Koch cash triggers Dem angst about 2016

Democratic lawmakers say they are deeply worried about how much money Charles and David Koch plan to spend on the 2016 elections.

The billionaire brothers have played a massive role in GOP politics in recent years and were seen by Democrats as a major reason why Republicans recaptured the Senate in 2014. Now, the Kochs are focused on the big prize: the White House.

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Polls show former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonDemocrats vote to overhaul superdelegate system Green candidate: Sanders should leave party that 'betrayed' him Clinton to call on Black Lives Matter at Dem convention MORE is the early favorite to win the White House next year. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed her beating each of the five top Republican candidates by double digits.

But her Democratic allies on Capitol Hill are openly wondering if she can withstand the $889 million onslaught from the Koch brothers and their partners.  

“We need to be very smart with the limited resources we have on the Democratic side, because we’re not going to have that kind of firepower in the next election,” said Sen. Tom UdallTom UdallThe Hill's 12:30 Report Overnight Energy: Senate spending bill takes aim at EPA rules Senate spending bill trims EPA spending, blocks regs MORE (D-N.M.).

Udall said the longer the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is allowed to stand, opening the floodgates for political spending by outside groups, the more the playing field is “tilted towards the wealthy and the monied interests.”

Some Democrats bemoan that they didn’t pass legislation in 2010 to counter the high court’s decision. At the time, they controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress.

The Koch brothers’ $900 million goal would put them on par with the major political parties. In the 2012 presidential campaign, the Democratic Party spent $1.07 billion and the GOP spent $1.01 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a nonpartisan group that tracks fundraising.

Conservative donors gathered at a retreat hosted by the Koch brothers in Palm Springs, Calif., last weekend to discuss their strategy.

Democrats are trying to adapt to the challenge with a brave face. They say their party will have to enlist big donors who will committing to major gifts early in the cycle, exploit their fundraising advantage among small donors and use the Koch brothers’ spending spree to portray Republicans has beholden to special interests.

But they know they could be in major trouble if conservative outside groups flood the airwaves with media buys that the Democratic Party campaign committees and outside liberal groups can’t match.

“If you’re trying to win an election and you’re facing a billion dollars, I think common sense would tell you that they’re worried,” Sen. Bill NelsonBill NelsonMore automakers admit to equipping new cars with defective airbags GOP warming up to Cuba travel How the new aviation law will affect your travel MORE (Fla.) said of his fellow Democrats. “Now we got to figure it out.”

“We have the issues on our side,” said Sen. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerThe Trail 2016: Unity at last This week: Congress eyes the exits in dash to recess Former Gillibrand aide wins NY House primary MORE (N.Y.), the No. 3 Democrat in the upper chamber. “What the Koch brothers stand for, most Americans don’t believe, and their ads don’t talk about what they stand for, by and large.”

Yet on Election Day 2014, Republicans blew out Democrats at the polls, picking up nine Senate seats, capturing the Senate majority and winning the largest House GOP majority since the Truman administration.

Democrats tried to demonize the Koch brothers in 2014. Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidSuper-PAC targets Portman on trade Dem leader urges compromise on FCC set-top box plan Senate Dems introduce Iran sanctions extension MORE (Nev.) repeatedly criticized what he described as their corrupting influence on Republicans from the Senate floor, but the message failed to break through. The Kochs are not public figures, and don’t seek media attention. Many people simply don’t know who they are.

A senior Democratic aide argued Wednesday that their $900 billion spending goal would make it easier for campaign finance to “break through as an issue.”

“We’re going to make this a liability for Republicans,” the staffer said.

Some Democrats fear outside groups could make it difficult to keep the political debate focused on their core issues instead of personal attacks.

“Then it becomes all about money to blast your opponent through all sorts of media,” Nelson said. “The public doesn’t know what the true issues are because they’ve been so distorted with a bunch of campaign lies through campaign attack ads.”

Democrats have some big spenders on their side, such as billionaire financier Tom Steyer, who spent $74 million in the 2014 cycle to help candidates who campaigned on fighting climate change.

But in sum, conservative non-party groups spent significantly more than their liberal counterparts: $310.5 million in spending reported to the Federal Election Commission in the 2014 cycle, compared to $228 million from liberal groups, according to the CRP.

Those totals only account for spending in the agency’s reporting window, leaving out millions of dollars in media buys. Most of the spending outside the reporting period came from conservative groups, tilting the 2014 playing field even more in the GOP’s advantage, said Robert Maguire, the political nonprofits investigator at CRP.

“It does look like the Democrats are disadvantaged because they don’t have anything that resembles the Koch network,” he said.

Maguire said Democratic groups, such as Democracy Alliance, “just don’t compare in size to what the Koch network has.”

The network spent $400 million in the 2012 election cycle and announced it would spend $290 million in the 2014 midterm elections. Final numbers for the network for 2014 won’t be available until after groups file their tax returns.

One of the Democrats’ biggest donors, billionaire financier George Soros, hasn’t stepped up to match the Kochs. He gave $500,000 each to the Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC, their House Majority PAC and the League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund last year. But he’s also spread his money on social causes, such as marijuana legalization.

“He’s been MIA, by and large,” Maguire said.