Art Pope, former president of Americans for Prosperity and a Raleigh, North Carolina-based Republican donor, said the group’s decision to endorse a Trump rival was «not intended to benefit any particular candidate at this time.» . Instead, he said, the goal was “to find the best candidate and, more importantly, to be the best president of the United States on the issues that Americans for Prosperity stands for.”

Pope, who attended Koch’s weekend talk earlier this month in Palm Springs, California, said he personally believed Pence was «the best that meets those criteria.» But he said the organization will go through an open process to choose a candidate.

A spokesperson for the network declined to comment, referring POLITICO to the memo. But according to two Republican consultants close to the network, who have been granted anonymity to discuss domestic politics, whether Pence will be Koch’s nominee remains an open question.

The efforts of Pence’s donors to secure backing from the Koch network underscore both the degree to which the 2024 cycle’s shadow primaries are raging and the obstacles the former vice president faces as he prepares to leap into a potentially crowded field. Few potential 2024 Republican candidates can boast closer ties to the Koch network than Pence, which could make the failure to secure his support a setback for him and other candidates who have maintained close ties.

“Should the vice president decide to run, I would appreciate the support of organizations like the Koch network that are ideologically aligned with him on issues like taxes, free speech and personal liberties,” said a Pence adviser.

But Pence is no longer one of the most visible role models for the conservative movement. Instead, he finds himself in a crowded field of philosophically like-minded people. And as Koch’s network weighs which non-Trump candidate to endorse and bestow his resources on, he has a host of potential options.

While Pence enjoys the support of some Koch factions, others within the network favor candidates ranging from former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to Wichita, Kansas’ own Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state who hails from the same city where Koch oil is extracted. and the gas conglomerate is based, and that he received his endorsement during his campaigns in Congress. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is also said to enjoy a fountain of goodwill among Koch-aligned donors.

«I do not know if [the decision to endorse] totally help [Pence]”, a national Republican consultant familiar with the Koch network, granted anonymity to discuss his knowledge of the political deliberations. “I don’t think it helps a person. I think it will be very difficult for Pence to win. I think it helps everyone who isn’t Trump.» This person added: “Don’t forget there is a guy named Mike Pompeo who is very close to the Kochs and he is from Wichita. There is no lead dog at this time.»

The efforts of Pence’s donors to secure backing from the Koch network underscore the extent to which the 2024 shadow primary is underway and the obstacles facing the former vice president as he prepares to leap into a potentially crowded field.

For more than a decade, Pence has cultivated a deep relationship with the Kansas-based free-market network, one that extends further than almost any other potential Republican candidate. Among the possible contenders, Pence is the only one that I speak at the Koch-backed Tea Party rally on the National Mall on September 12, 2009, a scene he relays in his political memoir so help me god.

As governor of Indiana, Pence pushed through the kind of tax cuts favored by the network. He continued to employ staff associated with Koch’s world, including his senior adviser Marc Short, who left Koch’s Freedom Partners group, where he was president, to work on the marco rubio Presidential campaign. Short still maintains close ties to the network.

In his 2012 gubernatorial bid, Pence received $200,000 in contributions from billionaire David Koch and another $5,000 from Koch Industries. As vice president, Pence met with Koch’s donors in Manhattan in 2018 ahead of that year’s midterm cycle to help them map out a strategy.

During the 2016 cycle, before Pence opted out of a presidential run that year in favor of defending his gubernatorial job, the Koch network had all but anointed him as its favorite candidate. Last year, Pence headlined an event for Americans for Prosperity during which he lowered the price of gasoline to $2.38 at a Hobart, Indiana, gas station.

Pence has been touring the country on his book tour in recent weeks, including a stop earlier this week in Houston, Texas, ahead of a possible presidential campaign, one that, if it happens, is likely still «months» away. according to an adviser. . He is also embroiled in a classified documents scandal and has been subpoenaed by a grand jury in connection with special counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into former President Donald Trump’s push to overturn the 2020 election.

But there is a sense within Republican circles that there are avenues for a Trump opponent to secure the party’s presidential nomination. And that’s partly because some major donor networks and advocacy arms, like the Kochs, have expressed interest in leaving the 45th president behind.

“They are going to give priority to the candidate who values ​​free markets, free speech and free trade,” said Ken Spain, a partner at Narrative Strategies who led corporate communications at Koch Industries. “Koch’s network has generally endorsed candidates who reflect his worldview. Trump was the antithesis of that.»

Spain singled out Pence and the South Carolina senator. Tim Scott as possible winners of the Koch primary. In recent years, Charles Koch has expressed interest in criminal justice reform and police, a move that some Republicans believe could point to Scott, who is making calls about a possible presidential campaign and leading the charge in the Republican Senate on police reform measures. Scott has held several events with Koch-related efforts, but a person close to him said he was unaware of any recent backchannel efforts between Americans for Prosperity and the senator regarding a 2024 bid.

“Pence and Scott have raised the bar with the network in the past,” Spain said. “They line up from a free market and free speech standpoint. The question is: where is the network today and could they be left behind? [Ron] DeSantis’ brand of conservatism?

Winning the nod from the Koch chain would be a boon for any candidate: A spokesperson said the network’s imprimatur would include massive grassroots infrastructure, phone calls, phone calls, emails and publicity generated by its vaunted data operation i360. The network spent nearly $500 million supporting free-market candidates and causes in 2020, and nearly $80 million in the 2022 midterm elections. That’s not to mention physical operations in 36 states.

Koch’s emerging primaries and Pence’s uncertain position despite years of loyalty and ideological alignment point to the network’s shifting priorities and a realpolitik desire to endorse a candidate who can win a Republican primary. As Americans for Prosperity Action Executive Director Emily Seidel wrote in a notethe group is “prepared to support a candidate in the Republican presidential primary who can move our country forward and who can gain.”

Natalie Allison contributed to this report