared. Politico writer Mike Allen interviewed each of them in live webcasts.


SCOTT WALKER: I wish the whole world could see what goes on here.

OVERBY: Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has gotten Koch support in his statewide campaigns.


WALKER: So many of you here aren't here because of any interests on behalf of your personal finances or your industries. You're here because you love America.

OVERBY: Texas senator Ted Cruz painted the Koch network's 2014 campaign efforts in heroic terms.


TED CRUZ: The men and women in this room spilled gallons of blood, spent your fortunes retaking the Senate, winning nine Senate seats, retiring Harry Reid as majority leader.

OVERBY: Leading the super PAC money race is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.


JEB BUSH: Money helps. I'm playing by the rules of the game, the way it was laid out. And if people don't like it, that's just tough luck.

OVERBY: Overall, presidential super PACs account for twice as much money as the candidates' official campaign committees. That's according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Thirty-five donors have given at least a million dollars each. The biggest contributor so far is hedge fund magnate Robert Mercer. He sent $11 million to a super PAC backing Ted Cruz. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio told the Koch network the candidates really have no choice about raising money.


MARCO RUBIO: As long as newspapers and television stations keep charging people to speak out on politics, we're going to have to keep raising money to pay for it.

OVERBY: And Carly Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, said the media isn't nearly as critical of liberal donors and labor unions.


CARLY FIORINA: The point is the media doesn't like one kind of money, but is OK with another kind of money. I think...


FIORINA: I think everybody ought to play by the same rules.

OVERBY: The Koch network has been getting an image makeover. This weekend, for the first time, some reporters were invited to attend some of the meetings. They had to agree not to identify any guests. NPR did not seek or get an invitation. Travis Ridout, a political scientist at Washington State University, says the political system has turned a corner.

TRAVIS RIDOUT: The way that candidates are seeking money and obtaining money for the campaigns really has changed.

OVERBY: Ridout is with the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads on television.

RIDOUT: The worry under the current system is that it's just billionaires whose views are being heard and not the views of, frankly, the rest of the American public.

OVERBY: There's no sign the Koch network will put money into the GOP primary fight. The Koch brothers have said they expect to focus on the general election. Still, that doesn't prevent individual donors from choosing up sides. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.