Dems' 2014 foil: Koch brothers
By BURGESS EVERETT | 3/14/14 6:22 PM EDT
Democrats want to make the billionaire Koch brothers their 2014 version of Mitt Romney.
Harry Reid and vulnerable Senate Democrats turned up the heat this week on the Kochs and their affiliated Americans for Prosperity, which has unleashed a flood of TV ads bashing vulnerable Democrats for supporting Obamacare. Democrats’ message: Charles and David Koch are trying buy the election for shady special interests and big business.
Democrats feel that simply defending Obamacare may not be enough to keep the Senate in Democratic hands come November. Instead, they need something to run against – and they’ve picked the Kochs as an easy foil.
The Senate majority leader went to the floor on Thursday — following a Democrat’s loss in a Florida special election in which Obamacare was a major issue — to call out the Koch’s “radical” agenda, using that word 17 times. Reid has put a permanent target on the Kochs’ backs on the Senate floor, just as he did with Romney in 2012.
Barely a day passes that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee doesn’t mention the Kochs’ influence in its fundraising solicitations. And outside groups like Senate Majority PAC and Americans United For Change are questioning both the veracity of the ads and who is paying for them.
“The American people don’t want to have their elections bought by just a few people. I think it’s very important that people know who’s paying for these ads,” said DSCC Chairman Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).
Bennet’s predecessor and current member of Democratic leadership, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), said the anti-Koch message “is motivating not just to our base, but the country.”
But not everybody’s on board with the increasingly blunt Democratic messaging, particularly that of Reid, who has unapologetically described the Kochs as “un-American,” “radical,” and “shadowy billionaires.”
“That’s not my style, it’s not. They’re operating within the limits of the law,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who agreed that the Kochs’ influence was “obscene” but disagrees with some of his party’s hardball tactics. “I don’t think that we’re going to prove anything with the name-calling. I don’t think we get many results from that anyway. It hasn’t worked before.”
Blaming the messenger is a tried-and-true campaign strategy and success with voters is far from guaranteed.
“The Democrats have realized that they can’t win on their ideas. Instead, they’ve resorted to personal attacks on the Kochs. This is not a new tactic,” said Rob Tappan, a spokesman for Koch Industries. “It’s escalated because Senator Reid is running scared and worried about losing the Senate and his job as majority leader.”
So far, Democrats are focused on the “fix it, don’t repeal it” Affordable Care Act message pushed by party elders. But now they also want to convince voters that GOP candidates will repeal Obamacare’s popular provisions, curtail safety net programs and roll back environmental regulations, all by winning the Senate with the support of AFP’s millions.
A Republican-led Senate would actually be a “Koch Brothers Congress” that would reflect their “richest-take-all policy agenda,” Reid said Thursday. This week the Reid-affiliated Senate Majority PAC launched an advertisement in Louisiana alleging that Senate candidate and Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) would be “bought and paid for” by the billionaires if he beats Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). Up for reelection this year, Sen. Mark Begich (D) unveiled a TV spot in his home state of Alaska devoted to telling the “Koch brothers go home.”
Begich sounds much like Reid when talking about the Kochs, accusing them in an interview of trying to “buy elections” and calling them “irresponsible” for the shutdown of an Alaska refinery under Koch Industries’ umbrella.
“What’s motivating that? They’re closing a plant and laying off 80 Alaskans and leaving dirty water that Alaskans have to deal with,” Begich said of his ad. “What’s motivating it? They’re irresponsible people.”
The Koch-bashing is a tactic that Democrats believe garners them rafts of free media exposure in an uphill battle against $30 million in AFP TV ads to date that Democrats say distort their record on health care and climate change.
Asked about the ads AFP is running in Alaska, Begich said: “What they’re saying is absolutely false. But they still run ‘em because that’s what they do. They don’t tell the truth, they just throw whatever’s out there and hope it sticks.”
It’s gotten so personal that Koch Industries produced on Thursday a two-minute rebuttal to Begich’s advertisement to counteract the senator’s “misleading and false statements.”
As the party steps up its assault on the Kochs and the flood of outside money floods into red and purple states, Senate Democrats remain wedded to the same Obamacare messaging used by defeated House candidate Alex Sink in Florida this week.
Incumbent Democrats want to keep the law but also press publicly to iron out its kinks, an approach they believe is supported by the public. But Senate Democrats also don’t have much room to maneuver given the law’s party-line passage, leaving Democrats stuck with a nuanced defense of Obamacare, whether they like it or not.
“They voted for Obamacare, they are proud of that vote, and I think that’s a very dangerous position to be in,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who warned little is “accomplished by trying to tinker with Obamacare.”
Democratic senators pressing for health-care fixes have gotten some support from the Obama administration’s myriad alterations to the law’s implementation, but little cover from Senate leaders that still have no plans for even a symbolic vote on changing Obamacare. That’s a sharp contrast to vulnerable House Democrats that have broken away from the party line to support GOP bills altering the law, a tactic those moderates hope can insulate them from health care attacks this fall.
Lacking health-care legislative fixes to point to, incumbent Democrats are staying the course: Keep it, fix it and don’t repeal it.
“It will remain the same as it always has been, that no law is perfect and every law needs to be improved,” Landrieu said of her message going forward.
“Let’s work on the parts that aren’t perfect. Let’s try to make them better, but let’s keep the things that are working. That position won’t change, ”said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).
Democrats say they learned their lesson in 2010, when a revolt against Democrats put them in the House minority, which is unlikely to change this fall. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has organized a spirited defense of the health care law on the Senate floor and in press conferences.
He hasn’t been joined by the Democrats’ 2014 class, but he hears the same message from them, and it’s one he believes will neutralize GOP attacks by November.
“You can’t run away from the health care law,” Murphy said. “If you listen to the way in which our 2014 members talk about the health care bill, it’s demonstrably different than what it was in 2010.”
But Democrats also believe that Obamacare is not going to be the singular winning message for them — or Republicans for that matter, who Democrats surmise are overplaying their hand in insistently pounding Obamacare. Hence a string of coordinated attacks on the money that’s poured into Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina and Alaska and the conservative benefactors behind that cash spigot.
Indeed, Republicans believe that Democrats are falling for the same failed strategy used by the GOP in 2006.
“Republican operatives were making the same case that Democrats are now: ‘We know how to win,’” said NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring. “Attacking liberal money sources like [George] Soros and MoveOn.org was a common refrain for losing Republican candidates and politically speaking, Democrats’ inability to properly address or talk about ObamaCare is reminiscent of Republicans talking about Iraq.”
It’s also not clear that all Democrats in tough races this year will get behind demonizing the Kochs. Despite having $700,000 in ads dropped on him by AFP on Thursday, Pryor said he had no immediate plans to bash the wealthy brothers in his ads or rhetoric.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do on that,” Pryor said in an interview. “This race is going to be about Arkansas, not all this outside money. The outside groups total have now spent in excess of $5 million and the great news is my opponent’s numbers haven’t moved and we feel like we’re in great shape to win this thing.”