Can Democrats’ Anti-Koch Attacks Actually Work?

One Harry Reid-backed group says it has proof it can use the strategy to persuade voters, but others in the party aren’t sure.

David Koch in Orlando, Florida, August 30, 2013.  (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Democrats want to win the next presidential election by making it, in part, a referendum on Charles and David Koch. But for that to work, they’ll have to persuade voters to not only hate a pair of conservative billionaires who won’t be on the ballot, but to hate them so much that they’ll vote against the Republican presidential candidate who will.

It’s a roundabout argument that even many within the party fear won’t cut through the media clutter, leaving the party invested in a message that fails to damage the candidates it’s intended to work against. But one Democratic political group is arguing it has proof the strategy can work—so long as it is done just right.

Bridge Project, the nonprofit arm of the Democratic opposition-research firm American Bridge that has ties to Harry Reid, commissioned six focus groups in August to explore the party’s Koch brothers strategy. The sessions, which were conducted in Tampa, Las Vegas, and Des Moines, supplied the assembled swing voters with a pessimistic rundown of the wealthy industrialists’ agenda and told them that the Kochs had a friendly relationship with many of the leading GOP presidential candidates. Among the anti-Koch attacks leveled: The pair wants to cut Pell Grants and reduce environmental regulations.

Footage of the sessions, which was reviewed by National Journal, reveal the attacks left a mark—at least among the groups' participants.

The voters professed a strong dislike of the Koch brothers, their money, and the influence they wield. (One participant even blamed them for Jon Stewart’s retirement from The Daily Show.) In most cases, by the end of the roughly hour-long sessions, the gathered men and women said they would be less likely to back the next Republican nominee for president because they feared that as president, he or she would have no choice but to implement the Koch agenda.

“It is evident from our six focus groups that the Koch brothers can be an effective tool, not simply due to their own positions—which are largely perceived as egregious—but because they fit easily into a larger narrative of the complaints and anxieties about our political system that is already deeply engrained,” wrote Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who conducted four of the focus groups, in a memo summarizing his findings.

At the very least, the groups did prove that, at the very least, turning the public against the wealthy industrialists doesn’t require much prodding. When they began the sessions, only about half of the people gathered knew who Charles and David Koch were, and it was clear that what impressions of the pair that did exist were hazy.

But when participants were asked to take five minutes to read a review of their agenda, albeit a slanted one that focused on the ill effects of cuts in government spending and regulation, the reactions were harsh. The near-universal consensus was that the brothers were intent on enriching themselves at the expense of everyday people; participants called them “whores,” “bullies,” and even “Nazis.”

“They’re rich white guys who want rich white guys to succeed,” said one Tampa-area resident who was part of a group of young, white, college-educated voters. (Bridge Action requested that none of the participants’ names be used as condition for reviewing the footage.)

Just as universal was the conviction that any big-money donor who doles out cash for campaigns expects favors in return. Participants were told that the Kochs were expected to spend big on the next presidential race—their network is reportedly slated to spend $750 million and $889 million in the 2016 election cycle.

“Anyone who spends that much money to get somebody elected wants something back when that person is elected,” said one participant in a group of middle-aged Latinos from the Las Vegas area.

These beliefs form the foundation of the Democrats’ Koch brothers strategy: Voters don’t like the wealthy conservatives, hate the policies they promote, and think that if they give money to candidates, they will expect them to enact those policies. Making it about the Kochs’ agenda, and the likelihood that a Republican president would implement it, is essential.

“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.”

Still, even in the focus groups, there were signs of the difficulty Democrats will face. In one session that gathered middle-aged Latinos in Las Vegas, some of the voters suggested that Democrats were equally guilty. Many of them mentioned one name time and time again: George Soros.

“Only difference between him and them are they’re out there,” said one man who identified himself as a bartender. “He’s more of a behind-the-scenes puppet master, like the Wizard of Oz.”

To others in the same group, benefiting from the Koch brothers’ spending was undesirable—but also a necessary evil. Participants were told of a recent Koch-sponsored event attended by presidential candidates like Marco Rubio. Many in the group said they didn’t like it but said such an appearance was probably necessary if Rubio wanted to win—and, in any case, the same thing was happening with Democrats.

“They all do it,” said one woman. “They’re all going to ask for money from someone, some billionaire. Just like the Koch brothers have all this negative stuff, so do a bunch of other ones.”

Most participants, however, did signal by the end of the session that knowing what they know about the Koch brothers and their ties to the GOP, they would be much less likely to back the next Republican presidential nominee.

Like one woman from a suburb of Des Moines, a soon-to-be-married employee of a financial-services firm, said that she had watched the first Republican presidential debate and could see herself supporting a candidate like Jeb Bush—that is, until she heard he was ideologically in-sync with Charles and David Koch.

The former governor had weakened environmental regulations in Florida to let a Koch-owned business pollute a local river, she was told, and—should he become the GOP presidential nominee—was set to benefit from nearly a billion dollars of support from the billionaire brothers.

“It’s kind of like, ‘OK, I need to re-evaluate,’” she said.  “He’s already kind of taking on that puppet role. … It’s definitely a concern.”

It was a good start. One Democrats will have to repeat several million times over if they want to succeed.