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New US Senate ads in Fairbanks invoke Koch brothers, but local resonance is unclear

Nathaniel Herz
Courtesy IFFA

A new television ad running in Fairbanks attacks Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan for the support he’s drawn from an Outside group tied to the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers.

The ad campaign, backed by $165,000 from a national firefighters union group, channels what allies of Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Begich describe as populist outrage following the shuttering of a refinery in the Fairbanks area owned by a Koch-controlled company, Flint Hills Resources.

“These billionaire Koch brothers are killing Alaskan jobs, shuttin’ down our refinery,” Shayne Wescott, a firefighter in Fairbanks, says in the ad.

But even in the Fairbanks area, where the North Pole Refinery halted fuel production this spring, it’s unclear just how much the Koch brothers message resonates. Three area politicians said most residents have only passing knowledge of the Kochs and attribute the refinery’s closure to other factors.

“I don’t think that the general population really knows, in Fairbanks, who the Koch brothers are from anybody else,” said Scott Kawasaki, a Democratic state representative. “I wouldn’t know what they look like if they were in the same room as me.”

Adam Wool, a Fairbanks Democrat running for the state House, said some people are aware of the Koch brothers’ ties to the refinery “and find it kind of ironic.”

“But it doesn’t seem like that’s a hot-button issue right now, that people in Fairbanks and people in North Pole are angry at the Koch brothers,” he said.

The Koch brothers have emerged as a favored political punching bag for Democrats and their allies in the 2014 election cycle.

There are four Koch brothers, though ire is typically directed at Charles and David, the principal owners of family company Koch Industries. They’re the two brothers depicted in the ad attacking Sullivan, and they’re the most active in politics.

David Koch chairs the board of a sister nonprofit organization to Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that he and Charles Koch helped found and that last week launched a $1 million television ad campaign against Begich.

The group plans to spend more than $125 million in 2014 on behalf of conservative causes across the country. It has run political ads attacking other Democratic candidates in tight races outside Alaska, including in Iowa and Arkansas.

AFP spokesman Levi Russell, in a phone interview Monday, characterized the Koch brothers as “just one or two of a pretty large number of donors,” though he refused to say how much the pair have contributed to the organization, which is not legally required to disclose its donors.

Locally and nationally, Democrats have seized on the Kochs’ ties to the organization, as well as to other big-spending national political groups, to skewer Republicans as being cozy with big business.

“Karl Rove and the Koch brothers breathed a huge sigh of relief last night,” said Begich’s wife, Deborah Bonito, when she introduced the incumbent senator at his campaign kickoff last week, the day after Sullivan declared victory over his two major primary challengers. “Their $10 million investment is on track to maybe, maybe -- not if we can help it -- bring them some big rewards.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said in an official press release that his Republican colleagues are “addicted to Koch.” And a Sunday story on the website Politico joked that the brothers are featured in so many Democratic commercials, “you’d think they were on the ballot.”

“I tend to gloss over when the Koch brothers are mentioned,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Every Democratic candidate mentions it.”

Nationally, though, only 36 percent of respondents in a March poll had an unfavorable view of the Koch brothers. Seventeen percent of people viewed the brothers favorably, and 47 percent said they weren’t sure.

Lottsfeldt, the political consultant who runs the Anchorage based pro-Begich Put Alaska First PAC, acknowledged that the Koch brothers may not be particularly well known across the country. But he said the shutdown of the Flint Hills Resources refinery in North Pole, and associated groundwater pollution, had raised the brothers’ profile in the state.

“Just like we know who Cal Worthington is here,” he said, referring to the recently deceased Anchorage car dealer.

Lottsfeldt said his group had done polling that found the Kochs to be “incredibly unpopular” in Alaska, but declined to release any data. Two other Alaska pollsters said they had never included Koch brothers questions in their own surveys.

While the firefighters’ ads are running only in Fairbanks, the three local legislators interviewed said that while many local residents are frustrated with the refinery’s shutdown, they aren’t quick to blame the Kochs.

Doug Isaacson, a Republican House member and former North Pole mayor, said the issue for his contituents is: “Why did the refinery shut down?”

The answer to that question, he added, had less to do with the Koch brothers and more to do with the state’s environmental regulatory regime, investment climate and high oil prices.

“It’s easy to pick big names that people don’t know and attack them as the boogeyman because no one’s there to defend it,” he said in a phone interview. “I would hope most people could see through that type of argument. It just stimulates the question of, ‘Who are they?’ And when people see the philosophy of the Koch brothers in my district, they probably will more likely champion them rather than crucify 'em.”

A press secretary for the firefighters union said the group’s political director was not available Monday but provided a prepared statement that described its ad as “calling out GOP candidate Dan Sullivan for taking campaign support from the Koch brothers and others intent on shutting down the Flint Hills refinery in Fairbanks.”

A spokesman for Koch Industries said the travel and business schedule of CEO Charles Koch did not allow for an interview Monday and referred emailed questions to a spokesman for Flint Hills Resources, a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries.

The spokesman, Jeff Cook, said in an emailed statement that the firefighters’ ads contained “false attacks.”

While the refinery’s shutdown reduced the number of local Flint Hills employees from 125 to about 35, who still run a fuel shipping and receiving terminal at the refinery site, Cook pointed out that many of the impacted employees had been offered jobs in other locations.

He added that Charles and David Koch were not directly involved in the decision to shut down the refinery, which was made by officials at Flint Hills Resources -- though they were advised about it.

A spokesman for Sullivan, Mike Anderson, said in his own emailed statement that the firefighters’ ads were a “false line of attack.”

“Dan Sullivan was disappointed to hear that the Flint Hills refinery in North Pole would be closing -- especially for the hardworking employees and their families,” Anderson said.