Why Democrats Are Going All In on the Koch Brothers

Doubters are missing the point, Democrats say, and are probably not their target audience anyway.

Commanding attention: David and Charles Koch
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
March 27, 2014, 4:20 p.m.

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.

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