The Kochs make their political money count

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Koch Industries executive VP David Koch, left and Charles Koch, head of Koch Industries, right. (AP/Getty)

I've never met David and Charles Koch, the conservative billionaires who have apparently set out to acquire our democracy, much as you or I might hope to purchase a timeshare. When I think of them, which isn't all that often, I tend to picture Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, who played industrialists called the "Motch" brothers in a recent comedy called "The Campaign," and whose main goal in the film was to relocate a Chinese sweatshop to North Carolina.

But after taking a closer look at how they're spending this small part of their fortune, here's what I do know about the infamous Koch brothers: They are very, very smart when it comes to political investing. And the real problem for irate liberals is that their most avid contributors aren't.

Let's start with the idea, which I've advanced before, that the imbalance in political spending at the moment probably isn't quite as consequential, or as lasting, as a lot of liberal critics think it is. For one thing, as much as my colleagues in the media love to cover every new ad buy and every new database-driven marketing scheme as if it were the most "game-changing" political idea since the Magna Carta, the truth is that the week-to-week tactics of any given campaign matter less, in the end, than the daily experience of voters.

And there's a lot of reason to think that whatever advantage comes from what we call outside spending will shift back and forth between the parties, depending on which one finds itself out of power. The wealthy liberals George Soros and the late Peter Lewis started this trend in 2004, taking advantage of loopholes in the new campaign law, and conservatives surpassed them only after Barack Obama's election in 2008. We may not see anyone else spend quite as garishly as the Koch brothers anytime soon, but I'm guessing that the next time Democrats find themselves outside the White House looking in, some new progressive philanthropist will emerge to bankroll a comeback.

That said, there are different ways to invest that kind of outside money, and some are more effective than others. According to Politico, Michael Bloomberg dumped $15 million into gun control messaging last year, and for all the good it did, he probably should have just bought himself another mayoralty (maybe in Washington, which could use him right now). The liberal billionaire Tom Steyer has said he's going to spend $100 million pleading with people to care more about climate change. Well, OK — no harm there, I guess.

The Koch brothers, on the other hand, have it figured out. It's hard to say exactly how much money they're spending, especially since a lot of it remains undisclosed, thanks to the abject senselessness of campaign finance laws; a spokesman told my Yahoo News colleague Chris Moody, who follows this stuff closely, that the Kochs have already parted with more than $30 million in the 2014 cycle. What's striking, though, is how intensely local their focus is.

Think about it: You can spend $30 million trying to get a president elected, and it will make some difference for sure, but only some in a campaign where each side will spend something like $1 billion, clogging up every obscure cable channel with every imaginable kind of ad. But if you drop, say, $1 million into a competitive congressional race where ads are cheap and where the candidates and party committees might end up spending all of $3 million combined, you can basically own the conversation.

And so the Kochs are spreading their money around to where it gives them the biggest bang for the buck: $963,000 against Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick in Arizona's first district, according to Democratic estimates of media buys; $404,000 in support of Rep. Michael Coffman in Colorado; $721,000 to unseat Democrat Ann McLane Kuster in New Hampshire.

In West Virginia, where Democrat Nick Rahall is clinging to his seat, outside groups led by the Kochs' Americans for Prosperity have already racked up about $1.5 million in devastating ads tying him to "Obamacare" and a proposed carbon tax — and public polling now shows Rahall running 14 points behind. AFP is also spending big in a series of contested Senate races in Louisiana, Colorado, Arkansas and North Carolina, among others.

No less a Democrat than Harry Reid has publicly decried this kind of spending, and lately it seems as if Democrats would rather run against the Kochs than against Republican candidates (a tactic aimed mostly at their own base but that really never works, in any event). But it's not so much the lack of outside spending that's killing Democratic candidates as it is the way the resources they do have are being spent. 

There are now no fewer than four — count them, four — so-called political action committees and super PACs that exist mainly to create a hospitable climate for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign (or, perhaps, to discourage other Democrats from even thinking about trying to run against her), even though, it should be pointed out, she isn't yet a candidate.

According to federal filings, 59 people contributed $25,000 last year, the maximum the law allows, to the group calling itself Ready for Hillary. Only four of them donated anything to the super PACs charged with getting Democrats elected to the House and Senate. Those congressional super PACs raised a combined $16 million-plus last year, or about $10 million less than Organizing for America, the offshoot of Obama's grassroots campaign.

All of this marks a stark reversal, historically speaking. For most of the 20th  century, Democrats were primarily a local party; they were willing to trade the presidency back and forth, but their hold on the House and, most often, the Senate was iron-fisted. Republicans, on the other hand, concentrated almost all their effort on electing presidents until 1994, when Newt Gingrich became only the second Republican speaker since the New Deal.

There are probably a bunch of explanations for why, suddenly, conservatives are the ones pounding it out on the district-by-district level, while liberals pour their money into pet causes and presidential dreams. You can imagine it has something to do with the fact that industrialists like the Kochs can see a very direct benefit to their businesses from staving off nettlesome regulations in Congress. At the same time, the latest demographic data suggests that controlling Congress in the off years may be a more realistic goal for Republicans than winning back the White House with any consistency.

Meanwhile, Democratic donors tend to be more urban and more tech-driven, which means they no longer believe in the power of TV ads to win campaigns. "Nobody listens to an ad anymore" is a common refrain among rich liberals who watch everything on their tablets or on demand and find all political ads hopelessly outdated anyway; they're much more interested in investing in social media and metadata. And they're right, in the sense that that's where the world is headed — except that a lot of America is still living in the fading moment of broadcast TV, and if all they see are Koch-funded ads day and night with no counterargument, that can have a profound effect.

You certainly wouldn't catch me arguing that it's not worth investing in fancy databases or grassroots networks on the national level. But as a simple cost-benefit analysis, putting $1 million in opposition research for Hillary Clinton right now is probably less effective, in terms of any tangible impact, than dropping $100,000 into a House race. And when you're talking about two guys spending $30 million on local campaigns, largely unanswered, that may well be enough to increase the Republican House majority and tilt the balance in the Senate, too.

Say what you want about David and Charles Koch — say aliens sent them here to destroy our political system and then eat us like Pop-Tarts. The fact is they're good businessmen. It looks like Democrats running for Congress this year could use a few more of those.

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