GOP candidates credit Koch brothers for their success

GOP Senate candidates are facing new scrutiny in the wake of Wednesday reports tying them closely to the conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.

Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) attended a lavish June conference sponsored by the Koch brothers. Cotton and Ernst both credited the brothers' political activities for enabling their campaigns, The Huffington Post reported early Wednesday, citing audio from the event.

"The exposure to this group and to this network and the opportunity to meet so many of you, that really started my trajectory," said Ernst, who's vying to replace retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), according to the Huffington Post.

Cotton delivered a similar message.

"Americans for Prosperity in Arkansas has played a critical role in turning our state from a one-party Democratic state … building the kind of constant engagement to get people in the state involved in their communities," said Cotton, who's challenging Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) in November.

Participation by Cotton and Gardner had been previously reported by The Nation magazine. Ernst's attendance had not been known publicly before Wednesday.

Few figures in contemporary politics are more influential — or more polarizing — than the Koch brothers, who have spent millions of dollars fighting for conservative causes and candidates. 

Republicans have defended their generous spending, arguing that it's simply an exercise of their constitutional right to free speech. Democrats have hammered their strategy, accusing the conservative brothers of using their deep pockets to buy seats that benefit their many business interests and tarnishing the democratic process. 

Pryor's campaign wasted little time blasting Cotton Wednesday, saying the new report is evidence that the Republican congressman is putting national party interests ahead of those of his local constituents.

Fueling the Democratic charges, Cotton had attended the Koch's June conference — at the lavish St. Regis Monarch Bay in California — in lieu of the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival, a popular annual event in his district.

"Cotton's conspicuous absence in Bradley County was widely reported, both in-state and nationally, and his sketchy whereabouts have even been the subject of television ads. But somehow he has managed to refuse comment or confirmation that he actually attended the billionaires' gathering that weekend," said Pryor campaign spokesman Erik Dorey in an email blast early Wednesday morning.

"Now we know what really happened, and it's pretty damn damning."

During June's retreat, Cotton also revealed that he had attended another exclusive Koch brothers conference in New Mexico a year earlier, The Huffington Post said.

Pryor's campaign pounced on the news, hoping that Cotton's ties to the controversial Koch brothers becomes a liability for the Republican challenger at the polls in November in the tight race. 

"In the coming days, Cotton will face questions about the details of his weekend getaway with these out-of-state billionaires," Dorey said, "including his reliance on their ground game and strategy, his meetings in New Mexico before announcing his U.S. Senate campaign, and his pledged allegiance to their anti-Arkansas agenda."

Cotton's campaign office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.