Let's Count the Ways that the Democrats' Anti-Koch Message Failed Them

Democrats spent millions to link Republicans to their donors. What does it mean that the Republicans won?

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Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Braley thanks supporters during his concession speech November 4, 2014 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Photo by Steve Pope/Getty Images

Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley is the official gump of the midterms. Every election recap of length includes at least one intra-Democrat dig at Braley, a congressman elected in the 2006 wave who seemed, initially, like a safe bet to inherit Tom Harkin's old Senate desk. Every recap recalls that he not only mocked incoming Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley as "a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school" (Judiciary has never been chaired by a non-lawyer), but that a donor who I can only assume was named Ignatius J. Reilly—a Braley supporter!—thought this barb was worth uploading to YouTube.

But Braley did not lose by abandoning the Democrats' playbook. To the contrary; no 2014 candidate ran harder on classic Democratic economic issues, or worked harder to remind voters that his opponent, Senator-elect Joni Ernst, was supported by the Koch brothers' network of donors. This was done in TV ads.

http://youtu.be/TN_8nWS6uNc

It was done from the debate stage, where Braley accused Ernst of adopting the Kochs' favored positions and said if elected "she'd owe the Koch brothers everything."

http://youtu.be/7sLuxC4cX0I

Braley was not alone in this. Harry Reid's Senate Majority PAC ran similar attacks. American Bridge, the liberal oppo group founded by David Brock, put Ernst in one of its wannabe-viral "talent show" cartoons, in which—seriously, this was the gimmick—cartoon versions of Senate candidates did tricks for David and Charles Koch in exchange for campaign money.

http://youtu.be/0R9KheJPJtw

That was a real video that real people paid money for, and after the election David Brock put his name atop a memo telling progressives that the strategy would continue. One quote, via Ken Vogel and Tarini Parti:

This will be easier now that they are in power ... Our efforts will continue, because the alternative—staying quiet as these secretive billionaires pour hundreds of millions into politics to further their own bottom line—is impossible.

It had better be easier. Going over my notes from 2014, I find plenty of explanations, from Democrats, as to why Koch-bashing was going to pay off. It was necessary, they said, to put a human face on the Republican policy agenda—to draw a connection between the ads they were seeing as early as spring 2013 and the conservatives who would cut the renewable fuel standard or ease regulation on banks. In September, strategists with MoveOn.org told me that the Kochs were infamous among the low-propensity voters they were calling. Polling as early as this spring found that the Kochs, while known by only 38 percent of voters, were disliked by 25 percent. That was before the documentary Citizen Koch was released (it's on Netflix), and before progressive filmmaker Robert Greenwald debuted his own Koch film with a preview co-hosted by Reid. The theory went that the sort of sleepy Democrats who forgot to vote in midterms would be excited to vote against the Kochs.

What happened? MoveOn tells me that the group "blew past" its targets and ended up calling more than 6 million people. Ilya Sheyman, MoveOn's political director, pointed to Michigan and Oregon as "definitely some races where it made a big dent," and noted the national news it made when Freedom Partners bolted from Oregon.

That's fair, but the complete collapse of Monica Wehby, the GOP's Oregon contender, had everything to do with her biography and little to do with Koch attacks. What about the states where the Kochs went in early—Arkansas, North Carolina, Iowa, Louisiana? In the former three states, Republicans have already won; in the last, they're expected to win the runoff.

"The Iowa internals I saw from our outside groups showed Koch only being mentioned by hard Ds," America Rising's Tim Miller. "Soft Ds didn't get the message, indies weren't swayed, if anything were turned off. Polls had indies saying Dems were more negative."

Why didn't Democrats direct this base message in some more direct manner, like direct mail? Why make it so central to the main campaign? It was important for them to show Kochworld donors that there were consequences to playing, and that they were net drags on the candidates they wanted to support. Beating the Republicans in 2012 had spooked donors for much of 2013, allowing Democratic groups to raise enough money to match attacks in most races.

Losing will echo for a very long time. The Koch message didn't merely fail; it bound conservatives closer to the donors. Louisiana Senator David Vitter, when challenged about the Kochs, told a town hall meeting audience that the brothers were patriots. He's in a good position to be the next governor of his state.

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