Fake concern for the poor! Koch brothers’ expensive political epiphany

New memo teaches the right something it didn't know: Voters are compassionate. Here's their odd plan to act on it

Published May 12, 2014 11:43AM (EDT)

David Koch                                      (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
David Koch (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Last week, Politico’s Ken Vogel got his hands on a memo circulated among major donors to Americans For Prosperity, the conservative group that functions as Charles and David Koch’s primary outlet for political activism. It lays out the group’s strategy and budget heading into the 2014 midterms, which represent a key test for the Koch-funded network. After dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the campaign to take down Barack Obama in 2012 only to see the president skate to reelection, the Koch brothers were left trying to figure out what went wrong.

The answer they came up with is actually kind of hilarious. “If the presidential election told us anything,” the memo reads, “it’s that Americans place a great importance on taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak.”

I read that and I picture Charles or David Koch watching the Romney “47 percent” video for the 34th time and slapping his forehead in a eureka moment that could only happen to a billionaire libertarian whack-job. “Don’t treat the poor like garbage… Of course! It’s so simple!” Taken alongside Paul Ryan’s sudden concern for America’s impoverished, you get the sense that the right is finally starting to realize that perhaps they might have a problem when it comes to low-income voters.

Now, I should be clear that the Kochs view this is a messaging problem, not a problem rooted in policy. They’re still firmly wedded to their beliefs that government assistance programs engender laziness and that the federal government should be slashed down to just the army and the patent office. What they’re trying to do is find a way to convince the less fortunate that cutting taxes for billionaires and blocking minimum wage increases will lead to the sort of shared prosperity that will lift them out of economic hardship. “We consistently see that Americans in general are concerned that free-market policy — and its advocates — benefit the rich and powerful more than the most vulnerable of society,” the memo observes. “We must correct this misconception.”

It’s not clear what “misconception” they believe is at play here. The last three decades of American governance can hardly be described as a nightmare descent into socialism, and they’ve witnessed a dramatic increase in economic inequality. Charles and David Koch, however, choose not to see that reality. They truly believe down to their core that they are on a mission to save America from Saul Alinsky-inspired collectivism.

While they may sound slightly bonkers and have a mission statement that’s laughably out of touch, the resources they’re bringing to bear in pursuit of its fruition are the very definition of serious. According to the AFP memo, the group plans to spend $125 million this election cycle. And they consider that a conservative estimate.

To get a sense of just how significant a bundle of cash that is, take a look back at the totals the Democratic and Republican party committees spent in the last midterm election. AFP’s $125 million investment is nearly double the amount spent by the NRSC in 2010 ($68 million), and just shy of the cash outlays of the DSCC ($129 million) and the NRCC ($132 million).

That’s a lot of money for a group that is not technically affiliated with an established party.

Obviously this is not good news for Democrats. Vulnerable Democratic incumbents in districts and states across the country could find themselves up against two well-financed and well-organized political machines. “Democrats aren’t running against a rival party,” Steve Benen observed, “they’re running against two rival parties that happen to be ideologically aligned.” The combined spending might of the two operations means a barrage of ads and get-out-the-vote efforts that the Democrats – already defending a large and unfriendly map – may not able to match.

But the Koch spending also poses risks for the Republican Party. As Benen noted, right now the Koch machine and the Republican Party are relatively simpatico in terms of electoral goals and policy outcomes. Both want the Democrats out of power in the Senate, and both want Obamacare burned to the ground. If they succeed in giving control of the Senate to the GOP, suddenly the Koch machine would have the sort of political, ideological and financial clout that the official party committees currently enjoy.

There would be two centers of political gravity within the party competing for the same donors. And while the Kochs are free to be as ideologically rigid and activist as they please, the Republicans would be necessarily hemmed in by the realities of governing. Even if the Republicans take control of the Senate, the Democrats would still have filibuster power, and if the Republicans wanted to get any serious legislation passed they’d have to broker deals with the opposition. (Assuming they actually want to get serious legislation passed.) AFP doesn’t take well to compromises with Democrats, and there’s always a more conservative primary challenger waiting in the wings to take down a RINO in Congress.

Of course, all this assumes that the GOP does actually take the Senate from the Democrats in November. Right now the consensus is that their odds are better than even, and while a lot could happen between now and Election Day, having $125 million in Koch money on their side certainly doesn’t hurt their chances.

By Simon Maloy

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