WASHINGTON -- Charles G. and David H. Koch, the billionaire brothers who are perhaps the best-known patrons of conservative Republican politics, are bespectacled and in their 70s. They look genial enough.
But Democrats are embarking on a broad effort that aims to unmask the press-shy siblings and portray them, instead, as a pair of villains bent on wrecking progressive politics.
On Thursday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is starting a digital campaign that will use Internet ads and videos, as well as social media, to tie Republican Senate candidates to the policies and actions of the Koch brothers. Its slogan: "The GOP is addicted to Koch" (pronounced coke).
Up first on the list is Alaska, where Democrats will try to link Dan Sullivan and Mead Treadwell, the Republican Senate candidates, to an oil refinery in the state owned by Koch Cos. Public Sector. The refinery is set to cease gasoline and jet fuel production, which would lead to the layoffs of roughly 80 refinery workers.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. and Senate majority leader, foreshadowed the campaign by taking to the Senate floor on Tuesday - an unusual move -- for the second time in two weeks to accuse the Koch brothers of unfairly meddling in the political system by helping to pump more than $30 million so far in television advertising and other activities into the most competitive congressional races across the country. On Wednesday, he attacked them again during his weekly news conference.
Many of the ads by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group backed by the Koch brothers, are especially critical of President Barack Obama's signature health care law.
But whether the words of Reid, a member of an institution with historically low approval ratings, and even the efforts of other Democratic groups, will be any match for what the Kochs can spend remains an open and urgent question for Democrats.
"Harry Reid can stand on the floor at the United States Senate and howl at the moon all night long if he wants," said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist. "But the reality is that he is powerless to stop millions of Americans from watching ads that tell the personal stories of real people who have been hurt by Obamacare. He's basically spitting in the ocean and fooling himself into thinking that he's making waves."
In an interview in his Senate office on Wednesday, Reid said his outspokenness against the Kochs stems from his concern for the middle class. "Right now, because of people like the two brothers, the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is getting squeezed out of existence," he said. "They're against everything that's good for America today."
Koch Industries, meanwhile, accused the Senate majority leader of trying to change the subject from what it says are the destructive Democratic policies that many of the ads they support are simply highlighting.
"Attacking Koch is nothing new and appears to happen whenever Sen. Reid and the Democratic leadership want to distract voters from their abysmal record and failure to meaningfully address the issues in this country," said Robert A. Tappan, director of external relations for Koch Industries. "Congress has a 13 percent approval rating for a reason. We are confident Americans will see through this tactic."
Reid said his focus on the Koch brothers was both personal and political.
"How could I do nothing? How could I let these people try to buy America?" he asked. "Don't I have an obligation, of someone that has been designated to run the Senate, to speak out when I see two people trying to buy America?"
Democrats say the strategy of spotlighting the Koch brothers' activities is politically shrewd.
The majority leader was particularly struck by a presentation during a recent Senate Democratic retreat, which emphasized that one of the best ways to draw an effective contrast is to pick a villain, one of his aides said. And by scolding the Koch brothers, Reid is trying to draw them out, both to raise their public profile, and also to help rally the Democratic base.
The approach is also logical in light of Democratic-funded research showing that many voters believe the political system is rigged in favor of the superrich.
"Part of responding to these attacks that the Koch brothers are spending millions upon millions on is to make sure the voters understand who is behind them, and what's behind them," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster. "And our research has shown pretty clearly that once voters recognize the source of the attacks, they tend to discount them substantially."
In 2012, Garin produced a research project for Patriot Majority PAC, an outside Democratic group, looking at the public awareness that swing voters and traditionally Democratic constituencies have of the Koch brothers. He found that his focus group respondents had an "overwhelmingly negative" reaction to the Kochs' political involvement, with their top concern being that "the Koch brothers' agenda will hurt average people and undermine the middle class."
Craig Varoga, who runs Patriot Majority, used Garin's findings to start a "Stop the Greed Agenda" campaign - which seeks to highlight what it views as "mega-billionaire special interests," such as the Kochs, around the country. He also plans to do more to spotlight the brothers' ideological agenda this year.
Senate Majority PAC, a group that supports Democratic Senate candidates, has also begun featuring the Koch brothers in their ads. An ad for Bruce Braley, a Democratic Senate candidate in Iowa, specifically warns of negative advertising by "out-of-state billionaires playing politics with health care." And an ad attacking Terri Lynn Land, a Republican Senate candidate in Michigan, even features black-and-white images of the Koch brothers. "Terri Lynn Land: Helping the powerful at our expense," says the ad's narrator at one point, as a photo of the brothers flashes in the background.
Reid, who is known for his halting, whispery speaking style, said he realized attacking the Koch brothers and their money might be a Sisyphean task, but he remains undaunted.
"I'm going to -- with my inadequate ability to speak and project - I'm going to do everything I can with my lack of talent to bring attention to those guys," he said.
By ASHLEY PARKER
The New York Times