Before becoming a US congressman in 2010, Mike Pompeo had patrolled the Iron Curtain, and started and sold two Kansas businesses, but never held office.
When he ran, Pompeo earned the nickname the “Congressman from Koch” because of the outsized donations made to his 2010 campaign by the industrialist Koch brothers, whose energy conglomerate is headquartered in Pompeo’s Wichita, Kansas district. Koch Industries donated just $80,000 directly to Pompeo—but that made them the largest contributor to his campaign in 2010. It also helped him out-raise his Democratic challenger by almost 20%. Pompeo won the race with 58% of the vote.
That was also the year the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the floodgates to a rush of “dark money” in politics. The Koch brothers support for Pompeo became a blueprint for how they’d go on to influence Congressional races across the country in years to come, while forming a massive fund-raising empire that’s now one of the most influential powers in US elections.
Overall, Koch Industries contributed $375,500 to Pompeo through his six-year congressional career, while the oil and gas industries total spent $1.1 million.
More important than the dollar figures is the precedent set by the Koch-Pompeo relationship, campaign finance experts say. He represented a “starting point for the Koch brothers to jump in on all political spending,” Aaron Scherb, the director of legislative affairs for Common Cause, a Washington, DC watchdog group that analyzes money in politics.
In Congress, Pompeo pushed Koch Industries-friendly legislation to curb regulations on oil and gas companies, and end tax breaks for renewable energy. He also hired Koch Industries lawyer Mark Chenoweth as his chief of staff. In a 2012 op-ed he wrote for Politico, Stop Harassing the Koch Brothers, Pompeo wrote, “The Democrats’ obsession with the Kochs as a political target is, indeed, additional evidence of a truly Nixonian approach to politics.”
As secretary of state, Pompeo will oversee a powerful, though somewhat diminished, agency that oversees tens of thousands of employees and contract workers. The state department has a budget of about $40 billion, and overseas US Embassy building contracts, while also partnering with local governments and private companies on infrastructure projects through subsidiaries like USAID. Traditionally, State department officials also advise on everything from US trade policy to sanctions.
While Pompeo’s current role as head of the CIA is an extremely important position, Scherb said, as secretary of state he will make key decisions about US policies overseas, which have broader financial repercussions. Because of his links to the Kochs, Pompeo deserves “another level of scrutiny now that he’s been nominated as Secretary of State,” he said.
Privately-held Koch Industries has 120,000 employees in 60 countries nationwide, include a big presence in Europe and Asia, according to the company. It earned $100 billion in revenue in 2017.
Pompeo’s nomination will need to be confirmed by the US Senate, which has set a tentative date to for a hearing in April.