Can Democrats Win On Koch Attacks?

April 24, 2014

By Amy Walter

Republicans scoff when they hear that Democrats plan to make the Koch brothers and their heavy investment into GOP campaigns an issue in 2014. Even one top Democratic strategist told me he thought that all the attention put on the billionaire brothers was too obscure for regular voters to care about. Yet, one group, the pro-Democratic SuperPAC House Majority PAC (HMP), says that they have proof that attacking the brothers actually works. The real question, however, is whether this is simply “working” thanks to a heavy advertising assault by the HMP in the vacuum that exists eight months before an election. Will it still work once the underlying dynamics of an unpopular president and an unpopular healthcare law start to kick in this fall?

Until recently, West Virginia’s third CD wasn’t considered a swing district. Democrat Nick Rahall has held this Huntington-based district for almost 40 years. He won re-election with 54 percent in 2012, even as Obama took just 33 percent of the vote. Yet, as a Democratic incumbent in a state that’s turned decidedly red over the last 14 years, Rahall makes an alluring target. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s pretty cheap to advertise in this southern West Virginia district, making this an affordable testing ground for campaigns to test messages and strategies.

Plus, Republicans and pro-Republican groups have been advertising here. A lot. According to data provided by the House Majority PAC, a combination of four GOP friendly groups – NRCC, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and American Energy Alliance (AEA) – have already spent more than $1.5 million on ads – mostly attacking Rahall. The attacks have focused heavily on Rahall’s support for Obamacare as well as his support for a carbon tax that would “kill” the coal industry. Democrats, led by the House Majority PAC, have spent just $621,000.

The attacks on Rahall began early. In 2013, Republicans outspent the House Majority PAC by a more than 3-1 margin ($621,000 to $158,000). AEA and AFP accounted for more than half of that $621,000 spending. In early 2014 (from January through February), Republicans ran another $674,000 worth of ads in the Charleston and Beckley, WV markets, according to the House Majority competitive sheet. Democrats spent zero.

Both sides acknowledged that the heavy shelling on Rahall took a toll. Polling released by the NRCC in early March, showed Republican Jenkins ahead of the longtime Democratic incumbent, 54-40 percent. Privately, Democrats conceded that their polling showed similar results.

Since March, however, House Majority PAC spending has exceeded GOP spending. In March, House Majority PAC spent $188,000 to the GOP’s $179,000. In April, HMP outspent the only GOP group advertising here – AEA – $207,000 to $90,000. The HMP ads take direct aim at the Koch brothers, calling them “New York billionaires” (though only David lives in New York) who are trying to smear Rahall’s good name. Another ad tries to tie Jenkins and the Koch brothers to the Elk River chemical spill.

In the wake of this ad campaign, House Majority PAC released a poll, taken April 15-16, that showed Rahall ahead of Jenkins by 12 points (52-40 percent). Republicans are, quite rightly, rather dubious of the results. After all, how does a guy go from double digits down to double-digits ahead in just a couple months? We are equally skeptical.

The folks at HMP were pretty surprised themselves. But, they say they feel very confident about the survey. They argue that the electorate here is simply very volatile. Like the NRCC, they too had polling that showed Rahall down earlier this year. To show how confident they were in their numbers, they gave me access to the entire survey. Conducted by Garin-Hart-Yang, the poll showed some pretty ugly numbers for other Democrats in the state. President Obama’s job approval rating was just 31 percent, with 67 percent disapproving. In the Senate race, Republican Shelley Moore Capito was ahead of Democrat Natalie Tennant by double digits. Even so, Rahall’s job approval ratings saw an uptick from February (from 36 to 43 percent) and his negatives dropped 10 points (from 48 to 38 percent). When testing messages, on that mentioned “New York billionaires the Koch brothers” who “have an agenda that is wrong for West Virginia seniors –privatizing Social Security and turning Medicare into a voucher program” and have spent “$1.2M right here in West Virginia to elect Evan Jenkins” was strongest, with 61 percent saying it gave them “major concerns” about Jenkins’ candidacy.

The lesson HMP’s executive director Ali Lapp takes from the survey is that “it shows when we’re not fighting back we fall behind.” Instead of hand-wringing, Lapp wants Democrats to know that “we have a case to make. If we are fighting back and answering the attacks, we’ll be fine.” Rahall’s numbers were artificially low – thanks to the barrage of unanswered attacks. By responding – and attacking back – Lapp says, the race has gotten to its more traditional starting point. More important, says Lapp, she thinks that their efforts have discredited the outside group attacks, making them less effective for the rest of the cycle.

Of course, not every House incumbent has the benefit of getting more than $600,000 of outside help. Rahall himself has spent just $57,000, though he is up on broadcast TV this week. Moreover, there’s no evidence that this strategy is going to work in other districts or for other candidates. Or that this bump for Rahall will last once the spending by GOP groups ratchets back up. In places where airtime is significantly more expensive, Democrats and their allies are likely to be limited by how much they can and will spend. Meanwhile, groups like AFP have a seemingly unending supply of cash to spend. And, those close to the Koch brothers insist that attacks on the brothers does more to help Democrats fundraise than it helps Democrats in the polls.

In the battle of the WV-03 polls, it’s hard to believe that there could be this much movement over such a short period of time. A double digit swing looks like more of an outlier than anything else. It’s believable that Rahall’s numbers improved after the heavy advertising rotation on his behalf by HMP. But, this much of a shift seems unlikely. Our House Editor, David Wasserman, has the race in the Toss-Up category.

Moreover, the advertising assaults being waged by both sides are taking place in a vacuum. Eight months out from the election, the campaigns don’t have to compete with any other external forces or messages. As we get closer to November, and voters become more engaged, President Obama’s unpopularity in the state is going to be a heavier burden for Rahall to deal with.

Even so, the fact that Democrats were able to see positive movement, in spite of a crappy national environment, suggests that they may be able to localize the races in a way they couldn’t in 2010. Back then, there was just about nothing that a Democrat could say about a Republican that was effective in moving the numbers their way. Voters were so frustrated with President Obama and congressional Democrats, that they were willing to give GOP candidates the benefit of the doubt. Four years later, the GOP brand is significantly tarnished and they can no longer claim the mantle of the “lesser of two evils.”

Either way, Democrats have little choice. If they wait until the summer to drive the debate, they are likely to be too far behind to make up the difference. The last three weeks in October make little difference if the race was already defined in March.

From The Cook Political Report on April 24, 2014