Koch brothers in middle of Iowans’ fight for Senate
Race to test interest groups’ might
INDIANOLA, IOWA | Perhaps nowhere in the country is Democrats’ orchestrated attack on the Koch brothers more developed than in Iowa, where Senate nominee Rep. Bruce L. Braley and his allies have gone to tremendous lengths to make them an issue for his Republican opponent, Joni Ernst.
The more Republicans try to tie Democrats to President Obama, the more Democrats bring up the Koch brothers, Charles and David — billionaires who give heavily to conservative and libertarian causes and campaign-related groups.
Less than two minutes into his opening remarks in their first debate showdown, Mr. Braley said that sending Ms. Ernst to Washington will mean giving the Koch brothers another soldier.
“On issue after issue [state] Sen. Ernst has stood with the Koch brothers and their extreme agenda that is wrong for Iowa — from repealing the federal minimum wage to privatizing Social Security to opposing the farm bill and Renewable Fuel Stand,” Mr. Braley said.
The two traded barbs over the charge toward the tail end of the debate, when Ms. Ernst told Mr. Braley that he is running against her and reminded the Democrat that he is being funded by California billionaire Tom Steyer, whom she called an “extreme environmentalist.”
Mr. Braley countered that come Election Day, “you’re going to owe the Koch brothers everything.”
Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University, said Democrats are turning to the Koch attacks in Iowa in hopes of raising questions about Ms. Ernst’s trustworthiness.
“‘Oil and Wall Street billionaires’ are not very popular in Iowa,” Mr. Schmidt said. “So if you can paint a candidate to those evil, moneyed interests, it can raise questions about where your loyalties are.”
But the jury is out on whether the attacks will resonate with undecided voters.
Dave Kochel, a strategist advising Ms. Ernst, said that if Iowa is a test case for the criticism, Democrats are “getting a failing grade.”
“It’s a special obsession with [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid and Washington Democrats, but voters in Iowa are looking at the two candidates on the ballot,” Mr. Kochel said. “The truth is, there are so many outside groups advertising in Iowa, voters tune those sorts of messages out.
“The GOP failed in 2006 using the similar approach against George Soros and his outside influence,” he said, alluding to the deep-pocketed Democratic donor. “They can continue with their Koch obsession, but as Will Rogers famously said, ‘If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.’ They should put down the shovels.”
But Jeff Link, a strategist for Mr. Braley, said research shows that the Kochs could become a drag on Ms. Ernst.
“We have seen that their name ID has increased rapidly, and that is only surpassed by the rate at which their negatives are increasing,” Mr. Link said. “They are viewed very negatively by most Iowans.”
Mr. Link added, in almost the same words his boss used in Sunday’s debate, “The motives of the Koch brothers on things like the Renewable Fuel Standard, wind energy tax credits and privatizing Social Security are very different than the interests of Iowans.”
Activists said the attacks have energized them.
“I know that some in the Koch family have already contributed all they can to her. So, yeah, that bothers me because they don’t care about us,” said Anita Martin, a retired teacher from Knoxville.
Mrs. Martin also said that “a lot of people don’t even know what we are talking about when we mention it” and others “don’t educate themselves.”
The Braley campaign launched its latest attack less than 24 hours after The Des Moines Register released a poll that showed Ms. Ernst had opened up a 6 percentage point lead in the race and 49 percent said it is a problem if Ms. Ernst has been groomed by the Kochs.
The poll, meanwhile, coincided with visits from Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who headlined a fundraiser for Ms. Ernst, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who voiced their support for her at an event sponsored by the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition.
“Iowa is ground zero to retake the Senate,” Mr. Cruz said. “We are going to retire Harry Reid as majority leader, and Iowa is going to be critical to that.”
Mr. Jindal said the attacks against the Koch brothers smack of desperation on the part of Democrats.
“It is in their selfish political interest to distract us and try to talk about anything but the issues,” Mr. Jindal said. “’So many things that this president promised us just did not come true. So I think they are going to try to distract us and divert our attention. I don’t think it is going to work. I think the American people are going to see through it.”
Mr. Reid, the Nevada Democrat who will lose his leadership post if Republicans win the Senate, popularized the attacks against the Koch brothers. From the floor of the Senate, he declared, “I’m not afraid of the Koch brothers” and linked their political involvement to that of a cult.
Democrat Bruce L. Braley raised the specter of the Koch brothers in a debate with Republican Joni Ernst. The Iowa candidates are seeking a U.S. Senate seat.