In latest show of independence, Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity to sit out Virginia Senate race

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Republican Senate candidate Corey A. Stewart speaks during the Virginia 6th District Republican Convention at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., in May. (AP)

Americans for Prosperity, the main political arm of the influential Koch network, said it will not endorse either party’s candidate or put any money into the U.S. Senate race in Virginia after immigration hard-liner Corey A. Stewart’s victory in the Republican primary Tuesday.

The group typically spends heavily and deploys activists across the country to support key GOP candidates. Its backing, particularly in a swing state such as Virginia, could make a big difference in a crucial midterm year when Republicans are fighting to hold on to their majority in both chambers of Congress.

But its decision to withhold that support is the latest sign that the powerful network of wealthy donors and well-connected conservative activists is seeking to strike a more independent tone this election, after years of being closely intertwined with Republican campaigns and causes.

The constellation of groups backed by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch and like-minded donors has been ramping up pressure on the legislative branch, urging action on its key policy priorities and saying it will work with lawmakers in either party who are willing to lead on those issues.

The Koch network tends to be libertarian-minded and supports the Republican platform generally. It was a major proponent of the GOP tax overhaul law last year and spent $20 million to push it through Congress.

But it has gotten frustrated that despite the Republican majority in Congress, some of its key legislative goals remain in limbo, such as free trade, immigration and curtailing government spending.

Stewart, a Trump-style candidate, is known for his anti-illegal immigration views and therefore veers from the network, which seeks permanent protection of the 700,000 “dreamers,” or young undocumented immigrants who are beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Americans for Prosperity had endorsed Stewart’s primary opponent, Del. Nick Freitas, highlighting among other things Freitas’s opposition to tariffs and to Medicaid expansion in Virginia.

“Nick Freitas earned our support by being a champion for policies that lead to more freedom and prosperity for everyone,” AFP-Virginia state director JC Hernandez said in a statement to The Washington Post. “We stand behind our decision to support a principled lawmaker who has a track record of fighting for policies that would help Virginians improve their lives.”

The decision puts the network at odds with President Trump, who in a Wednesday morning tweet called Stewart’s win a “great victory” and warned, “Don’t underestimate Corey, a major chance of winning!”

Hernandez said AFP-Virginia will not be involved in the Senate campaign in the state this fall.

“We will continue to stand with those who support policies that will enable people to improve their lives and communities,” Hernandez said.

Democratic incumbent Tim Kaine is a heavy favorite for reelection. The Senate GOP’s campaign arm does not plan to endorse Stewart or spend money on his bid, meaning Stewart probably will face a tough run against Kaine.

Still, with Republicans holding the Senate majority by two seats and Democrats showing strong fundraising efforts to unseat Republican incumbents, every swing seat could make a difference.

Earlier this month, the network released a digital ad thanking Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), one of the most Democratic incumbents running for reelection this fall, for her decision to co-sponsor a bill to roll back banking regulations.