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.
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.