David Koch

David Koch, shown here speaking recently in Orlando, Florida, said last week the GOP nominee for president should be Scott Walker, but quickly clarified that the Koch brothers aren't endorsing a candidate in the Republican primary. 

Phelan M. Ebenhack

The billionaire Koch brothers have always had a thing for Scott Walker. But do they support him for president? Well, sort of, but, you know, um, not just yet.

According to several reports from a New York state Republican Party fundraising event last week, David Koch told the donors, “We will support whoever the candidate is. But it should be Scott Walker.”

That sounded like an endorsement. So did what Koch said outside the Manhattan event, at which Walker also spoke. Koch hailed the governor as “a tremendous candidate.” Could Walker beat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? “No question about it,” chirped Koch. “If enough Republicans have a thing to say — why, he’ll defeat her by a major margin.”

Headline writers churned out the “news” that the monied Machiavellis had found their prince. But, hold on, David Koch announced. “While I think Governor Walker is terrific, let me be clear,” he said in a clarifying statement. “I am not endorsing or supporting any candidate for president at this point in time.”

First privately and then publicly, Koch signaled that the massive political apparatus he and his brother Charles oversee — with plans to raise $900 million from the Kochs and their fellow billionaires to help favored partisans win control of the federal government in 2016 — will not intervene in GOP primaries on behalf of any candidate. Not even Scott Walker.

For now, at least, the Kochs won’t spend against the Wisconsinite. But they won’t spend for him, either.

Why?

Because, for the Kochs, Republican contenders are essentially interchangeable. The Kochs want power, not a personality. And that’s bad news for Walker, whose political rise has benefited from massive infusions of Koch money. The billionaire brothers supported his bid to get elected governor of Wisconsin in 2010, and they came to the rescue when Walker was in a fight for his political life after his attacks on labor and public services and public education stirred an outcry. They have invited Walker to their “secret” summits. They have held him up as a model governor. No wonder Bloomberg Politics refers to Walker as the “King of Kochworld.”

Yet, in the race for the 2016 Republican nomination, Walker could be a king without a Koch crown. Some wealthy allies of the Kochs may back the Wisconsinite. But at this stage in the competition, for the Kochs themselves, Walker is merely a first among equals.

How come? Perhaps because, despite David Koch’s show of bravado last week, Walker may not be the strongest Republican contender against Clinton. And what matters most to the billionaire brothers in 2016 is not the race for the Republican nomination. It’s the November race for the White House. To think otherwise is to imagine that the Kochs are starry-eyed idealists rather than focused and serious partisans.

Walker is a stylistic favorite of the Kochs, to be sure. But this is about more than style.

In a new CNN/ORC poll, Clinton leads Walker nationally by a 59-37 margin. That’s closer to a Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Ronald Reagan in 1984 blowout for Clinton than a “major margin” for Walker.

In fairness to Walker, he has posted better numbers against Clinton in other polls. For instance, he was only down 14 points in a late March ABC News/Washington Post survey. There are surveys that put him closer. But in all recent polls, he’s trailing the Democratic front-runner.

What’s worse for Walker is that he runs weaker against Clinton than fellow Republicans Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.

Walker cannot even count on his home state. The new Marquette University Law School poll has Clinton 12 points ahead of Walker in Wisconsin. By comparison, Clinton beats Paul by just eight points. Among the voters who know Walker best, even Bush runs better against Clinton.

The Koch brothers know Walker.

They still like him. A lot.

But there may be a reason why the Kochs are not quite ready to invest any of that billion-dollar budget in Scott Walker’s primary campaign. It may be that, for all of his talk about how Walker would win by “a major margin” in November 2016, David Koch has seen the polls.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times