Capitol Attitude

Democrats try to make Supreme Court campaign finance ruling all about Koch

Kimberly Strassel weighs in


The Supreme Court ruling overturning total campaign finance limits isn't about the Koch brothers, but that hasn't stopped Democrats from trying to tie the billionaire conservatives to the decision. 

Indeed, judging by their donation history -- Charles and David Koch are known for taking advantage of rules that allow donors to pump unlimited cash into outside "social welfare" groups like Americans for Prosperity -- the duo is not likely to even take advantage of the decision, which rejected overall caps on the total amount of money an individual can give to candidates and political committees during an election cycle. 

But the fact only well-off Americans were affected by the previous limits (of $48,600 to a candidate, $74,600 to parties and committees) plays nicely, if loosely, into Democrats' ongoing narrative that wealthy, out-of-state special interests are trying to "buy" Senate seats in battleground states like North Carolina and Arkansas. Within hours, top Democrats on Capitol Hill did their best to connect the dots. 

"All it does is take away people's rights because, as you know, the Koch brothers are trying to buy America," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said of the court's 5-4 ruling in the case, McCutcheon v. FEC. "I don't think the Koch brothers lack for free speech," Sen. Chuck Schumer later mused. 

Reid -- whose wife reportedly coined the slogan "addicted to Koch" -- has made an almost daily ritual of bashing the libertarian-leaning industrialists on the Senate floor. 

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He's been equally diligent in tying their agenda of fewer regulations and a drastically smaller federal government to the GOP in Washington. 

Reid's take on the House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's budget proposal? Republicans want to create a "Koch-topia" that would harm seniors and the poor. What about delaying Ukraine aid in an attempt to stop a pending IRS rule that would curb the political activities of groups like AFP? Republicans are putting the interests of the billionaire Kochs before the needs of Ukrainians. 

Reid - who stands to lose the most if Republicans wrest away control of the upper chamber this November - has reserved his most withering criticism for the Kochs themselves, who have already poured some $30 million into television ads aimed at attacking vulnerable members of his caucus. He's gone so far as to describe them as "un-American." 

But while the Koch obsession surely makes for good sound bites, do voters outside of the Capital Beltway even know -- or care -- who the Koch brothers are? 

The answer to the first part of the question appears to be "not really." Fifty-two percent of likely voters surveyed in a George Washington University Battleground poll last month said they've never heard of the pair. Another 11 percent said they had no opinion. 

Political observers are sure to point out that midterm elections are typically about turning out the base, and to that end progressives have embraced the message. 

Beyond that, though, Democratic officials insist it's a winning strategy even if the average voter isn't familiar with the Kochs. 

"Voters know that there are these very wealthy, out-of-state special interests who are gaming the system, trying to buy Congress," said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "They all understand the quid-pro-quo argument." 

A quarter of the voters surveyed in the GWU-Battleground poll hold an unfavorable view of the Kochs - a number Barasky described as "shockingly high." Meanwhile, just 13 percent of respondents said they view them favorably. 

For their part, Republicans have dismissed Democratic attempts to focus public attention on the Koch brothers as a way of deflecting criticism of ObamaCare after its clunky rollout. They've also accused Democrats of hypocrisy. 

"It strikes me as curious that if we are going to demonize people for exercising their constitutional rights to go out and speak and participate in the political process, we would just pick out the people that are opposed to us and leave out the people who are in favor of us," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said in a floor speech, pointing out that Democrats also benefit from wealthy donors such as billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer. 

The Kochs themselves have also fought back, devoting an entire website to refuting press coverage they view as unfair. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published Wednesday night, Charles Koch described his critics as "collectivists" who "engage in character assassination." 

"Such tactics are the antithesis of what is required for a free society-and a telltale sign that the collectivists do not have good answers," he wrote. 

Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.