With less than seven months until the midterm elections, the biggest challenge Democrats face isn't the Affordable Care Act or the President's popularity, it's the millions of dollars being spent by the Koch brothers' financed groups, most notably Americans for Prosperity. If Democrats don't take them on directly and raise the curtain on their agenda, we are going to be in deep trouble in November.
First the facts -- no single group on either side of the political spectrum has spent more this cycle to impact competitive senate races. AFP has spent close to $13.5 million in television attack ads across eight states. To put that in perspective, that sum is about three times the amount the nearest Democratic-aligned group is spending. In North Carolina alone, AFP has spent over $7 million clobbering Senator Kay Hagan. That is more than double the combined amount being spent by Democratic-aligned groups. And keep in mind, this is February!
AFP has made it crystal clear that the spigot isn't going to be turned off anytime soon. Top Republican strategists are emboldened by AFP's massive spending and point to them as one of the leading reasons the GOP has a small advantage heading into the midterms. And in contrast with other groups, like the Senate Conservatives Fund or the Heritage Foundation, Republicans are embracing AFP's agenda, not running from it.
"AFP is playing a critical role in the Republicans' efforts to win back the Senate because not only are they hammering Democratic Senators early with very effective ads, but unlike groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund, they are taking the fight squarely to the Democrats and not engaging in costly, intra-party warfare," said a top GOP senate strategist. "AFP isn't interested in raising money for themselves or expanding their own profile -- they just want to advance conservative principles by helping Republicans win in November and they've given our party a much-needed boost in that effort."
So where does that leave Democrats? The good news is that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), their candidates and incumbents are excelling in the areas they control. On almost every metric, the DSCC and Democratic candidates have outperformed their Republican opponents. So far this cycle, Democratic candidates have raised a whopping $130,000,000 to the GOP cumulative total of $80,000,000. The DSCC has outraised the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) by nearly $16 million. Democratic challengers are proving they are no joke -- in Georgia, for example, businesswoman Michelle Nunn has outraised the entire GOP field.
If it were just the DSCC versus the NRSC and Democratic candidates versus Republican candidates, Democrats would be fine. But it's not. And quite frankly, Democrats' chief opponent for some time now hasn't been the GOP committees, it's the shadow groups that have grown in influence since the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling.
So how do Democrats go on offense when they are getting vastly outspent? In 2012, AFP spent over $30 million attacking President Obama. The President's campaign responded aggressively and tied Mitt Romney to the Koch's Big Oil agenda and was aggressive about getting out the President's record on energy and other issues. That same cycle, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) made a similar decision to run against the outside money. She was being outspent, at one point, by a margin of 3 to1. She went on the air to directly respond to the attacks. She fought back with a tough TV ad highlighting AFP's agenda, including privatizing Medicare. One of her advisors told me that this strategy, "wasn't a silver bullet, [but] it did allow us to tread water instead of watching our internals decline."
This cycle, in Alaska, AFP was running ads slamming Senator Mark Begich. When the Alaska Democratic Party highlighted the news that a Koch Industries-owned company fired 80 workers and shut down a local plant, AFP subsequently pulled their ads. In Louisiana, where AFP has run more than $2.3 million in ads against Senator Mary Landrieu, her campaign has turned the tables on the group by highlighting the group's unpopular position of opposing delaying premium increases to the flood insurance program.
While Republicans benefit significantly from the Koch/AFP money, it comes with a price tag -- getting pinned with supporting a radical agenda which includes privatizing social security, opposing workers rights, protecting polluters and shutting down American plants and shipping jobs to China.
I agree with Sen. McCaskill's advisor: this strategy isn't a silver bullet. But taking on AFP and other outside groups by tying their unpopular agenda to the Republicans they are propping up has worked in the past. And it is much better than the alternative which is laying on the ground and getting kicked for the next six months.
Of course, it wouldn't hurt to have a few deep pocket progressive donors come forward with tens of millions dollars to help balance out the TV ad wars. And for the groups on the left focusing on 2016, don't think the Koch brothers and AFP won't be spending even more then. It's worth it for you to spend some money now discrediting their agenda so we aren't playing catch up in the future.