After absorbing millions of dollars in outside spending from groups connected to the Koch brothers, congressional Democrats have made the conservative billionaires the star villains in a messaging counteroffensive. But a new nonpartisan poll highlights a problem with the plan: A majority of likely 2014 voters have never even heard of the Kochs.
A 52 percent majority of respondents in the new George Washington University Battleground Poll said they had never heard of the Koch brothers, with an additional 11 percent saying they had no opinion of the conservative industrialists. Of the small slice who registered an opinion of the Kochs, 12 percent viewed them favorably and 25 percent viewed them unfavorably. The survey is one of the first to test opinions about the Kochs since they became a big subject of political conversation in the last few years.
From Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's floor speeches to his party's fundraising emails to recent TV ads from Democratic candidates and outside groups, Democrats have homed in on the Kochs recently. Americans for Prosperity, one of the groups affiliated with the Kochs, has spent around $30 million on TV ads against Democratic House and Senate candidates ahead of the 2014 elections.
Several recent Democratic TV ads responded directly to the Kochs. Democratic Sen. Mark Begich's first TV ad in Alaska blamed "the billionaire Koch brothers" for a series of false attacks against him and for shutting down an Alaska refinery, while a new ad from the Senate Majority PAC in Colorado connected GOP Rep. Cory Gardner to "insurance companies and out-of-state billionaires" funding attack ads against Sen. Mark Udall because Gardner's policies, the narrator said, would be better for insurance companies.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster whose firm helped conduct the poll, said at the Christian Science Monitor Breakfast on Wednesday that what the Kochs represent, not the men themselves, is what will resonate with voters.
"I think the messaging around how they are is the effective piece," Lake said, noting that groups affiliated with the Kochs have taken criticism for using out-of-state actors in Senate TV ads and for "aggressively" advocating Social Security privatization. "When they attach that substance to the [Republican] candidates and also talk about outside money, it's going to be more effective."
Ed Goeas, the Republican pollster involved with the survey, said the hubbub about the Kochs was more about fundraising and riling up the Democratic base than communicating to the broader electorate.
"You always want to have some red meat to feed your base," Goeas said, though he added that he wasn't sure how effective it would be. Both parties have tried attacking the sources of outside money in the past, and Goeas dismissed the results. "I think trying to make the Koch brothers that red meat is going to be about as effective as what we tried to do with George Soros," he said.
It's not only Republicans who are dismissive of the Koch strategy. Thomas Mills, a North Carolina-based Democratic strategist, concurred in a column published Tuesday. Concerned about the one-note Democratic messaging, Mills wrote that Democrats have "ceded the political agenda to the Koch Brothers and the Republicans. They should be attacking GOP policies and candidates, not GOP funders." Mills argued that Thom Tillis, the leading GOP challenger against Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, has plenty of more potent vulnerabilities stemming from his tenure as state House speaker.
"He's just another phony politician. Expose him, not the Kochs. He's the one on the ballot," Mills writes.
The George Washington University Battleground Poll, conducted by the Tarrance Group and Lake Research Partners, surveyed 1,000 likely voters from March 16 through March 20. The poll's margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.