A new wave of campaign ads in the U.S. Senate race hit Alaska this week. The ads, like an earlier round, target incumbent Democrat Mark Begich and the Affordable Care Act, but this time with a new, anti-insurance company twist.
The latest ad is by the Koch brothers-connected Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a little-known business group the Center for Responsive Politics describes as a major source of "dark money," a term for campaign-related spending from unidentified donors. The Freedom Partners' board is largely made up of long-time Koch Industries employees, according to news reports. Billionaire industrialist siblings David and Charles Koch are members.
Freedom Partners, which was founded in November 2011, says it is spending nearly $3 million on new television ads targeting Begich and four other Democrats: Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Udall of Colorado and Reps. Bruce Braley of Iowa and Gary Peters of Michigan. These are its first ads in Alaska, the group said.
But it's not the first Koch brothers splash. They are inserting themselves in a big way into this year's Alaska Senate race, considered key to the GOP fight to take control of the Senate. Freedom Partners is the third Koch brothers-backed group so far to run anti-Begich ads. The insiders' Cook Political Report recently declared the race "absolutely in the Toss-Up column."
Democrats are pushing back hard. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this week went after Koch Industries for receiving federal subsidies for retiree health care even as the brothers try to kill the Affordable Care Act, or ACA.
The newest television ad says "Obamacare" means billions of dollars going to health insurance companies and that Begich, who voted for the law and now is supporting significant changes, received campaign contributions from insurance companies.
"Sen. Begich says he's standing up to insurance companies," a narrator says, as a photo of a pensive-looking Begich appears on the screen. "But can you really believe him?"
The female voice goes on to say: "Begich took thousands from the health insurance industry and he supported Obamacare, which gave health insurance companies billions and a guaranteed bailout while Alaskan families suffer from cancelled plans and higher costs."
From 2007 through 2013, Begich received some $60,000 in health insurance industry-related donations, Freedom Partners says.
Begich's campaign responded with a 10-page critique of the new ad, earlier ads and the Koch brothers' involvement in Alaska.
"If there's a story here -- it's that this group is trying to buy this election without telling Alaskans who they are, where their money comes from or if they even know anything about Alaska," Max Croes, spokesman for the Begich campaign, said in an email.
Begich fought to help Alaskans keep their existing health insurance plans, the campaign noted, pointing to news stories from last year that quoted him on that point.
In Alaska, the state allowed insurers to extend old policies that didn't offer all the benefits required under ACA. At least two carriers -- including Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield, the biggest health insurer in the state -- agreed to do so, avoiding cancellations, the campaign noted, pointing to the same national Associated Press story referenced in the ad.
Freedom Partners also criticizes Obamacare's "built-in taxpayer bailouts if health insurance companies lose money."
Begich highlights the flip side: An ACA requirement that insurers spend at least 80 percent of insurance premiums on health care.
Freedom Partners has more than 200 members who pay at least $100,000 a year in dues and functions like the Koch brothers' "secret bank" for favored causes, according to an analysis last year in Politico. Freedom Partners describes itself as a group promoting "free-market principles."
"These issue ads aim to hold these lawmakers accountable by reminding constituents that they worked hand-in-hand with health insurance companies when crafting the president's health care law," Freedom Partners' spokesman James Davis said in a written statement.
But Begich noted that when the ACA was being written, he pushed to ensure that it required insurance carriers to cover pre-existing conditions, which became one of the law's most popular features.
The Koch brothers are involved in the campaign in other ways, too.
Last month in his first TV ad of his re-election campaign, Begich took on the Kochs' decision to close their Flint Hills gasoline and fuel refinery in North Pole, outside Fairbanks. That is costing Alaska some 80 jobs. Still unresolved is how to clean up a pollutant that seeped from the refinery into the community's groundwater.
"Just running it into the ground," one man says in the ad. "Leaving a mess," says another.
The American Energy Alliance, another group that Politico says is also funded in part by the Koch brothers, is running television ads most of April at a cost of $526,000. The ads question Begich's position on a carbon tax that features puppet-like images of Begich, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama.
Begich has said he's against a carbon tax. An earlier ad on that topic by a different Koch-brothers connected group, Americans for Prosperity, was determined to be mostly false by Politifact and FactCheck.org.
With the general election still seven months away, Outside groups, including the Koch-backed ones, have already spent more than $2.5 million on the Senate race, mainly targeting Begich, his campaign says.
The Republican National Committee says Begich is trying to parlay upset over the Koch brothers into a campaign fundraising tool. They call that hypocritical, given that Begich's Great Land political action committee received $5,000 in contributions in 2010 from the KochPAC.
Begich's campaign says there is no reason to return the money received four years ago. He says he raised more than $1 million during the first quarter of 2014 and received donations from 1,500 Alaskans, including more than 400 who hadn't given before.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER