Democrats seem to have settled on a unified theme for 2014: “Republican billionaires bad, ours are good.” Okay, admittedly a little simplistic but that is at the core of their message. More specifically, Democrats have been attacking the billionaire Koch brothers who have donated to Republican candidates and GOP leaning groups to the tune of millions of dollars.
What Democrats are remiss to mention however is that they also benefit from the donations of billionaires. Just look at the candidacies of one of their top candidates this cycle, Congressman Gary Peters in Michigan, running to replace Senator Carl Levin. Peters has been running ads in the state for two weeks attacking his opponent, former Secretary of state Terri Lynne Land, for accepting the support of the Koch brothers. But if one were to look at Peter’s donor list they would see it is a who’s who of billionaires; George Soros, Jeffrey Katzenberg and former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg. So really, is the Koch brothers spending that much worse than that of liberal billionaires?
The Koch brothers spending also pales in comparison to those of numerous other liberal groups. Unions remain the number one spender in elections despite several setbacks in recent years (Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan). In fact, three of the top five givers to SuperPAC’s were Democratic donors. The Koch brothers do not even come close (#59 on Open Secrets). Also, Democratic donors Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer (the liberal billionaire who plans to spend $100 million this cycle to support climate change legislation) were number 1 and 2 on the Sunlight Foundation’s List.
So it seems a little disingenuous for Democrats to argue the GOP is funded by billionaires when they are as well. And it seems the more the party tries the more voters will likely tune them out. Democrats have reams of polling data that argues otherwise of course. They would not make such attacks if they did not score well with focus group participants. These focus groups have surely revealed that voters do not like outside forces buying elections or telling them what to do. However, these attacks seem a little beside the point.
While voters may worry about money in politics it is ultimately something voters cannot change in eight months. It also is not easily connectable to their economic status or bottom-line. But choosing between the policies of a Republican and Democratic candidate for office does. So for a candidate like Gary Peters who benefits from running in a blue state the attack might work just enough for him to mobilize his base. But for many other Democrats running in red states like Arkansas, Alaska, North Carolina and Louisiana the benefit might be much less.
Take Senator Mark Begich in Alaska for example. In his campaign’s first TV ad, Mark Begich blasted the two men by name for running what he called misleading advertisements against him. “I don’t go down to tell them what to do, I expect them not to come up to Alaska and tell us what to do,” said one person featured in the ad. True, but nobody said that voters actually are basing their decision in November on what the Koch Brothers do and say.
Yet, Democrats continue to think the attacks will work. If they can get voters to focus on the spending of two billionaire tycoons they hope to turn the public’s attention away from Obamacare, the flagging US economy and the President’s dismal job performance. For some Democrats such as Michelle Nunn in Georgia the strategy may backfire however. The Koch brothers own a plant in the state and if Nunn joins in attacks against the brothers her opponent is sure to say she is attacking business in the state. Nunn needs the support of moderate, fiscally conservative business owners to beat her GOP opponent.
National Democrats are surely aware that this strategy is sure to gin up their donor base. But again, money can only go so far in the races Democrats need to win to retain their Senate majority as well as gain some ground in state elections across the country. Arguing the other guy is worse is not always a winning strategy as Democrats learned in 2010 and Republicans learned in 2012.
Brad Todd, a Republican strategist, put it simply, “Right now, Democrats can’t figure out how to get away from Obamacare, so they are digging around desperately for something off-topic to discuss. I had the same emotion in 2006 when it was obvious the war was going to beat us but we weren’t willing to run against the war that we believed in. There is never any magic trick to get out of this box when your party is on the wrong side of the only issue voters care about.”
And right now the issues voters care about are the ones the Democrats are on the wrong side of!