“It’s not about Koch brothers as individuals,” Garin said in an interview with National Journal. “It really is about the Koch brothers’ agenda.”
Then again, Democrats have been down this road before.
Persuasion is trickier to pull off in the real world than in a carefully controlled focus group, and even Democrats supportive of the stratagem caution it could fail if not calibrated correctly. Any time spent turning Charles and David Koch into boogeymen is time not spent attacking the Republican nominee directly, and in a presidential race, there is only so much bandwidth available to reach voters.
And focus groups or not, many of the party’s top strategists are skeptical: “Most consultants and political operatives feel a strategy of attacking the Koch brothers is ineffective,” said Steve Murphy, a veteran Democratic strategist.
Skepticism about the strategy is rooted in its perceived failure last year to mitigate the Democratic Party’s staggering losses in the Senate, when the party lost a net total of nine seats. The party’s leaders, led by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, pushed a Koch-centric message then that some of its strategists privately and publicly criticized as ineffective when the midterm elections were over.
Determining the accuracy of such criticism is difficult: No messaging strategy likely would have staved off heavy defeats on an electoral map chock-full of deeply red states, at a time when President Obama’s approval numbers were at best mediocre. Democrats also vow that the tactic worked in at least one key state, Michigan, a rare battleground Senate contest the party won when then Rep. Gary Peters defeated Republican Terri Lynn Land.
They say they did it in large part because a Koch-heavy focus forced the political groups backed by the pair, like Americans for Prosperity, to back out early because the Koch name had become toxic. Absent an infusion of outside cash, Lynn’s candidacy withered.
“This is not just about messaging that the Republican Party is owned by a bunch of oligarchs, which is important,” said Paul Tencher, Peters’s campaign manager who now works for MWW Public Relations in Washington. “It’s about shutting off a spigot of money that we cannot compete against.”
Garin argues that Democrats didn’t rely heavily enough on the strategy in 2014—and, in any case, that a changing political climate will make the attacks more effect next year.
“The focus on the Koch brothers can be even more powerful in 2016 than it was in 2014, because it fits more squarely into kind of the dominant narrative that voters have about what’s wrong with politics and politicians today,” Garin told National Journal. “Two years ago, if you asked people about the political system, they’d spend the whole time complaining about Obama. And that’s not what they complain about now. … They certainly complain about gridlock, but they also complain about effect of wealth and special-interest influence over the political system and government itself.”