Can the Democrats Run Against the Koch Brothers?

Led by Harry Reid, the Democrats have tried to turn the Koch brothers into an election issue. This has struck us, like most observers, as a dubious strategy. But the Democrats aren’t giving up: they are now broadening what had previously been inside baseball, using Koch to rile up their base, to a general election strategy in which they run ads directly attacking the brothers.

In the New York Times, Jeremy Peters and Carl Hulse report on the Senate campaign in Alaska, where Democrat Mark Begich is desperately trying to hold on to his seat. The Democrats are reprising the strategy they used against Mitt Romney, running commercials that attacked Bain Capital for closing plants or laying off employees. Their hook, in the case of Alaska, is a refinery in North Pole that Flint Hills Resources, a Koch Industries subsidiary, recently announced that it would close, in part due to excessive environmental costs that are being imposed by the state:

Alaska, with its robust oil industry, has become an unlikely place for Democrats to test the template they hope to use on the Koch brothers in other states. Mr. Begich has tried to transform the announcement in February that Flint Hills Resources, a Koch Industries company, would stop processing crude oil at its refinery outside Fairbanks, and thus eliminate 81 jobs, into a campaign rallying cry. He has made the brothers the subject of two of his newest ads on radio and television, and condemned them for the commercials that Americans for Prosperity has run.

“Who’s behind the ads?” an announcer asks. “Two billionaire outsiders: the Koch brothers. The same profiteering Koch brothers who bought the Flint Hills refinery in Fairbanks, ran it into the ground and are now shutting it down.”

The Times reports that the Democrats have similar stories lined up in North Carolina, West Virginia and Arkansas, all states where Democratic Senators are on the endangered list. Begich’s ads can be criticized on their own terms–when the North Pole closure was announced, he wrote a letter to Alaska’s governor in which he was sympathetic to the refinery’s position:

Obviously, the refinery has some competitive challenges. Chief among these challenges is the cost of cleanup on the land the State owned when Williams operated the refinery, and Flint Hills cited this in their announcement.

But a more basic question is whether the Democrats’ strategy of demonizing the Koch brothers can work, not just to raise money from the party’s faithful but to sway swing voters. In the Times article, Republican sources express skepticism:

Most Republicans seem content to let Democrats keep swinging at the Kochs, saying the efforts will squander energy and resources that could have been spent elsewhere.

“Mitt Romney was the candidate for president of the United States,” said Mr. Phillips, the Americans for Prosperity president, explaining that voters would not punish the Kochs the same way they did Mr. Romney.

“That’s a big difference. David Koch is the chairman of our foundation. He’s not running for anything,” Mr. Phillips added. “This just points to what bad shape they’re in.”

That seems right to me. Put the shoe on the other foot: could Republicans make much headway by attacking, not Democratic candidates, but their financial supporters? Would Republican ads attacking unions for destroying Michigan’s auto industry, or Tom Steyer for benefiting from government subsidies and mandates, or pointing out that George Soros is a convicted criminal, sway many votes? Or, to be more precise, would they persuade more voters than spending the same money on attacking Democratic candidates themselves? I can’t believe that the answer is yes.

Where the Democrats are trying to defend incumbent senators, their problem is that voters’ principal focus will inevitably be on the incumbent’s record. They can, of course, attack the Republican challenger (although in some instances, that challenger remains unknown at present), and they will. But it is the incumbent Democrat, not the Republican challenger, who has to face up to his or her vote for Obamacare, the stimulus, $17 trillion in debt, and so on. Understandably, the incumbents want to change the subject, but it is hard to believe that voters will be much distracted by attacks on private citizens who are not on the ballot.

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