WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - Charles and David Koch each have nearly 10 times the money amassed by TV superstar Oprah Winfrey, but none of her fame.
This election could change that - as the conservative mega-donors ramp up their political activity, and liberal groups set out to target them as greedy oil billionaires, seeking to influence the election to help their bottom line.
The brothers, who have a combined net worth that Forbes pegs at $50 billion, control Kansas-based Koch Industries. It operates oil refineries, makes chemicals and asphalt, controls pipelines and owns a wide range of consumer products, including Stainmaster carpet and Angel Soft toilet paper.
Charles Koch, 76, serves as chairman and CEO of the company, an outgrowth of an oil-refining business begun by their father, Fred Koch. David Koch, 72, is executive vice president.
"My joke is that we're the biggest company you've never heard of," David Koch said in a 2008 interview with Portfolio.com.
David Koch, a prostate cancer survivor, has emerged as a leading arts- and cancer-research philanthropist in New York, where he lives. In 2008, he grabbed headlines with a $100 million donation to Lincoln Center for the renovation of the State Theater of New York, which now bears his name. This year, he donated $35 million for a new dinosaur hall at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. In all, he has pledged or contributed $750 million to charity.
In Washington, however, the brothers are best known for their growing influence in politics as they inject millions into an array of conservative groups, including Americans for Prosperity.
"They believe that economic freedom is essential for improving society as a whole," Robert Tappan, a Koch Industries spokesman, said in an e-mail.
In Congress, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have been the top recipients of Koch-related contributions for the past two election cycles, data compiled by the non-profit Center for Responsive Politics show.
The company spent $20 million in federal lobbying in 2008, up from $610,000 five years earlier - as lawmakers worked on a proposal to slash greenhouse-gas emissions. In 2008 Senate filings, company officials said they would lobby to "oppose restraints on production and use of energy" in the measure. The bill never became law.
Two years later, a Koch subsidiary, Flint Hills Resources, spent $1 million to support an unsuccessful ballot initiative to suspend a California law, mandating significant reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions in the state.
In the first six months of this year, the company has spent $5.4 million to influence Washington policy, ranking among the top five oil companies in lobbying expenses, according to the non-profit Center for Responsive Politics. The company has sought to shape nearly five dozen bills, including one pushed by Democrats to repeal oil-industry subsidies.
"They are trying to influence the election to maintain taxpayer subsidies for their oil companies," Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said last week. "Ultimately, the American people will reject their arguments once their motives are clear."
Tappan denies that. The company has "consistently opposed subsidies over the years, even if it benefits us," he said.
Obama's allies "have attacked Charles Koch and David Koch, who are private citizens, because of their exercise of their constitutional right to speak out about issues of public policy," Tappan said. "These attacks confuse honest disagreement over policies with the politics of personal destruction. This is troubling and should be very concerning to all Americans."
The battle over the Kochs' role in politics will grow only more intense in the weeks ahead.
This week, a liberal non-profit, Patriot Majority, launched what it said will be a multimillion-dollar campaign targeting the Kochs over what the group called the brothers' "greed agenda."
The first phase was a $500,000 cable television ad buy that charges the Kochs and their "special-interest friends" will spend $400 million to "buy this year's elections and advance their agenda."
Another Koch official, Phillip Ellender, issued a statement calling the ads an "attempt to shut down free speech."
Foster Friess, a multimillionaire Wyoming investor and Republican donor who has grown to know both Kochs in recent years, said he tires of portrayals of them as the dark villains of the conservative movement.
"They are nice, decent people," told USA TODAY recently. "They are absolutely national treasures and have a huge respect for what makes this country great - free enterprise."
Friess, who donated more than $2 million in this election cycle to a super PAC aiding Rick Santorum's presidential campaign, said he is among Americans for Prosperity's donors, but declined to say how much he has given.
"I probably want to keep that private," he said. "But it was a meaningful amount for me."