WASHINGTON -- After months of wincing in the face of negative ads funded by the industrialists David and Charles Koch, Democrats believe they have finally found a way to fight back: attacking the brothers' sprawling business conglomerate as callous and indifferent to the lives of ordinary people while pursuing profit and power.
By drawing public attention to layoffs by subsidiaries of Koch Industries across the country -- a chemical plant in North Carolina, an oil refinery in Alaska, a lumber operation in Arkansas -- Democrats are seeking to make villains of the reclusive billionaires, whose political organizations have spent more than $30 million on ads so far to help Republicans win control of the U.S. Senate.
The approach should seem familiar. President Barack Obama and his allies ran against Mitt Romney in 2012 by painting a dark picture of Bain Capital, the firm Romney founded, as a company that cut jobs and prized the bottom line over the well-being of its employees.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, has called out the Kochs -- whose combined net worth is estimated to be $100 billion -- in his latest ads. In one, which features a picture of the brothers grinning, one of them wearing a tuxedo, Alaskans look directly into the camera and unload. "They come into our town, buy our refinery," says one. "Just running it into the ground," says another. "A lot of Alaskans are losing jobs, and I'm definitely concerned about the drinking water," says a young woman holding a baby.
Republicans and other allies of the Kochs say Democrats are wasting their breath and their money. "Their only plausible counter strategy is to try to cast as villains two individual Americans who 95 percent of Americans have never heard of? I think it's such a stretch," said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-aligned organization responsible for most of the ads attacking Democrats.
The stakes for both sides are enormous -- including the ability to control the agenda on Capitol Hill on tax legislation, health care and judicial nominations -- and the results will drastically affect the final two years of the Obama presidency and quite likely the 2016 campaign. With the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week that struck down limits on aggregate giving to candidates, spending by wealthy donors will only accelerate.
In North Carolina, Democrats think they have found a way to counter the Kochs at a chemical factory the company owns along the Cape Fear River, where, right before the holidays last year, 100 workers learned they would lose their jobs. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., who has been the target of millions of dollars in negative ads from Americans for Prosperity, said the job cuts were a cruel slap to her state, especially since they came right as the group started to spend significant sums attacking her.
"They're spending millions of dollars to try to buy a United States Senate seat," she said. "These individuals have actually laid off workers in my state."
Last week, Charles Koch made a rare public defense of his political and business endeavors, writing in an op-ed article published in The Wall Street Journal, "Far from trying to rig the system, I have spent decades opposing cronyism and all political favors, including mandates, subsidies and protective tariffs -- even when we benefit from them."
A spokesman for Koch Industries, Robert A. Tappan, pointed out that Koch companies employ more than 60,000 people and, despite the tough business climate, have 3,500 jobs open. "Koch, like any other business, has to make difficult decisions to ensure the long-term viability of our company," he said. "The reality is that we have come through a global recession, and growth in the U.S. continues to be sluggish."
Democrats are hoping to persuade voters that those arguments are hollow. In West Virginia, they lament the loss of 100 jobs in 2010 at a Georgia-Pacific lumber plant in the district of U.S. Rep. Nick J. Rahall, a senior House Democrat who has been a top target of Americans for Prosperity.
In Arkansas, Democrats criticize the same company, a Koch subsidiary, for eliminating hundreds of mill jobs. They have begun documenting its cuts in two Arkansas towns where Georgia-Pacific, the maker of household products like Quilted Northern toilet paper and Brawny paper towels, laid people off during the economic downturn. Sen. Mark Pryor, the Democrat who is up for re-election, has also been pummeled with Americans for Prosperity ads.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Democrats are working hard to draw the Kochs into a more open political battle and help shape the public perception of them as Americans learn more about the money behind the blizzard of midterm advertising. But the battle so far has been asymmetric. Democrats have used their platform as the majority party in the U.S. Senate to drive home the Koch attacks, but conservative groups have far outspent Democrats on advertising, helping to weaken the president and his party early on, much as Democrats did to Romney in 2012.
A recent poll by George Washington University found that 52 percent of registered likely voters had never heard of the brothers. But among the 48 percent who had, more than half had unfavorable views.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he found the line of attack unseemly because Democrats appeared to want to punish the brothers for exercising their First Amendment right to political expression. "What I find startling is singling out private American citizens who have decided to engage in the political process, and basically demonizing them by name," he said. "I think that is something we haven't seen in quite a while in American politics."
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Alaska, with its robust oil industry, has become an unlikely place for a template for how Democrats hope to turn the Koch brothers into a liability for Republicans. Begich has tried to transform into a campaign rallying cry 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. Begich 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."
Democrats hope their attacks, at their most powerful, will have the impact of one of the most memorable ads of 2012, an anti-Romney one in which a worker in Indiana described how he had built a stage for his company after it was acquired by Bain Capital. The stage, he would later learn, was for announcing the closing of his plant. He said it had been like building his own coffin.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Democrats have also been critical of the Kochs with a second line of attack, one with particular resonance in Alaska: accusing them of being outsiders from the lower 48 states, meddling in local affairs. An early misstep by Americans for Prosperity gave the Begich campaign an opening to try to discredit the Kochs as interloping mudslingers, criticisms it has increased lately.
In a commercial for the Koch-backed group that aired late last year, an actress standing in a high-end, French country-style kitchen slams Begich as not listening to Alaskans.
It ended up giving Begich his opportunity to go after the Kochs. "First you use an actress to misrepresent my views. Now you're firing Alaskans. You're leaving dirty water. And the Republican governor is suing you," the senator said in an interview. "These guys don't care. They're abandoning Alaska. They're leaving."
The Kochs' business interests in Alaska have only become more tangled up in local politics since the state, led by Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, announced that it was suing Flint Hills Resources because of pollution at the refinery site. In shutting down, the company cited "the burden of excessive costs" related to the cleanup of contaminated soil and groundwater, which it says occurred under previous owners.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
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 Phillips, the Americans for Prosperity president, explaining that voters would not punish the Kochs the same way they did Romney.
"That's a big difference. David Koch is the chairman of our foundation. He's not running for anything," Phillips added. "This just points to what bad shape they're in."
By JEREMY W. PETERS and CARL HULSE
The New York Times