It was a big summer for the Koch brothers, the Kansas-based multibillionaires whose collecting impulses go way beyond art and real estate.
Senate seats are much more picturesque, not to say practical.
In the last weekend of August, a full cast of Republican 2016 presidential hopefuls, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, appeared in Texas to audition before one of the brothers’ political financing groups, Americans for Prosperity. Earlier in the summer, GOP Senate candidates Cory Gardner of Colorado, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Joni Ernst of Iowa appeared before a gathering of two Koch groups, AFP and Freedom Partners. Gardner assured them that his race would be decided by “third-party” financing, and Ernst declared her race “started right here with all of your folks, this wonderful network.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky promised the group that if the Republicans took back the Senate it wouldn’t be debating “gosh-darn proposals” like raising the minimum wage.
And, of course, in August Freedom Partners did most of the spending in the Oregon Senate race.
The brothers really should have come out here. It was a lovely August in Oregon.
Instead, Freedom Partners spent an estimated $3.6 million – enough for several pretty nice places in Cannon Beach, another idea of summer in Oregon – on TV spots in August, way more than the candidates themselves spent. Following the rules on these things – at least until the Supreme Court looks at them again – the ads could not directly urge Oregonians to vote for Republican Senate candidate Monica Wehby, but just say nasty things about Sen. Jeff Merkley, and urge voters to call him to say how disappointed they were.
“These days, our families are working hard, doing more with less. We don’t have a choice,” declared the first ad. “We get by with the money we have. But Congress, they’re different. They run out of money, they borrow more… Tell Senator Merkley, put Oregon families first. Stop Washington’s wasteful spending.”
Candidates, of course, can’t coordinate with independent expenditure campaigns – at least not until the Supreme Court looks at them again – and Wehby has affirmed that there’s no connection between her campaign and the Koch, although she welcomed the help.
“This is a race that’s very winnable and people across the country see that,” Wehby has explained.
Her first post-primary ad, starting a week later, echoed the Freedom Partners point, and nearly the language: “Spending in Washington has gotten completely out of control… .Every day, every family has to watch their budget. Why don’t we expect that from our government?”
Scanning the Koch-sponsored ads across the country – if that’s your idea of a good time – reveals considerable similarities. Just as an Oregon ad ends by urging Merkley to “put Oregon families first,” other ads end by encouraging calls to the opposition candidate to stand with Iowa, Arkansas or Colorado, a strong state identity for a campaign with funding coming from someplace else.
As with many political ads, there have also been some issues of fact-checking, including one Americans for Prosperity ad in Arkansas that had to be re-filmed.
It also sounds as if the same highly alarmed woman might be doing the voice-over to many of the different state campaigns.
According to a July analysis by the Sunlight Foundation of Federal Communications Commission filing, Koch-organized operations had bought time on 106 TV stations across the country – a list that at the time didn’t even include Oregon stations yet. In states with tightly contested Senate races, notably North Carolina and Colorado, the list includes purchases by not only Freedom Partners and Americans for Prosperity, but other Koch political operations such as Generation Opportunity, intended to appeal to younger voters; the 60 Plus Association, for older voters; the American Energy Alliance on energy issues; and Concerned Veterans of America.
The Koch brothers have material for a great essay on how they spent their summer vacation.
This week, The Washington Post estimated that the various Koch operations would spend about $300 million on the 2014 midterm elections. On that basis, you might hope that Oregon TV stations, which could always use a few bucks, might bring in more than just $3.6 million.
But despite the similarity of funding, it would be wrong to think that all Koch-backed candidates are interchangeable.
Monica Wehby, of course, is a pediatric neurosurgeon.
Iowa’s Joni Ernst, by contrast, boasts of castrating hogs.
Even in a massive national campaign spending operation, it’s good to know that regional distinctions survive.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 9/3/14.