Democrats back rhetoric with cash in fight against Koch brothers

Greg Nash

Thirty million dollars from Koch brothers-backed groups later, Democrats are putting their money where their mouth is. 

Their efforts to fight back aren’t all borne of all necessity — they in part reflect an opportunity Democrats see to seize and reshape the narrative around ObamaCare now that the law’s open enrollment period is over, and to tout its benefits now that Americans are beginning to reap rewards. 

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Over the past two weeks, a trio of green groups — the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and the American Sustainable Business Council Action Fund — has launched a $5 million offensive effort in three competitive Senate races. In addition to their spending, Senate Majority PAC, the primary Democratic outside group looking to protect the upper chamber, has announced a $3 million campaign across five states.

Other Democratic groups are pledging to pick up the fight as well; the rocky ObamaCare rollout, as well as site delays on Monday, have put the party in a difficult position heading into the final eight months of the election cycle.

The strategy isn’t just to hit back against billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch, like Senate Majority PAC has done with its advertising, or to tout their candidate’s policy accomplishments to excite the Democratic base, like the green groups are doing. Democrats know they need to highlight the law’s success stories to counter GOP attacks. 

Brad Woodhouse, president of progressive advocacy group Americans United for Change, admitted Democrats have no chance of responding dollar-for-dollar but said the tide on ObamaCare could change.

“I don’t think there’s anyone on our side that would suggest that we wouldn’t want more resources to run ads to counter the Koch brothers,” he said. “But in the end, the issue of the Affordable Care Act is not going to be won or lost on political or issue ads; it’s going to be won or lost on the success of the law.”

Now that the open enrollment period has ended, and the law surpassed its goal of 6 million enrollees, Woodhouse said the group is “at a place now, where we’re going to go on offense on the Affordable Care Act, instead of the defense we were on during the website snafu.”

He said, however, much of his group’s focus will be on earned media and grassroots organizing instead of issue ads on TV, in part because he believes Americans United for Change gets more bang for its buck through those avenues.

“The Koch brothers are a bottomless pit. Anyone that thinks they’re going to go dollar-for-dollar against the Koch brothers in terms of the ads on the Affordable Care Act are kidding themselves, so you have to find other ways to get the message out,” said Woodhouse. 

An analysis by Kantar Media Intelligence/CMAG released last week showed just how heavily Democrats are being outmatched. According to their media tracking, Americans for Prosperity has aired, on average, 1,625 spots over nine Senate races to Senate Majority PAC’s 860 spots in six of those races.

Democrats know they need to turn ObamaCare into an asset for the party, so they can run on the law in elections. 

“Now I think Democrats, progressives, those that care about the Affordable Care Act and what it does can go out to Republicans and say, ‘No, hands off my healthcare!’ ” he said.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority PAC is doing what it can to undermine the attacks from the conservative Koch brothers and give Democrats some cover in the air war. Its new ads tie the presumed Republican nominees in each race to the Koch brothers and charge that they want to “buy” Senate seats to push their agenda. The ads localize the Kochs, pointing, for instance, to what they characterize as their opposition to a flood insurance fix in Louisiana.

The revised strategy reflects the fact that Democrats can’t answer every Koch attack; it’s hoping to, at the very least, raise questions about the Kochs’s credibility so their barrage of attacks don’t smart as much.

And issue-focused groups like the trio of green groups airing $5 million in ads are addressing a third front in the 2014 war: the battle to improve turnout, which Democrats expect to drop precipitously from presidential-year levels, particularly in some of the states that matter most for the party.

Issues like climate change and equal pay excite the Democratic base and can sometimes sway swing voters, so efforts from the environmental coalitions could help mitigate that turnout drop-off.

EMILY’s List, which supports pro-abortion-rights female candidates, hasn’t yet launched an extensive electoral effort, but the group’s independent expenditure arm just established two state-focused groups in Georgia and North Carolina — an indication that effort could begin soon. 

And the green groups aren’t just launching ads — they’re also organizing across 11 states, primarily on policy issues, but that effort will shift to an electoral focus closer to Election Day.

“The great news about the green groups is they have millions of members who are already invested in their agenda,” David Di Martino, a communications strategist advising the groups, told The Hill. “This activates their network of millions of members.”

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