Amid Koch ad blitz, progressives sit on sidelines

Members of the "Save Our News'' coalition rally against the Koch Brothers offer to buy The Los Angeles Times newspaper, May 29, 2013.
Members of the "Save Our News'' coalition rally against the Koch Brothers offer to buy The Los Angeles Times newspaper, May 29, 2013.

Key progressive groups say they have no immediate plans to step in and counter a barrage of Koch-financed attack ads targeting vulnerable Democrats running for re-election. Citing conservative groups’ wasted bankrolling of Mitt Romney and other Republicans in 2012 as evidence, progressives insist they don’t need to compete dollar for dollar, and that conservatives are wasting their money by going in so early.

Democrats’ hopes of keeping control of the Senate and avoiding further losses in the House could be riding on that bet.

The Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity (AFP) has spent an estimated $20 million, the New York Times reported Wednesday, on an ad blitz that goes after House and Senate Democrats over their support for Obamacare. In some cases, the ads have focused on Obama-style “if-you-like-your-plan-you-can-keep-it” promises given by Democratic lawmakers, which conservatives see as an especially potent line of attack.

The Kochs have mostly had the airwaves to themselves. And that's leading to calls for some of the leading progressive interest groups and donors to help counter the Kochs’ blitz. But major labor, environmental, and abortion-rights groups told msnbc they have no immediate plans to jump in.  

The League of Conservation Voters said it hadn’t yet made decisions about which candidates to support. NARAL Pro-Choice America said it’s focused more on state races this year, though it might run some ads down the road. And the AFL-CIO said that, as usual, it planned to concentrate on the grassroots organizing tactics it does best.

In fact, officials for several progressive groups argued, money spent now is far less effective than that spent in the summer or fall when voters are tuning into the races. To support that view—which has some support among political scientists—they cited what happened in 2012. That year, conservative groups, led by including Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, poured record sums into contested races, including a barrage of early ads, but famously wound up with little to show for it.

“Election Day is a long way away,” said Jeff Gohringer, a spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters. “The danger for a lot of polluters that spent early in 2012 was that by the time Election Day rolled around, that their message would be falling flat with voters. And that’s exactly what happened.”

Still, as these groups acknowledge, this year’s map is far tougher than that of 2012, especially without President Obama on the ticket to lure Democratic base voters to the polls.

“This is the reality of post-Citizens United politics,” said Michael Podhorzer, the political director of the AFL-CIO, accepting that his side would be outspent. “Our feeling is that they’re going to keep trying to buy elections and keep trying to invest literally hundreds of millions of dollars in races. And we feel that our response is as potent, which is to get out the truth through person-to-person contact.”

But that don't-panic approach is in tension with the increasingly urgent calls for help from Washington Democrats. 

“The Kochs have a limitless amount of money,” said Tyler Matsdorf, a spokesman for the Senate Majority PAC, which is working to keep the chamber Democratic. “We know that we can’t match them dollar for dollar. But we have to stay competitive.”

And Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, echoed that view. "Democrats need money early on, so we can fight back against the countless millions that the Kochs are putting into Senate races," he said.

The Kochs haven’t been completely unopposed. 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 Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. And the House Majority PAC, which supports Democratic House candidates, said Thursday it would run ads in support of two Arizona Democrats, Reps. Ron Barber and Ann Kirkpatrick. All five of those lawmakers have been targets of the AFP ads.

But the spending by those groups’—around $2.3 million total in support of the Senate candidates, and $200,000 combined to back the two House members—pales in comparison to AFP’s massive outlay.

At the end of the day, Democrats and their allies may have little choice but to hope that resigning themselves to being outspent now and husbanding their resources for later makes sense.

“The other side has far more money,” said Barasky.