ORLANDO — On an evening here last week, Allison Martin, who works for a group backed by two of the wealthiest men on the planet, pitched Hispanic immigrants on the benefits of a $1.5 trillion tax cut President Trump signed into law last year.
She handed out worksheets. She calculated savings on a whiteboard. She even used a translator so her Spanish-speaking audience of 20 people could follow along.
“We are journeying toward economic freedom,” said Martin, a Florida-based staffer with one of the many organizations controlled by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. “When we are journeying toward economic freedom, we need money.”
The audience nodded in agreement.
It’s no accident that the Koch apparatus is targeting this audience: Hispanics who have recently arrived in Florida and have every reason to disdain the country’s harsh-on-immigration, paper-towel-tossing president. The Koch groups, in a subtle but shrewd tactical move, are trying to build a bulwark against the Trump-fueled erosion of support among Hispanics in key states like this one.
And they’re trying to prove that their key priority, the massive tax cut, should be popular with immigrant newcomers and the economically struggling. After funding the Tea Party movement that ushered in an era of complete Republican control of the federal government, the Koch groups spent millions of dollars lobbying for this tax cut.
Their privately held company has benefited from it to the tune of more than $1 billion a year, according to one estimate by a left-leaning group.
Now they’re going to extraordinary lengths to sell it, taking steps well beyond the typical TV and digital advertising used by most political groups, and sponsoring a host of town-hall-type meetings in Florida and in five other politically important states to inform people about the benefits of the tax measure.
It’s all an effort to stem the potential losses from a demographic that is peeling away from Trump in droves, and in a crucial state that could provide one of the keys to the 2020 election. They’re not just selling the tax cut, they’re providing a host of Spanish-language events infused with the free market, limited government philosophy the Kochs hope will appeal to Hispanics — and help them look past the many offensive comments made by the president.
It’s a case, in other words, of the wealthiest GOP benefactors looking for ways to mop up after the GOP president.
‘Trying to stay in the middle’
Over the course of several days on the ground in central Florida, there were some indications that the approach was making inroads. While there was near universal skepticism about Trump, many of the people interviewed were willing to consider voting Republican — at least someday.
“I have heard about both parties, and I’m trying to stay in the middle,” offered Carlos Hernandez, a 51-year-old who brought his family to Orlando from Venezuela about eight months ago.
He was there for the tax-cut town hall, but he’s enjoyed many of the free events offered, from a resume-writing class to English courses. “You build a network,” he said, adding that he and his family appreciate the friends they’ve made at the Koch-backed seminars.
The tax courses focus on savings the new law offers. But the curriculum steers clear of the concerns other pro-Hispanic organizations have identified. UnidosUS, which is one of the oldest Hispanic advocacy groups in the country, has called the tax cut a “historically bad” piece of legislation that will drive up the cost of health care and trigger cuts to programs like food assistance that Hispanics use.
But for the Koch-funded Libre groups, the tax town halls serve multiple purposes. They help make good on a promise by the Koch groups to sell the tax plan to the public. And they’re a fresh installment of Hispanic-friendly programming that Koch-aligned groups are producing to woo the rapidly growing voting demographic.
There are technically two sister Libre groups, the Libre Institute and the Libre Initiative, and they operated with a combined budget of $13.5 million in 2016, the last year that tax forms were available. The Koch network this year has set a goal of increasing their activities in all areas by a factor of 10, but a spokesman declined to provide more up-to-date budget figures.
The Koch groups also hold seminars for Hispanics on how to write resumes, with the aim of helping them get jobs. They offer English-language classes as part of a “Welcome to Florida” program geared specifically to Puerto Ricans who are descending on Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria — and, of course, arrive as US citizens with voting rights. They hosted a recent town hall on immigration issues to explain the efforts that the Kochs have made to support changes that would make it easier for people to immigrate to the United States.
This is an area where the Kochs and Trump hold different views. And Libre has funded digital ads pushing Congress to protect so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought here as children. Trump initially said he’d protect them but threatened to veto legislation that would have delivered that promise. The Koch networks have also been critical of Trump’s call to end chain migration — where family members join those already settled here — saying they don’t support what they call “arbitrary” caps for legal immigrants.
The tax town halls are new — and will also be held in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, and New Mexico.
“We’re here to talk about tax reform,” said Martin, who led Monday night’s tax town hall. “How do you feel about taxes?”
She passed out a worksheet showing the old and new tax brackets, and then led the class through a detailed discussion of tax deductions and credits, and how they’ve changed under the new law. Then she had the class calculate how much a person making $35,000 a year would pay in taxes under the old law, and then again under the new law.
Her conclusion: $1,050 in savings thanks to tax reform, a figure that’s similar to other nonpartisan analyses. “If you’re noticing an increase in your paycheck, this is why,” she said. “That is one thing the tax reform did.”
Making people do math seems like a tortured way of selling the plan, but the audience reacted with delight. Omar Santiago, 26, said he was skeptical of the tax cut because he’d heard it largely benefited the wealthy.
“We are definitely getting more money in our pockets,” Santiago gushed afterward. “That is one thing that stood out. Because who doesn’t want more money in their pockets?”
The Libre Institute is careful to stay away from partisan politics, as its work is being done via a tax-exempt branch of the network. But the locations the group has picked tell a different story. Libre’s hosting tax workshops in five politically important states that have had close elections. There’s no Libre effort in Puerto Rico. There’s also none in California or New York, two states with a large numbers of Hispanics.
Libre also does not register people to vote, but it is invested in keeping track of the people who come to events, ostensibly to build a deeper relationship with them. The staff makes sure to collect personal information from everyone in the room, passing around an iPad where attendees enter their names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses.
The small-government philosophy sets the group apart from the Hispanic outreach in Florida that is done by groups that are more aligned with liberal organizations. That includes UnidosUS, which has 15 affiliated groups in Florida that reached at least 100,000 in the last year. They work with local groups that help connect Hispanics with affordable housing, education programs, and health care.
The Kochs are swimming upstream in this effort to woo swing-state Hispanics and are contending with a Republican Party and a president that have shown little interest in this group. Trump has labeled Mexicans “rapists,” he insulted a Venezuelan beauty queen by calling her “Miss Housekeeping,” and he tweeted a photo of a taco bowl on Cinco de Mayo, a day when Mexican history is honored.
GOP fears paying the price
Republicans are growing increasingly worried that they’ll pay a political price among Hispanics. Trump won Florida by about 120,000 votes in 2016, powered largely by running up massive margins in the suburbs and among white voters. But after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in August, tens of thousands left the island and came to Florida; one estimate pegs the number as high as 300,000.
Puerto Ricans are a particularly important group of Hispanics because, as American citizens, they can vote in US elections. So the Koch effort, at the very least, offers the possibility of a welcoming haven amid a Republican coalition that is largely walking in step with Trump.
“The Kochs are doing it part out of ideological conviction and part out of political necessity,” said David Jolly, a Republican former member of Congress from Florida. “We know in Florida what a 1- or 2-point swing among any demographic can do.”
Jolly said he’s “very concerned” that Trump is alienating Hispanics from the party for years to come.
And he should be concerned. There was little affection for Trump among the attendees at a variety of Koch-backed events last week.
“He wants to separate families,” said Mayia Belloli, a 38-year-old from Colombia who attended a Koch-sponsored English class on a recent Monday night. She scrunched up her nose in disgust with the president but was clear that her view doesn’t necessarily extend to all Republicans. “They hold more family values,” Belloli said.
This effort is being eyed with some measure of concern among Democrats in the state.
“It makes our math harder,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who spearheaded former president Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns in Florida. “The way you win Florida, it’s all about managing the margins.”
Trump’s victory in 2016 probably showed the ceiling of white support for a Republican, he said, so as the state becomes more diverse, the GOP is going to have to find other groups willing to support their candidates.
“If they can chip our 70-30 advantage [with Hispanics], it just means we have to find votes elsewhere,” Schale said. “The Koch brothers have the ability to play the long game.”
Playing the long game is exactly what the Kochs, with their tangle of nonprofits, super PACs, and politically oriented nonprofits, are attempting to do. Libre’s most popular programs are its free English-language classes, which the group offers several times per week.
About 100 people showed up to an English class last Monday evening, including about 40 new students. It was too many people to fit into Libre’s modest offices, so the group used space owned by the Casa Roca Orlando church. The Libre staff added a temporary banner to each classroom emblazoned with the slogan “Freedom drives progress.”
“Many of you from Puerto Rico understand the big debt that government can pile up,” Juan Martinez, the Orlando field director at Libre, told the group in Spanish. “In Venezuela, you’ve had a similar situation.”
He went on to explain that here, at the Libre classes, students would learn how they can avoid making those kinds of mistakes in their personal lives.
Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.