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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Pros and Cons of Outing Koch Brothers as Poster-Boys for the Evils of Big Money in Politics

Wesley Lowery’s post “Democrats’ anti-Koch strategy is risky” at The Fix assesses the pros and cons of Dems’ efforts to make the Koch brothers poster-boys for the evils of big money in politics. Lowery offers some interesting polling data to help gauge the efficacy of the Dems’ strategy:

A poll of registered voters conducted in January for the Democratic-aligned America Votes found that Kochs had relatively low name identification in five battleground states, ranging from 29 percent to 37 percent, according to a person familiar with the results. The exception was Wisconsin, where AFP helped Gov. Scott Walker fight off a recall effort. There, 50 percent of people recognized the brothers.

Fair enough. I’ve also wondered about their name recognition among voters and the cost-benefit calculations that determine how much money, time and energy should be invested in the anti-Koch brothers project.
But name recognition can be increased, which is one of the purposes of political ads. There is no question in my mind that Dems have to inform the public about the unprecedented influence of money in politics resulting from the Koch brothers’ meddling, and how they stand to benefit economically from it.
The weakest part of Lowery’s post is his suggestion that “Tom Steyer, the hedge-fund executive who plans to target Republicans over climate change” is somehow equivalent to the Kochs. The Kochs have already poured millions into campaigns to defeat Democrats and progressive reforms. When all of the spending is tallied at the end of the 2014 campaign, Steyer’s contribution will likely be small change compared to what the Kochs have already spent.
My hunch is that pretty soon we will see a spate of ads deifying the Koch brothers as “self-made” entrepreneurs who deserve our respect. Ludicrous as that sounds, it may just offset enough Dem messaging to the contrary.
The only question is, what is the wisest way to allocate resources so other Democratic messaging doesn’t suffer. Dems have a daunting challenge, for example, in convincing a large segment of the public that the Affordable Care Act is a good reform for their families. This is not unrelated to the Koch brothers bashing of Obamacare. But messaging shouldn’t get too complex for short television ads. Then there is the need to invest heavily in turning out the Democratic base, which many strategists believe is a more cost-effective investment than messaging to win/change hearts and minds.
There is also a danger of allocating resources away from publicizing another message that Dems must get across, loud and clear, by November — that the Republicans in congress are doing everything they can to prevent economic recovery. Again, the Koch brothers are part of the picture. But shifting focus away from the Republican members of congress toward the Kochs may have the unintended effect of letting them evade accountability. The Koch brothers could serve as sort of a ‘red herring,’ which I’m sure would please them immensely.
Democrats do have to go after the Kochs and big Republican donors. The unacceptable alternative is to allow them to buy elections.The critical questions Dems face in meeting this challenge have to do with timing, resource allocation and message emphasis.
At a minimum, Dems should always link their attacks on Koch brothers spending to specific Republican candidates at the congressional, state and local levels. Lots of current Republican office-holders have made some very risky policy calls, like GOP governors refusing funds for Medicaid expansion, forcing rural hospitals to close (e.g. GA, plus 18 other states not taking expansion funds) or state legislatures reducing early voting opportunities (e.g. OH, FL, GA, TN, WV, NC and others). Dems must make Republicans eat their blunders, not allow the Koch brothers to distract them from that imperative.

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