Exclusive: Kochs pull ads from Ohio Senate race
© Getty Images

The powerful network helmed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch is canceling advertising in the Ohio Senate race, a sign that Republican Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSchumer blasts 'red flag' gun legislation as 'ineffective cop out' McConnell faces pressure to bring Senate back for gun legislation Shaken Portman urges support for 'red flag' laws after Ohio shooting MORE is viewed as increasingly likely to win.

The Koch network, which has already spent more than $10 million on TV, radio and digital advertising in Ohio, is canceling about $2.1 million of ad reservations for late September because network officials believe Portman is in a strong position to defeat Democratic challenger Ted Strickland.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Rob Portman has run one of the strongest campaigns of the cycle, he maintains a significant lead in virtually every poll, and the dynamics of the race have changed,” Koch network spokesman James Davis told The Hill on Tuesday.

“We will remain on air through Sept. 14 with our current ads, but given Portman's strong position in the race, we are going to drop the remaining reservation and reserve flexibility over future spending.”

The Kochs’ decision to cancel ads in Ohio is a bad omen for the campaign of the state’s former governor, Strickland.

Portman now leads Strickland by 7.5 percentage points, according to the latest RealClearPolitics average, and leading Democratic groups appear to no longer believe that their path to reclaiming the Senate runs through Ohio.

On Tuesday, The Hill revealed that the main outside group backing Senate Democrats, the Senate Majority PAC, was canceling about two weeks’ worth of broadcast TV in Ohio. That cancellation came a day after the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) delayed its own advertising schedule in Ohio.

“We regularly adjust strategy to maximize our resources and make sure we’re in the best possible position to win back the majority this November,” Senate Majority PAC spokesman Shripal Shah told The Hill in an email.

Strickland’s campaign insisted Tuesday that it would have enough money to defeat Portman, but the current numbers show the Democrat is being outspent on an extraordinary scale.

“Our campaign is confident we’ll have the resources we need to communicate Ted’s message of fighting for working families and highlight Senator Portman’s record of pushing the agenda of the rich and the powerful at the expense of Ohioans who actually work for a living,” campaign spokesman David Bergstein told The Hill.

While there are a number of reasons for Portman’s success — he’s a prolific fundraiser and has run a disciplined campaign — the Koch network has played an important supporting role.

The network entered Ohio early and gave heavy backing to the incumbent senator through a volatile primary season during which Republican presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor The US-Iranian scuffle over a ship is a sideshow to events in the Gulf South Korea: US, North Korea to resume nuclear talks 'soon' MORE had down-ballot candidates fearing for their political lives.

Portman distanced himself from Trump and embraced Ohio’s popular governor, John Kasich, who lost in the presidential primaries to Trump and is keeping so much political distance from the nominee that he declined to attend July's Republican National Convention held in his home state.

The Kochs began spending in Ohio in August 2015, when Strickland held a narrow lead over Portman. The network has since invested heavily to define Strickland as a tax-and-spend liberal, hammering his record as governor.

Among the attacks that stuck was hitting Strickland for spending down the state’s "rainy day fund" during his term as governor.

The rainy day attack was amplified by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and was so effective that Strickland himself admitted the ads’ effectiveness and responded with his own ad to set the record straight, the Toledo Blade reported.

“I was governor during the great national recession, and we all know it was raining pretty hard,” Strickland responded.

“A rainy day fund exists for the purpose that I used it for.”

Since entering Ohio on Portman’s behalf, the Koch network has invested more in the state than in any other battleground.

Beyond the $10 million the Kochs have spent so far in Ohio advertising, the network has also made more than 2 million phone calls and more than 100,000 door knocks in the state, largely through its ground army, Americans For Prosperity, according to Davis.

Portman’s campaign has also been using the Koch network’s technology company, i360, to do its voter targeting.

What separates the Koch network from other outside groups — on either the left or right — is scale and longevity.

Other groups spend heavily during election seasons and then go into effective hibernation for two or even four years.

But the Koch network has some 700 of the wealthiest and most ideologically committed donors in conservative politics. They attend biannual donor meetings and keep their checkbooks open whether it’s an election year or not.

All of that means the network has the competitive advantage of spending hundreds of millions every year — its political and policy budget for the 2016 cycle is roughly $250 million — to keep in place a permanent ground army in 36 states.

In Ohio this election cycle, the Kochs’ eight field offices and 84 paid field staff have been put to work for Portman. And even now that the ads are being pulled, the Koch ground force will continue to be deployed on Portman’s behalf, Davis said.

The Strickland campaign has tried to fight back — and has portrayed the Kochs as a special interest group that dishonestly distorts Strickland’s governing record — but the raw numbers show that Strickland has been comprehensively outgunned.

In the Ohio Senate race, the most expensive in the nation, the Republican Party and allied outside groups have outspent Democrats on television by almost two-to-one.

Figures provided by an ad buying source show that in the cycle through to Sept. 5, Republicans and their allies have made at least $35.6 million in TV reservations in Ohio compared with $17.9 million for Democrats and their outside backers.

“Our network has invested more in Ohio than any other race in the country,” Davis said.

“That investment put Ted Strickland’s failed record as governor front-and-center and kept him on defense throughout the race.”

Reid Wilson contributed reporting.