Democratic insiders are increasingly worried that a barrage of Koch Brothers attacks on vulnerable Senate candidates is going virtually unanswered. Donors, they say, need to get off the sidelines and focus on 2014 before it’s too late.
At stake is control of the Senate, which analysts now see as having about a 50-50 chance of falling into Republican hands.
David Axelrod, a former top political adviser to President Obama, has been perhaps the loudest voice expressing concern. In an email to msnbc, Axelrod laid out the difficult terrain that Democrats face in holding onto the Senate: They’re defending seats in seven states won by Mitt Romney in 2012, while facing few pickup opportunities of their own.
“The Republicans get this,” said Axelrod, an msnbc contributor. “The Koch Brothers, through Americans for Prosperity, have already spent $12 million against Senate targets, and it's just February. We have nothing comparable.”
The anxiety has been building for months, as several Democratic incumbents—including Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas—have seen their approval ratings plummet amid millions in negative ads financed by the Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity (AFP). But it went up to eleven last week when Priorities USA, the biggest Democratic Super PAC, said it would be sitting out this year’s midterms to focus on Hillary Clinton in 2016.
That led Axelrod to ask in a tweet last week whether, with the Senate at risk, Democratic donors shouldn’t be “focused on ’14 and not ’16 races?”
Republicans need to pick up six seats to win back the Senate. They’re defending 14 of their own incumbents, compared to the Democrats’ 21. Most analysts now say the odds are around even that the GOP will take control. If that happens, they’d be able to hamstring the last two years of President Obama’s tenure even more effectively than they’ve done since winning the House in 2010.
Axelrod is far from alone in expressing anxiety.
“I’ve actually been pretty surprised so far at this point in the cycle that Democratic donors aren’t more focused on keeping the Senate than they are,” said Ben Chao, a Democratic consultant with Trippi & Associates, who runs Super PACs that support Landrieu and Pryor. “We’ve seen a lot more activity, especially on the fundraising side, in previous cycles at this point. It’s not a crisis, but it is concerning.”
As of last month, AFP, which does not have to disclose its donors, had spent an estimated $20 million on negative ads targeting House and Senate Democrats, many focused on their support for Obamacare.
Brad Crone, a North Carolina-based Democratic consultant, cited an AFP ad that’s been in heavy rotation lately, in which a woman slams Hagan for making an Obama-style “if-you-like-your-plan-you-can-keep-it” promise, then describes having to pay more for her coverage.
“Last night I was watching Top Chef, and there’s that damn woman in Cary sitting there just wearing her ass out,” said Crone. “It’s just a killer ad.”
AFP hasn’t had the airwaves entirely to themselves: In November and December, the Senate Majority PAC—which recently took in a $2.5 million contribution from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg—began running ads in support of Hagan, Landrieu, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. But they haven’t come close to matching the Kochs’ spending. In North Carolina alone, AFP has spent $8.2 million to beat up on Hagan. That’s more than all outside groups combined have spent in support of Democrats in Senate races across the country, according to Politico.
Democrats have been sounding the alarm for weeks now. Spokesmen for both the Senate Majority PAC and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee—the party’s official senate campaign arm—last month urged the party’s donors to step up to the plate and help fight back against the Kochs, msnbc reported at the time.
Crone questioned the thinking of some outside Democratic groups who are hanging back, waiting to see which races will be most competitive before spending money.
“My point is this: If you want to make the race competitive, you’ve got to play here now, because she’s getting overwhelmed with such a negative message,” he said, referring to Hagan. “And if you don’t come in here and play at this point in time, it may be too little too late.”