"There's nothing worse than a campaign manager who talks about how campaigns should be run," Tencher laughed. "It's a choose-your-own-adventure business, and some others had strategies that worked as well."¦ But I think other campaigns could and should have bought into this messaging better."
Yet not every Democrat wants to double down on the Kochs. It's expensive, for one thing, to raise the profiles of businessmen most people have never heard of in order to attack them. "I think the Kochs are a great fundraising foil, but I continue to believe they're not the best line of attack for Democrats," said Travis Lowe, a Democratic ad-maker.
"Any number of entities used the Kochs as a foil last time, and it didn't work," Lowe continued. "That doesn't mean it can't in a better environment. But ... there are better arguments."
And Republicans have long jeered Democrats' attacks on the Kochs; they say the Democratic Party's record in 2014 speaks for itself. "When you're cleaning out the fridge, if it stinks, you get rid of it," said GOP strategist Brad Todd. "The Democrats have been totally unwilling to clean out their campaign fridge after 2014."
Democratic Senate strategists caution that nearly two years before the 2016 election, they have made no decisions about whether the Kochs will figure as strongly in their messaging as they did last year. But Tencher says his Michigan experience shows that a Koch-focused attack has promise.
Peters's campaign in Michigan was one of the few November bright spots for his party, and it came after months of relentless TV ads linking Republican nominee Terri Lynn Land to the Kochs and a trio of environmental and economic issues with Koch-owned companies in the state. According to analysis from Kantar Media/CMAG and The Cook Political Report, 35 percent of Democratic TV ads in Michigan's 2014 Senate race attacked the Kochs—the highest rate in the country.
When Tencher started as Peters's campaign manager last winter, Koch-affiliated groups such as Americans for Prosperity had been advertising against Peters for months, and Land was doing better in both public and private polling. So Peters's campaign shifted resources to opposition research—but on the Kochs, not Land.
"We set out to find things to shut the spigot off, because I felt there was no way we could compete with their money," Tencher said. "If they were going to come in and spend $10, $12, $15 million, there was literally nothing we could do, so we had to find a way to stop them from doing it."
Democratic outside groups picked up on the campaign's research, which highlighted chemical storage along the Detroit River and major layoffs in northern Michigan, and aired TV ads attacking the Kochs' motivations for backing Land. And from the spring through the early fall, as Peters pulled away and Land's unfavorable ratings grew in Democratic polling from 25 percent to the 40s, the Kochs' name recognition and unfavorable ratings grew in lockstep, too.