Kansas state Sen. Alicia Straub, an Ellinwood Republican, went out on a limb to make an anti-Koch claim familiar to Democrats. She is pictured here during a Feb. 23, 2022, session of the Senate. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Kansas Sen. Alicia Straub, an Ellinwood Republican, went out on a limb last month to make a claim more familiar to Democrats — that the Koch influence machine makes or breaks politicians and policies.
The Oct. 27 installment of the state Republican Party’s weekly newsletter began with a column from Straub. While a few of her side points might sound disconcerting to progressive readers, the overall point was one that might sound familiar to folks on the left.
“This behemoth of a business uses their unfathomable wealth to manipulate and control politicians worldwide,” the senator wrote. “They enjoy playing politics. In fact, their political ‘advocacy’, is what they claim ‘truly sets them apart’. They have created and funded countless think tanks, non-profit organizations, and lobbying groups, most notably, Americans for Prosperity (AFP).
“Americans for Prosperity, is not Republican. They are self-proclaimed Libertarians. AFP likes to control politicians so much, that if one dare ‘Pass’ on playing childish games with ‘leadership’ they try to punish and deter others from voting their moral principles. AFP has been known to spend over $100,000 against a legislator in a non-election year. They do this with letter size full color mailers that contain blatant lies about voting records. AFP in fact did this, when no one had even filed to run for Senate Dist. #33 in June 2023. I guess being worth over $200 billion has its downside; boredom must set in. Idle hands are the devil’s playground, and play they do.
“A maxed out $1,000 Kansas Senate campaign contribution is nothing to a company that makes over $200,000 per MINUTE. In fact, they could max out contributions to every single member of the Kansas Legislature (165 legislators) in under 1 minute of their earnings. That’s not Republican, that’s not democracy … That’s the sheer power of money.”
Wow. Does someone have a hankering to join the Democratic Socialists of America?
Straub has been at odds with Senate Republican leadership, being stripped of committee assignments in 2022 after voting against a redistricting map and this year voting “pass” on a make-or-break tax cut bill that went down in flames.
The latter appears to have caught the eye of AFP-KS.
State Director Elizabeth Patton sent over a statement: “Sen. Straub had the opportunity to pass historic tax reform and offset the economic challenges Kansans are facing due to inflation. By choosing to play politics, her constituents missed out on systemic tax reform. AFP believes in government accountability and by mailing her district, we informed the people that put her in office of her changed vote. Her recent response is misguided and doesn’t reflect the nature of AFP’s work to educate voters with the facts.”
I reached out to Straub, but she didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Fellow state senator
Straub joins fellow state Sen. Mark Steffen in making these points — he recorded a Facebook video in September that covered much the same ground. He at least tempered his criticism with the aside that he liked the Kochs. Straub didn’t even do that.
“The secret, the dirty secret behind the scenes, is that our Legislature is completely controlled by big-business, special-interest groups,” Steffen said on his page. “They do it to the detriment of the people of Kansas. They leverage their own capital to create an unlevel tax playing field. They shove as many of their costs onto the people of Kansas via taxes and tax credits.”
Steffen, as reported by Kansas Reflector’s Tim Carpenter, then singled out AFP-KS as “one the greatest offenders and frauds” in state politics.
“They are a globalist entity funded by the Koch brothers,” Steffen continued. “I love the Koch brothers and I love capitalism, but I don’t love globalism. I am an America-first person. We have AFP undermining people such as myself and other good conservatives who care about the people who care about the constitution.”
Patton had tart words for Steffen in Carpenter’s story, saying that the senator “fails to understand the difference between a free-market, liberty-minded conservative and a big-government populist. Unfortunately, he continually seems to seek control and has an inability to work with like-minded people who sometimes disagree or have a reasonable discussion.”
I don’t see Americans for Prosperity in the same way as Straub and Steffen.
The Kansas organization has backed causes I wholeheartedly agree with, such as highlighting abuses of civil asset forfeiture. Other AFP chapters and parts of the Koch network have backed the Free to Drive campaign to end debt-related driving restrictions. What’s more, organizations aplenty spend money on politics, including religious institutions and progressives alike.
Yet one can argue that the Koch has an uniquely outsized influence on Kansas politics, given that the company generating all this wealth has headquarters in Wichita. AFP has publicly backed candidate Lily Wu in the city’s mayoral race, suggesting the organization wants a voice on all levels of government, not just the state or national. Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson happens to work at “GoCreate: A Koch Collaborative” at Wichita State University, where he earns a six-figure salary.
You can do a bunch when you have a bunch of money.
Resist or coexist
The challenge, for Straub and Steffen and self-professed conservative populists just recognizing the situation, is this: What do you do about it?
Both politicians have made their disdain for members of the opposition party clear. Could they hold their noses to make common cause with Democrats? If moderate Republicans somehow surged back into positions of power, they might prove more congenial partners, but neither senator appears enamored of moderation as a political tactic.
Do you just post an angry column or video and then head home?
Earlier this week, the Wichita Eagle’s Dion Lefler beat me to this story and traced Straub’s resistance to Donald Trump’s example. The former president, after all, has insulted Charles Koch as a “very stupid, awkward, and highly overrated Globalist.”
Yet neither Straub nor Steffen have built anything like Trump’s name recognition or network of supporters. Their disaffection plops them on the margins of state power politics.
The duo might have found a lifeline with new Kansas Republican Party chairman Mike Brown, however. Known as 2020 election denier, he appears dedicated to shaking up the establishment. He also puts together a heck of a newsletter. I’ve had multiple copies forwarded to me at times, with extra texts from friends and sources beside.
No one can believe what shows up in the emails.
Recent highlights include an “election integrity expert” praising Sen. Mike Thompson’s conspiracy-riddled hearing and Brown himself writing that the entire Russia-Ukraine war is “a money laundering scheme for Joe Biden & Co.” I urge everyone to subscribe to keep up with the latest party news.
But I digress.
In a perfect world, perhaps, our legislators could gather not as party members, but as people. They could share their ideas and priorities, their value and passions. They could find what unites them as Kansans, rather than what divides them as members of ideological tribes. In this world, Straub and Steffen and Brown — and perhaps even members of AFP-KS — would agree with liberals and moderates on some issues and disagree on others.
They would collaborate when they could, and agree to disagree when they didn’t. They would think the best of one another and strive to make the state a better place, as they understand it. And they would do it not as Republicans or Democrats or Libertarians or globalists, but as fellow human souls.
Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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