Inside the Koch-Funded Ads Giving Dems Fits
A years-long campaign is bearing fruit.


Eliana Johnson

On June 8, 2010, an Excel spreadsheet listed 64 Democratic congressmen in order of the likelihood of their defeat. The list of targets expanded to 88 in June and to 105 in August. Each of the House districts identified was given a “win potential” between 1 and 5 and a score between 1 and 40 based on the voting record of each member and the composition of the district, among other things. The 105 candidates were ultimately divided into three tiers based on the likelihood of a GOP victory, and resources were allotted accordingly. On Election Day, Republicans snatched 48 of the 50 seats in “tier 1” from Democrats and 61 of the 80 seats in the top two tiers.

Noble and company went up with ads in June 2010, earlier than outside groups had ever gone on the air before. By August, some of the most vulnerable Democrats had been damaged so badly that the ads were no longer needed. That was the case in Colorado’s fourth district, where Democratic incumbent Betsy Markey was running for reelection against Republican Cory Gardner. For a week in June and two weeks in August, Americans for Prosperity ran an ad against Markey that featured a series of her constituents, one of whom declared, “Markey betrayed us by voting for a government health-care plan.” With Markey’s own polling showing her approval rating at 38 percent, Noble says, “we did not spend another dime in that race from August until Election Day.”

Between June and November, CPPR and the constellation of groups to which it disbursed millions of dollars in funds sought to tie Democrats not to President Obama, who inspires warm feelings among most Americans, but to House speaker Nancy Pelosi. They used her name like a dirty word. The 60 Plus Association told Floridians that “Alan Grayson and Suzanne Kosmas are putting Nancy Pelosi’s liberal agenda ahead of seniors.” The American Future Fund told South Dakota voters that Stephanie Herseth Sandlin “votes to support Nancy Pelosi’s agenda more than 90 percent of the time.” Americans for Job Security put constituents from North Carolina’s second congressional district on the air to tell voters that their congressman, Bob Etheridge, “voted for Nancy Pelosi’s health-care plan.”

Luntz’s research had demonstrated the need to tie Democratic congressmen to a more national figure. President Obama and Harry Reid proved far less likely than Pelosi to push swing voters into the Republican camp. “When we tied them to Pelosi, swing voters were more likely to vote against them 65 percent of them time,” Noble says. “She was absolutely toxic for her conference with swing voters.” Surprisingly, she produced a more negative reaction among women than did Reid and Obama.

The political climate was so hostile to Democrats that Noble wound up running ads against Democrats who fell into tier 3, incumbents he’d determined it would be difficult to pick off. “There was some interesting stretching of the field that no one thought was possible,” he says.

In late October, the 60 Plus Association dumped $100,000 into an ad buy in Minnesota’s eighth congressional district, where incumbent Jim Oberstar, the chairman of the Transportation Committee, had served for over three decades. His opponent, a young Navy captain and virtually a political unknown, was deeply underfunded. The spot featured a picture of Oberstar with a grinning Pelosi looming in the background. “He votes with his party 97 percent of the time,” a narrator said, “for $500 billion in Medicare cuts, Nancy Pelosi’s budgets, and debts future generations can’t afford.” Cook Political Report analyst David Wasserman noted that “even many local Republicans can’t get their head around the idea that Navy Captain Chip Cravaack, who in July had $24,000 in the bank to Oberstar’s $1.1 million and warned that the U.S. was headed towards socialism under President Obama, is a serious threat to the 36-year House veteran and Transportation Committee chair.” On Election Day, Cravaack eked out a victory by 1.6 percentage points.


AFP has taken the lead in the ad wars again this year. The Center to Protect Patient Rights, under Noble’s leadership, recently rebranded itself as American Encore, a group that will focus on a broader set of issues including the proposed IRS regulations and the free-enterprise system.

AFP’s goal is to help recapture the Senate. AFP president Tim Phillips thinks it’s possible to do so by pressing the Obamacare issue. “Some say the further you get from the passage of a law, the tougher it gets to move America,” he tells me, “but Obamacare is different because the impact is evolving, Americans’ experiences with the law are evolving, and most of them are bad.” Noble puts it more sharply. “What we warned people was going to happen is now happening,” he says, “so it’s a natural extension of the debate. Now we’re saying ‘We told you so’ without saying ‘We told you so.’”

In the ads themselves, warnings from Canadians like Shona Holmes have been replaced by testimonials offered on a state-by-state basis from those who say they’ve been hurt by the health-care law. AFP has linked local victims with their lawmakers’ support for the bill.

Noble is confident that just as the issue allowed Republicans to recapture the House in 2010, it will give the GOP the “juice” to reclaim the Senate in 2014. “It’s kind of like this great story,” he says. “We don’t know how it’s going to end, but Democrats are going to lose twice over it.” Much to the chagrin of angry Democrats, the ad war is one that shows no signs of letting up. According to Phillips, “We think of this as year five of what very well could be a decade-long or more effort to defeat government-run health care.”

If Harry Reid thinks he’s fed up with the Kochs now, he may just be getting the first taste of what their political network has in store.

— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.