Is Harry Reid helpless against the Koch brothers' cash?

The Koch brothers are spending millions through their super PAC to unseat vulnerable Democrats and flip the Senate Republican. Senate majority leader Harry Reid is furious. But options are limited.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Republican pollster Ed Goeas speaks to reporters in Washington Tuesday. He said that Sen. Harry Reid's efforts to demonize the Koch brothers echoes a failed effort from the Republican playbook eight years ago.

One of Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s favorite pastimes these days is to rip into two people most Americans have never heard of. Not surprisingly, some political analysts wonder if that's the best election-year strategy for the feisty Democrat from Nevada.

To be sure, there are ample reasons for Senator Reid to be peeved by the billionaire Koch brothers (pronounced “Coke”). They are essentially trying to put him out of a job, spending more than $30 million to help Republicans in the tightest races. If Republicans pick up the six seats they need to control the Senate this November, the Koch brothers could be a big reason why.

But doing something that makes a difference is not so easy, explained Republican pollster Ed Goeas, at a Monitor Breakfast on Tuesday. He should know. In 2006, Republicans tried the same ploy, vilifying billionaire Democratic donor George Soros ahead of the midterm elections. That fall, Democrats retook control of the Senate.

“Trying to make the Koch brothers into … red meat is going to be about as effective as what we tried to do for several cycles with George Soros,” Mr. Goeas said.

But doing nothing means letting Charles and David Koch, via their "super political action committee," Americans for Prosperity, pummel vulnerable Democrats in Senate races from North Carolina to Alaska. AFP's $30 million is going toward ads – many against Obamacare – and a sophisticated network of door-to-door foot soldiers and phone banks reminiscent of President Obama’s outreach efforts in 2012 and 2008.

So, for now, Reid is going with the "red meat" approach, railing against the Republican "addiction to Koch." Earlier this month, he opened the Senate with a long diatribe against the “two oil barons” who are “trying to rig the political system to favor the rich and especially favor themselves.” He called their ads “a campaign of distortion,” that is sometimes “outright false” – a point supported by some media fact checks. He declared: “I am not afraid of the Koch brothers,” and then went on to denounce their “radical” agenda of privatizing Social Security and ending Medicare “as we know it.”

But 52 percent of registered likely voters have “never heard” of the Koch brothers, according to the March Battleground Poll by Goeas and his Democratic counterpart, Celinda Lake. The brothers’ main business interests are in energy, agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing, and their main message is anti-big government and anti-regulation.

At the same time, Democrats have their own Koch brothers this election cycle. His name is Tom Steyer, a billionaire in San Francisco whose advocacy group, NextGen Political Action, plans to spend $100 million against candidates considered unfriendly to the environment, particularly on climate change. This invites charges of hypocrisy.

“It strikes me as curious that if we are going to demonize people for exercising their constitutional rights to go out and speak and participate in the political process, we would just pick out the people that are opposed to us and leave out the people who are in favor of us,” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky said earlier this month.

Democratic strategists say that focusing on the Koch brothers appeals to their base and helps with fundraising. 

Ms. Lake, the Democratic pollster, says focusing on the message, rather than the name, is the way to go. “In focus groups … you hear people say, ‘Coke,’ ‘Coch,’ ‘Whatever brothers.’ ”

What will work, she says, is to connect voters with the substance of the Koch brothers' message. For instance, seniors won’t like their aggressive stance on Social Security, she says. Other voters won't appreciate that “outside money” is being used to influence politics in their state.

So a top Democratic super PAC, Senate Majority PAC, is rolling out its own $3 million campaign to counter the Koch brothers’ ads in Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan, and North Carolina. In Louisiana, for instance, Democratic incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu faces a tough challenge from Rep. Bill Cassidy, a Republican. The Senate Majority PAC ad never mentions the brothers by name:

''Out-of-state billionaires are spending millions to rig the system and elect Bill Cassidy. Their goal? Another politician bought and paid for.”

It then goes on to criticize the billionaires' agenda, including tax cuts for companies that "ship jobs overseas" and cuts to Social Security. 

The Democrats’ efforts to counter the Koch brothers may get their base excited, says Goeas, “but the problem is, they have a long ways to go.”

Indeed, AFP has been in the field for months. Senate Majority PAC is just arriving. Beleaguered Democrats must be wondering: What took them so long?

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