TAMPA — The Republican National Convention seems a strange place for a press-shy billionaire benefactor of iconoclastic libertarian causes that have vexed GOP leaders — including the antiestablishment tea party movement.
Yet there was David Koch sitting on the convention floor Tuesday, smiling broadly, applauding — even clapping to a rendition of the Isley Brothers' hit Shout after the roll call vote that formalized Mitt Romney's nomination — and making polite chitchat with a steady stream of well-wishers.
"I love the introductions," Koch said to an old friend named Ron Gidwitz, referring to the short and boastful floor speeches by delegation chairs during the roll call. "I love the sense of humor," he added to Gidwitz, an Illinois investor and delegate.
Even though Koch's equally politically active brother Charles has kept his distance from the organized GOP, a number of operatives in Tampa told POLITICO that David Koch's presence as a delegate from New York here sent a strong message that the Kochs' expanding political operation is becoming a more reliable adjunct of the Republican Party.
It's a shift that has far-reaching implications for national politics in November and beyond. That's because the Koch brothers — whose controlling stakes in their eponymous chemical, oil and household products conglomerate give them a combined net worth of $50 billion — are planning to steer nearly $400 million to favored conservative groups ahead of Election Day.
Some of the biggest recipients of that cash, notably Americans for Prosperity — which was co-founded and is chaired by David Koch, and is holding a reception today in Tampa honoring him — have prided themselves on bucking GOP orthodoxy by pressuring Republicans from the right on fiscal issues.
Though several Koch-backed groups coordinated their 2010 efforts with more overtly GOP-allied groups such as those co-founded by Karl Rove, Americans for Prosperity bowed out of the rolling coordination meetings organized by Rove.
And top Republican operatives worried after the midterms that the Kochs might not play well with the party's mainstream in 2012.
But Koch's turn as a delegate to the GOP convention — his first — from his adopted home state should quell those concerns. It's a coming-out party of sorts at the end of a behind-the-scenes political evolution from a free enterprise purist who was the Libertarian Party's 1980 vice presidential nominee to one of the most influential players in Republican big-money politics.
It's not just wealth that sets Koch apart from many delegates here. He and his wife, Julia, donated about $75,000 to Democrat Andrew Cuomo's successful 2010 New York gubernatorial campaign, and he maintains some stances that are out of step with many Republicans — supporting gay marriage and stem cell research, for instance, while opposing the Iraq War.
Still, in addition to the hundreds of millions in largely undisclosed contributions he has given and steered to fiscally conservative groups through his family's foundations and the twice-a-year donor summits organized by Koch Industries, Koch in recent years has become a big giver to overtly Republican groups. Since 2010, he has given $3 million to the Republican Governors Association and at least $150,000 to the New York Republican Party, and this summer he hosted a $50,000-per-person fundraiser for Romney at his Hamptons beach estate.
Delegate slots typically go to a mix of grass roots activists, candidate supporters and big donors, so it was seen as a shrewd move for New York Republican Party chairman Ed Cox to make the offer to Koch.
"I called him, asked him if he'd like to be a delegate. And he thought about it and came and said, 'Yeah, I'd like to be a delegate, and I said, 'That's great,' " Cox said, adding that he had first reached out to Koch after assuming the party's helm in 2010
Koch is staying at a hotel close to the Tampa Bay Times Forum, where the convention is being held, and most of the New Yorkers at the breakfast didn't seem to know him.
"I know of him, but not him," said Joseph Giamboi, a former New York state Supreme Court justice and political veteran.
Other than the media interest, protective entourage and gawking — a young convention page walked past Koch on Tuesday asked one of his colleagues in awe, "Is that David Koch?" — Koch could be mistaken for just another delegate.
He declined on two separate occasions to answer when asked on the convention floor Tuesday whether he considered himself a free market libertarian first and foremost or a Republican.
"I can't hear," he told POLITICO. "I'm deaf in one ear," he explained, promising to make time for an interview. "I'll talk to you later."
His handlers, including former AfP president Nancy Pfotenhauer, subsequently said they were unable to arrange the promised interview, though they did issue a statement from him calling the 2012 elections "the most important of our lifetimes."