Democrats Are Addicted to Koch

The billionaire brothers are becoming a party obsession, and not a smart one, in a midterm election year that will be dominated by jobs and Obamacare.

Hundreds of demonstrators from the Occupy Movement, Health Care for America Now, Common Cause and other progressive organizations march past the Washington Convention Center while protesting against the Defending the American Dream Summit November 4, 2011 in Washington, DC. The conservative political summit is organized by Americans for Prosperity, which was founded with the support of brothers David H. Koch and Charles G. Koch of Koch Industries.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
March 13, 2014, 5 p.m.

A Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity poll in Janu­ary ranked, in or­der, the three is­sues voters cared about the most: the eco­nomy, the fed­er­al budget de­fi­cit, and health care. Not in­cluded on the list? Charles and Dav­id Koch.

And therein lies the di­lemma for Demo­crats, who of late have turned the full fury and might of their polit­ic­al op­er­a­tion against the bil­lion­aire broth­ers from Kan­sas. Can they per­suade voters to care about two private cit­izens whom reg­u­lar people have barely heard of — es­pe­cially when the coun­try’s still un­der­whelm­ing job mar­ket has many of those same people more wor­ried about just get­ting by?

It’s not as if the Koch broth­ers are peri­pher­al to the 2014 midterm elec­tions. Their most vis­ible polit­ic­al group, Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity, has spent roughly $30 mil­lion pum­mel­ing Demo­crats, mostly sen­at­ors up for reelec­tion, for their sup­port of Obama­care. With good reas­on, Demo­crats worry that money has fun­da­ment­ally shif­ted the 2014 map in the GOP’s fa­vor, es­pe­cially in South­ern battle­grounds such as Louisi­ana and North Car­o­lina.

But if the Kochs are a story this elec­tion, the Demo­crat­ic polit­ic­al ma­chine is try­ing to make them the story. The party has tipped its hand in ma­jor art­icles pub­lished in The New York Times and the As­so­ci­ated Press. Harry Re­id is blis­ter­ing AFP’s ads in stem-wind­ing Sen­ate floor speeches. (The ma­jor­ity lead­er af­ter­ward had to back off his ac­cus­a­tion that all of their ads are lies.) Emails from the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee now in­clude a mar­quee that says, “The GOP is ‘Ad­dicted to Koch!’ ” Just last week, in his cam­paign’s first TV ad, Alaska’s Mark Be­gich blas­ted the two men by name for run­ning what he called mis­lead­ing ad­vert­ise­ments against him.

“I don’t go down to tell them what to do, I ex­pect them not to come up to Alaska and tell us what to do,” said one per­son fea­tured in the ad.

Demo­crats, armed with reams of poll data, ar­gue that voters don’t like in­ter­fer­ence in their elec­tions from well-heeled out­side forces. They’re not wrong. Broadly speak­ing, voters are wary about enorm­ous sums of cash in polit­ics, and it’s easy to turn people against out­siders.

But that ar­gu­ment might be be­side the point. Voters don’t like the out­side in­ter­fer­ence, but their dis­taste doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily have the res­on­ance to push voters away from the GOP. And even for all of the in­flu­ence wiel­ded by Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity and oth­er Koch-af­fil­i­ated en­ter­prises, they’re still just out­side groups in an elec­tion in which voters are still just choos­ing between Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats.

“There’s a trap in cam­paigns that’s called the Oth­er People’s Money trap,” said Brad Todd, a Re­pub­lic­an strategist. “Voters care about their money, not oth­er people’s money. Any­time my can­did­ate is talk­ing about the voters’ money and my op­pon­ent is talk­ing about oth­er people’s money, I feel pretty good about our chances.”

It gets trick­i­er for Demo­crats in in­di­vidu­al races. Along with Be­gich, Sens. Mark Pry­or in Arkan­sas and Mary Landrieu in Louisi­ana each ac­cep­ted money from the Koch In­dus­tries PAC in re­cent years. Blast­ing them now — all three are battle­ground races this year — risks mak­ing the in­cum­bent look like a hy­po­crite.

And in Geor­gia, where Demo­crats have high hopes that Michelle Nunn can pull off an un­ex­pec­ted vic­tory des­pite the hos­tile ter­rit­ory, the party must grapple with the pres­ence of the Koch-owned Geor­gia-Pa­cific. The com­pany, which makes a vari­ety of products, em­ploys thou­sands of people in the Peach State. Re­pub­lic­ans have already signaled that if Nunn’s cam­paign at­tacks the Koch broth­ers, they’ll be ready to hit back by sug­gest­ing she’s threat­en­ing the busi­ness in­terest of her home state.

The strategy isn’t all down­side for Demo­crats: Al­though most cit­izens may not know who the Kochs are, lib­er­al act­iv­ists cer­tainly do — in­clud­ing the wealthy ones, from whom the Demo­crats are des­per­ately try­ing to coax the kind of large dona­tions that will let them push back more force­fully in TV ads. And the Kochs do com­plic­ate the GOP’s own polit­ic­al ef­forts, too, as when their com­pany closed down a small plant in Alaska. It wasn’t a game-changer for the Alaska race, but it did al­low Demo­crats to blast the GOP field’s ties to the broth­ers.

But those ef­forts are about mit­ig­at­ing the dam­age done by the AFP’s ads, and not ne­ces­sar­ily a way to start scor­ing points of their own. For that, the party might need to turn else­where.

“Right now, Demo­crats can’t fig­ure out how to get away from Obama­care, so they are dig­ging around des­per­ately for something off-top­ic to dis­cuss,” Todd said. “I had the same emo­tion in 2006 when it was ob­vi­ous the war was go­ing to beat us but we wer­en’t will­ing to run against the war that we be­lieved in. There is nev­er any ma­gic trick to get out of this box when your party is on the wrong side of the only is­sue voters care about.”

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