Democrats’ anti-Koch message turns few votes
One clear lesson emerged from last week’s midterms: running against big money in politics is hard to do.
Democrats and their allies made the topic one of their central lines of attack this year, featuring the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch in nearly 100 different political spots that ran in states from Alaska to Florida. But the issue failed to gain traction, and most of those Democrats lost.
The difficulty they encountered in transforming the public’s disgust with rich donors into political action speaks to how hard it is move voters who view both parties as captives of wealthy patrons.
Even as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., railed against the Koches in speeches on the Senate floor, billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer commanded attention this year for the tens of millions he poured into a super PAC backing Democratic candidates.
The 2014 campaign should have presented a ripe environment to push a message about money in politics. Super PACs and other big-money groups reported spending more than $550 million on congressional races, a record for a midterm election. Voters complained bitterly about waves of negative ads backed by out-of-state outfits.
Across the country, candidates sparred over the influence of their rich contributors, while new reform-minded super PACs sought to make campaign money a potent political issue.
The argument proved to have limits.
Mayday PAC, which started with much fanfare as the “super PAC to end super PACs,” failed to play a decisive role in any race.
Some Democrats argue that the anti-Koch message contributed to their victories in Senate races in New Hampshire and Michigan. But it did not save incumbents in states such as North Carolina, Iowa, Colorado and Arkansas, all of whom highlighted the intense spending against them by the Koch-backed political network.
The answer, some party strategists think, is not to abandon the anti-Koch message, but to amplify it.
“The way I view it is that we were just getting started,” said David Brock, founder of American Bridge, the independent pro-Democratic research operation.
Brock’s group plans to dig even deeper into the Koches as part of an effort to tie them to the incoming class of congressional Republicans, a theme it will then carry into the 2016 presidential race.
“The Koches themselves were put on the defensive for the first time, and a number of their candidates were put on the defensive when these issues were raised,” he said.
Top officials in the Koch political operation say Democrats’ dismal showing proved that the left’s strategy was flawed.
“While Harry Reid and Senate Democrats spent their time attacking job creators who spoke out against their failed policies, we focused on the issues voters cared about,” said James Davis, spokesman for Freedom Partners Action Fund, a super PAC financed by the Koch brothers and other donors.