The Koch Effect: Two Rich Guys Democrats Love to Hate

In Alaska’s U.S. Senate race, there’s been so much talk about the billionaire Koch Brothers you might think they were running for office. They’re not, though a Koch-affiliated group has already spent close to $1 million on ads against Mark Begich. The Cook Political Report today declared the race a toss-up and Begich one of the Senate’s most endangered Democrats. But the well funded anti-Begich ad campaign may not be having the desired effect. It’s been running for months. Last week, the Begich campaign aired its first TV ad. It doesn’t talk up his achievements or criticize his three Republican challengers.  It’s all about the Kochs.

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It’s a strategy that’s presumably working for Begich, says Anchorage political blogger Amanda Coyne, because he does the much same in virtually all of his fundraising appeals.

“It’s really hard to get an email from Begich without mentioning the Kochs,” says Coyne, who also writes a column for the Anchorage Daily News.

A point of clarification: People talk about the Koch Brothers’ ads against Begich.  The ads are sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, a group the Kochs helped found. Whether they’re still funding it isn’t disclosed, but it’s on track to exceed the $38 million it spent nationwide during the last mid-term elections. AFP says it has some 90,000 donors.

The Kochs, though, make an attractive target.  Charles and David Koch are two of the wealthiest men in America. They’re tied for 4th place, according to Forbes magazine. And they give big to conservative and Libertarian causes. Nationally, the Democrats are taking aim, directly at the Kochs, and it’s personal. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has gone after them on the floor of the Senate, saying they’re trying to buy Congress to press their own agenda.

Some journalists and bloggers have said they’re the best enemy the Democrats could imagine, a gift, really, because railing against the Kochs fires up the left and drives donations. Begich says he’s not so sure about that.

“I don’t know if it helps me or not but I just know one thing: We’re going to tell Alaskans about these groups like his, like the Koch Brothers, and tell them that we’re up against billionaires and we need their help,” Begich said.

Campaigning against the Kochs is a page straight out of the latest National Democratic playbook, and it might be an especially easy play in Alaska. To start with, as the Begich ad points out, Koch Industries is closing a refinery near Fairbanks, a refinery with a water pollution problem. But it’s more than that.

Anchorage political consultant and ad pro Art Hackney calls the Kochs lovely men. He says they should receive more praise for things like their huge donations to hospitals. But Hackney says the Kochs – meaning Americans for Prosperity – have probably helped Begich more than they’ve hurt him. Exhibit A, says Hackney, is the ad AFP  ran featuring a featuring a fake Alaskan in her kitchen complaining about Begich.

“I mean, all of us make mistakes,” Hackney says, “but the minute it was outed so rapidly that that was a Maryland actress, the ad should have been pulled down.”

Instead, the ad ran and ran, Hackney says, in effect helping Begich show how Outsiders are attacking him.  It also allowed a pro-Begich Super Pac to air an ad ridiculing it that Hackney calls quite effective.

Americans for Prosperity tends to run the same ads in several states, just changing the name of the Democratic target. Hackney says that doesn’t work well on Alaskans, in part because they often know their U.S. Senators, face to face.

“I do think that most Outside groups have at tin ear when it comes to Alaska, because they’re used to in other states being able to be more generic in their messages,” Hackney says. “Alaskans need to be talked to in different ways.”

Hackney is not a disinterested party here. He formed a Super PAC supporting Dan Sullivan, one of Begich’s Republican challengers, which pays him for professional services. Hackney would like to work as an advisor to out-of-state groups, like Americans for Prosperity, that plan to run ads against Begich. For one thing, he’d advise AFP to quit running ads saying Begich supports a carbon tax. Begich calls it a lie, and Hackney says most Alaskans don’t know enough about the term to care.

“The public is scratching its head, not really sure what either side is talking about,” Hackney said. “It’s a whole lot of money spent not to have a great deal of effect.”

Marc Hellenthal, an Anchorage pollster and political marketing pro, also picked carbon tax as a losing issue for an anti-Begich ad. He says AFP’s decision to run it shows they don’t get the state.

“There’s a certain lack of understanding of what issues play in Alaska and what issues don’t and their ads haven’t reflected an appreciation of that,” he said.

He describes it as more than a waste of money. Hellenthal, who has no clients in the Senate race, says the attack ads are giving Begich something meaty to run against. But, he say,  he’d have to see polling data to believe Americans for Prosperity and the Koch Brothers are doing their cause more harm than good.


The Begich campaign’s first TV ad

The Koch Industries video response


Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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