With a new poll this week showing that fewer than half of Americans know who the Koch brothers are, many observers in Washington are a bit perplexed by Democrats' recent frontal assault on the billionaire conservative donors.
The criticism, in a nutshell: The Koch brothers aren't on the ballot anywhere, and most Americans have no idea who they are, so how does this approach end up helping anyone? To Democrats, this misses the point. And they think the 2012 election shows why they'll be vindicated in the end.
Contrary to some assertions, Democrats contend that the strategy is not about vilifying or intimidating Republican donors, nor is not about fundraising (although that's a very nice bonus), and it's not even really about the Kochs themselves. It's about what they represent.
The Koch attacks have two audiences. For the base, they're an effort to convey the importance of this election, so hopefully fewer voters will stay home. To everyone else, they help draw a contrast by communicating what Republicans stand for in an emotionally salient way.
Keep this in mind: The Democratic Party's primary goal in many states this year is not necessarily to convince independent voters to side with the party, but to get their own voters to the polls. As President Obama himself said at a recent Democratic fundraiser: "In midterms we get clobbered—either because we don't think it's important or we've become so discouraged about what's happening in Washington."
The Koch attacks help raise the stakes for liberals. "For years, Republicans have raised millions of dollars off of folks like Senator Kennedy and now leader Pelosi, so it's no surprise that Democrats are trying to do the same thing here heading into the 2014 elections, trying to energize the base," says Jim Manley, a longtime former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has led his party's Koch-bashing.
But the strategy doesn't stop there. "We are big believers in starting with base and working your way to indies," said a Senate Democratic leadership aide, noting that the party took a similar approach on election-year issues such as raising the minimum wage and extending unemployment benefits. But above all else, the aide said, the Kochs are an "ideological foil," standing for everything Democrats do not.
And Democrats maintain that the attacks will still resonate, even if voters don't know exactly who Charles and David Koch are. "This could be two other donors with a different last names," says Justin Barasky, spokesperson for the DSCC. "Republican Senate candidates across the map are supporting an agenda that is good for out-of-state billionaires like the Koch brothers, and bad for pretty much everyone else in that state.… It's a quid pro quo argument that voters really understand."
Democrats are actually pleased with the results from this week's George Washington University Battleground Poll, saying they expected even fewer Americans to be familiar with the Kochs. And, thanks to the coming Democratic air war on the Kochs, they'll probably poll even higher by the time general-election battles get underway later this year.
Even better for Democrats, the poll showed that those who do know the brothers are inclined to dislike them, with a 12-point net negative favorability rating. Compare that to Wall Street's negative 10-point rating, or Rand Paul's positive 8-point rating. "There you go—the Kochs are by miles the least popular icons of the pro-business, libertarian right. It only makes sense to pummel them," Slate's Dave Weigel wrote.
And with years of ubiquitous coverage in the progressive media, liberals especially are primed to have an emotional response to the Kochs, and may see getting to the polls as a means of stopping special interests from stealing the election.
To doubters, Democrats point to the Obama campaign's assault on Mitt Romney's career at Bain Capital two years ago. It wasn't just about painting Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat (although that helped), but about adding an emotional valence to Romney's policy agenda, which they said would benefit wealthy people like Bain executives.
At first, the Bain attacks were controversial, even among Democrats. But as time went on, they proved effective and doubters eventually came around.
Democrats who favor the Koch approach expect it to follow the same arc. "Reid got this super early on and got ridiculed. But we started making the case and I think everyone's slowly gravitating. At the very least, it's a real conversation now," the Senate aide said.
To be sure, boogeymen attacks have a mixed record. In 2010, for instance, Democrats went after Karl Rove and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with similar charges to those being used now against the Kochs. Spoiler: They lost. And as with the Bain strategy, the Koch plan prioritizes tearing down the opposition over building up one's own side.
But Republicans are largely doing the same with their Obamacare attacks, and more importantly, Democrats are facing an existential threat in the Senate. This is no time to play nice.
This article appears in the March 28, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.