Democrats are making the billionaire Koch brothers the boogeymen of the left this cycle, trying not only to neutralize attacks from their conservative groups, but to ultimately turn them against Republicans as well.
“It’s clear we’re a target” reads a breathless fundraising plea sent in December from Rep. Bruce Braley, the presumed Democratic Senate nominee in Iowa, warning supporters to donate to fend off attacks from the wealthy siblings.
The strategy stems partly from opportunity and partly from necessity. Private polling has shown hammering the GOP for their ties to outside-money is an effective attack for Democrats.
“Polling in a variety of battleground states shows that tying Republican candidates to the Koch Brothers and their agenda is a major vulnerability,” said one national Democratic operative engaged in Senate races.
The Koch brothers, David and Charles, are emblematic of what Democrats see as one of the central narratives of the 2014 elections: The question of who’s working for average Americans, and who’s beholden to outside special interests.
The fact that Koch-affiliated groups have spent more than $25 million attacking Democrats on ObamaCare since August offers Democrats a tidy answer to that question.
And because they simply can’t match every cent of that $25 million, Democrats need to neutralize the attacks in a more basic way: by attacking the integrity of their messenger.
“The entire framework of this election for us is about priorities and who’s on your side, with Republicans being on the side of special interests and Democrats being on the side of the middle class,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Josh Schwerin.
Vastly outspent already this cycle, the wealthy conservative duo have wielded influence in politics for years. But they’ve been using their wealth and vast business network in new and early ways leading up to 2014.
The brothers head up Koch Industries, which is the nation’s second-largest private company that’s brought in $115 billion in sales, according to Forbes. They’ve used that wealth, and the deep pockets of a pool of wealthy donors they powwow with, to fund various think tanks and political advocacy groups, including Americans for Prosperity (AFP).
AFP spent $122 million attacking President Obama and Democrats on a range of issues during the 2012 cycle, and has already spent nearly $27 million since August on ObamaCare attacks against Democrats, with no signs of letting up.
Republicans need to pick up six seats to take back the Senate, and the influx of outside spending is meant to take advantage of national discontent with ObamaCare and help move them towards that goal. Democrats have a much tougher task of picking up 17 seats if they hope to regain the majority in the House.
The seemingly laser-focus by Democrats on the Kochs can help the party in a difficult midterm year both defend against their attacks, by undermining the message by attacking the messenger, and can turn the Kochs’ help into a liability for Republican candidates.
That strategy is particularly useful for campaigns to galvanize voters, said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, as party faithful see the brothers as an intractable force opposed to their most important policy goals.
“They gin up the base — especially from voters who tend to be lower performing in non-presidential years — such as those under 30 where climate is their number one issue and the Koch's are viewed as seeking for their own economic self-interest to block efforts to address climate,” he said.
Multiple Democratic operatives confirmed invoking the Kochs in fundraising pitches can be a big money draw.
Justin Barasky, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s spokesman, wrote in a Thursday memo that Republican candidates in races where AFP is spending will be “held accountable” for policies pushed by the group.
“The Koch brothers are spending millions every month to buy themselves a U.S. Senate that is beholden to their agenda and hurts the middle class. As the Kochs continue to spend millions on false and misleading attack ads, Republicans Senate candidates will have to answer for the Kochs' words and deeds,” Barasky said.
Democrats in difficult races have worked to individually tie Republican candidates to AFP’s positions on issues, much like Democrats have tied Republican candidates to what they characterize as negative outcomes of Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget proposal.
In North Carolina, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan has been the target of more money spent by the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity than any other Democrat this cycle, a cool $8 million and counting.
But Hagan’s campaign has hit back, charging that the millions spent by AFP is payback from the group for State House Speaker Thom Tillis’ allegiance to their agenda. Tillis is the leading GOP contender to face Hagan.
"In Raleigh, Tillis has shown his allegiance to AFP’s dangerous for North Carolina, special interest agenda, and now they are returning the favor by trying to buy him a U.S. Senate seat,” wrote Hagan communications director Sadie Weiner in a memo issued by the campaign.
Weiner points to praise AFP heaped on the North Carolina legislature after it passed a number of laws that Democrats say resulted in cuts to education and other programs, and after it opposed the implementation of ObamaCare, all while Tillis was speaker.
“It’s the new post-Citizens United quid pro quo – Tillis passes their agenda, they run ads to prop up his candidacy.”
In Louisiana, where AFP has spent more than $3 million, the state’s Democratic Party Executive Director Stephen Handwerk pointed to what he characterized as AFP’s “anti-Louisiana agenda,” and knocked the group for “almost single-handedly waging an anti-[Sen. Mary] Landrieu campaign” in the state.
“After advocating devastating cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and then trying to ram through Bobby Jindal's disastrous tax plan, now the Koch brothers and AFP are trying to kill the bipartisan flood insurance reform bill that passed the Senate last week,” he said.
The Kochs are, unsurprisingly, unswayed, by the Democratic attacks. Koch spokesman Robert Tappan told The Hill that Democrats are targeting the Kochs because they’ve “run out of ideas and excuses for their failed policies.
“And they can't win on their ideas, so they attack Koch,” he said in an email. “It didn't work in 2010, and it won't work now.”
He characterized comments made by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) charging that the brothers are “actually trying to buy the country” as trying to “demonize us on the Senate floor,” and suggested such attacks could even energize the Kochs and their supporters.
“This is the second time in five months that Sen. Reid has falsely singled us out and tried to demonize us on the Senate floor. We won't be silenced or intimidated. Koch is not backing down,” he said.
Still, Lehane says, Democrats believe the Koch affiliation could be poison for an already-damaged Republican brand heading into the midterm elections.
“In an age where the Republican brand has been severely degraded, connecting them to shadowy forces that have a specific economic agenda of self-interest is a powerful way to hammer the opposition on trust and ethics,” argued the Democratic strategist.