Can Democrats’ Koch Attacks Work If Nobody Knows Who They Are?

New poll shows voters don’t know much about them, while a Democratic strategist criticizes DSCC strategy.

David Koch and co. don't want their name tied to the Keystone XL Pipeline.
National Journal
March 25, 2014, 6:45 a.m.

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.

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