Senate President Bill Cole spent the weekend at a Palm Springs resort with about 500 high-spending donors, where he spoke at a retreat organized by the conservative mega-donors Charles and David Koch.
The annual donors retreat is organized by the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit affiliated with the Koch brothers, which requires an annual membership fee of $100,000. The event is not open to the public, just to major conservative donors, although select media were invited to attend.
Charles Koch gave the opening address at the retreat.
Cole, R-Mercer, and a candidate for governor, spoke at the exclusive event, to discuss his work in improving West Virginia’s economy, a campaign spokesman said.
“He specifically addressed his legislation to make West Virginia the 26th right-to-work state,” campaign spokesman Kent Gates said in an email. “Bill Cole will travel throughout West Virginia and beyond — to talk about his commitment to fixing the economic and financial crisis that West Virginia faces.”
The event was held at the Renaissance Indian Wells Resort & Spa. The luxury hotel was rented out entirely for the Freedom Partners event, according to The Hill, a Washington newspaper. The Hill was among five media outlets which attended the event, on the condition that they not identify donors who did not wish to be identified.
Cole was one of just seven elected officials to attend the event, according to The Hill and The Desert Sun, a Palm Springs-area newspaper.
Gates said the donor retreat was “not a political event.” He said that Cole did no fundraising or campaigning at the event.
“He was introduced in his official capacity and did not discuss the campaign for governor,” Gates said.
Gates emphasized that Cole, who left Friday afternoon and returned Sunday evening, traveled at his own personal expense. He flew to California on his personal plane.
The state Democratic Party criticized Cole, who has said that he would spend the legislative session focused on governing, not his campaign.
“Instead of raising money in California, Cole needs to focus on doing his job in West Virginia,” Democratic Party spokeswoman Brittni McGuire said in a prepared statement.
The Koch brothers and their political network have pledged to spend nearly $900 million ahead of the 2016 elections, more than the Republican and Democratic National Committees combined spent on the 2012 elections.
Their network has been active in West Virginia. Jason Huffman, the state director for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group founded and largely funded by the Koch brothers, is a regular presence at the state Capitol and has spoken at two recent public hearings.
And Americans for Prosperity recently accelerated its advertising in West Virginia, specifically related to right-to-work.
The group has been advertising in favor of a right-to-work law — a top priority of Republican legislative leadership — since December.
They launched a television ad on Friday.
Christian Hertenstein, a spokesman for Americans for Prosperity, said the group recently spent “a strong five figures” on a digital ad buy.
Hertenstein said Americans for Prosperity has now “amped up” its advertising, in advance of a vote on right-to-work in the House of Delegates this week.
The right-to-work bill passed the Senate by just one vote, with every Republican voting in favor and every Democrat opposed.
While the bill is expected to pass the House as well, where Republicans hold a 64-36 edge, some Republicans are also expected to cross the party line and vote against the measure.
The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee last week, 13-10, with one Republican, Delegate Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, voting no.
Hanshaw’s district is one of 11 House districts that received two mailers from Americans for Prosperity last weekend about right-to-work.
Almost all of the districts targeted by the mailers are represented by Republicans.
Cole has been clear that he thinks passing a right-to-work law, which allows employees in unionized workforces to opt out of paying union fees, will bring new employers to West Virginia.
“You look at a state like South Carolina that’s drawn in BMW and Boeing to create jobs, I think that I’d like to follow that model,” Cole said last week.
Democrats say that right-to-work laws aim to weaken unions and, thus, lower wages. Cole counters by pointing to West Virginia’s low economic rankings.
“When we’re last in unemployment and we’re going downhill,” he said, “why don’t we want to try something new? Our wages are already at the bottom, I can’t possibly fathom that they’ll go lower.”