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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Is Targeting Koch Bros an Effective Strategy for Dems?

The revelation that the Koch Brothers plan to spend at least $889 million on the 2016 elections has reignited the discussion about what progressives can do about it. At National Journal Scott Bland’s “Should Democrats Double Down on Attacking the Koch Brothers?” tackles the question:

No Democratic strategy got more attention in 2014 than the party’s ritualized slamming of the conservative Koch brothers. From Harry Reid’s floor speeches to TV ads broadcast across the country, Democrats bloodied the billionaire brothers and they candidates they funded–yet most of the Koch candidates won anyway.
…Not every Democrat wants to double down on the Kochs. It’s expensive, for one thing, to raise the profiles of businessmen most people have never heard of in order to attack them. “I think the Kochs are a great fundraising foil, but I continue to believe they’re not the best line of attack for Democrats,” said Travis Lowe, a Democratic ad-maker.

No doubt there are plenty of potential Democratic voters who don’t resent those who acquire as much wealth as they can, but who might be troubled to learn about the myriad Koch conduits like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Americans for Prosperity, which support legislation and candidates who protect polluters, undermine unions, cut needed social programs, oppose the minimum wage and reduce employee benefits, health and safety protection for working people. Educating the public about such Koch brothers projects is a challenge. But not doing so is giving one of the most regressive political institutions in American history a free ride to do their worst, which is pretty bad.
As Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker,

The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry – especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests. … Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a ‘kingpin of climate science denial.’ The report purported to show that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outspent ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies – from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program – that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the “Kochtopus.”

Some have advocated boycotting Koch products. But it is more problematic. The tentacles of Koch Industries include massive petrochemical holdings, refineries, manufacturers, energy, minerals, paper products, fertilizer, ranching, commodities trading and other subsidiaries employing an estimated 70,000 people world-wide. Koch Industries is the second largest privately held company in the U.S. (If Koch Industries were publicly-held, it would have ranked 17 in the Fortune 500).
Georgia-Pacific is probably the most vulnerable Koch Industries company in terms of a possible consumer boycott, since they are the top producer of household paper products. But it takes some research for consumers to find Koch-free alternatives. Many grocery chains carry few other options, so ubiquitous are the company’s paper products. If a consumer wanted to get totally off the Koch industries grid, it would probably require walking to work and using tree leaves for toilet paper. Even a successful boycott of Georgia Pacific would likely have limited influence, since Koch Industries is so broadly diversified.
That’s not to say that other protest tactics, such as picketing their homes or demonstrating against their union-bashing would not help educate the public about their destructive influence on legislation at the federal, state and local levels. Doing nothing to protest against their increasing funding to prevent needed social reforms makes even less sense than overreacting.
Is it possible that targeting the Koch brothers in the 2014 midterm elections failed mostly because it wasn’t sharply focused or done with sufficient repetition? Bland reports that targeting the Koch brothers got impressive results in at least one state:

Paul Tencher, who managed Democratic Sen. Gary Peters’s victorious 2014 campaign in Michigan, says his team’s efforts demonstrate that the strategy is too potent to give up, especially with the Kochs’ political network planning to spend a gargantuan $889 million in 2016. Tencher says their methods are the only way to keep the ever-growing influx of Koch-network money from swinging elections.
…Peters’s campaign in Michigan was one of the few November bright spots for his party, and it came after months of relentless TV ads linking Republican nominee Terri Lynn Land to the Kochs and a trio of environmental and economic issues with Koch-owned companies in the state. According to analysis from Kantar Media/CMAG and The Cook Political Report, 35 percent of Democratic TV ads in Michigan’s 2014 Senate race attacked the Kochs–the highest rate in the country.
When Tencher started as Peters’s campaign manager last winter, Koch-affiliated groups such as Americans for Prosperity had been advertising against Peters for months, and Land was doing better in both public and private polling. So Peters’s campaign shifted resources to opposition research–but on the Kochs, not Land.
…Democratic outside groups picked up on the campaign’s research, which highlighted chemical storage along the Detroit River and major layoffs in northern Michigan, and aired TV ads attacking the Kochs’ motivations for backing Land. And from the spring through the early fall, as Peters pulled away and Land’s unfavorable ratings grew in Democratic polling from 25 percent to the 40s, the Kochs’ name recognition and unfavorable ratings grew in lockstep, too.
“We have to be smarter and more disciplined about shutting off the spigot of outside money,” Tencher said in an interview. “… This isn’t just about bruising up the Koch brothers and raising money. It’s about shutting off that spigot and making their brand incapable of carrying the Republican message
…”The Kochs left in August,” Tencher said. “Whether it was because she became a non-viable candidate or they became a non-viable messenger, one way or another we stopped their money.”…I think other campaigns could and should have bought into this messaging better.”

It appears that targeting the Koch brothers can work, when it is properly focused under the right conditions. If a campaign teams do a good job of educating voters about the Koch brothers’ business practices, environmental record and role in politics, and then persuasively connect them to Republican candidates in a substantial way, it can help elect Democrats.

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