The Bain-ing of the Koch Brothers

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 19 2014 8:57 AM

The Bain-ing of the Koch Brothers

West Virginia's 3rd Congressional District is one of the Democratic Party's toughest 2014 holds. Like the rest of the state, it used to vote solidly for Team Blue. In 1976, when Rep. Nick Rahall won his seat, the state was handing a 58-42 landslide win to the Carter-Mondale ticket. The Democrats carried every single county in what is now the 3rd, an area that spreads across the southern, coal-producing part of the state.

That wasn't the case in 2012. The Obama-Biden ticket lost West Virginia in a historic rout, losing every single county—a feat not even George McGovern had achieved. The national Democrats only won 33 percent of the vote in the 3rd, their worst performance in the whole state. This sent Republicans salivating after Rahall's district, committing money to remove a coal-country Democrat and enticing an ambitious Democratic legislator to switch parties.

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This is how the House Majority PAC is trying to fight back. Its new ad portrays Evan Jenkins, whom voters might be more culturally and politically attuned to, as a stalking horse for the "New York" Koch brothers who want to privatize the Social Security of stock-photo old people.

I bring this up because the New York Times gave the A1, Sunday section treatment to a longread by Nick Confessore. It concerned a topic that's never been especially secret, or interesting, beyond the libertarian movement—David Koch's 1980 run for vice president on the Libertarian ticket. Koch committed millions of dollars to the party, was (understandably!) crestfallen by its weak performance, and turned his attention to funding think tanks. This story was told (in a less comprehensive way) seven years ago, in Brian Doherty's Radicals for Capitalism, which the Times then called a "sloppily written history" that irritatingly ran more than 700 pages.

Nothing unusual here. We call stories like this one "deep dives" because other people know the water is there and didn't go as far in. But what is the news hook for the Times story? It's the increasing, unrelenting, all-in Democratic focus on the Kochs. Seven weeks ago, BuzzFeed's Evan McMorris-Santoro noted that North Carolina Democrats were attacking Republicans who benefited from the Koch-funded and -founded Americans for Prosperity by digging into the 1980 Libertarian campaign. Democrats would "treat the Kochs like a candidate for office and try to make Republicans answer for the Kochs’ libertarian ideology." I was struck, a couple of weeks later, when I interviewed Sen. Bernie Sanders and he quickly turned the topic to the 1980 Libertarian Party platform.

Greg Sargent has been saying this for a while: The point of the Democrats' Koch obsession is to tie Republicans to a radical, corporate, plutocratic policy agenda in a way voters can understand. They've thrown their weight against the wheel for months, and Harry Reid is mocked by Republicans (and some reporters) for constantly invoking their name in his daily floor speeches. But how else would the Kochs be politically "hot" enough to become the focus of regular, day-driving stories in big media? Previous A1 stories have looked at Americans for Prosperity's spending on a small-town Iowa race and the 2014 ambitions of the organization. The insane sums spent by Koch groups would be interesting enough on their own, but Democrats are also making it impossible to cover 2014 without covering and explaining the Kochs. 

(Disclosure: I worked from 2006 through 2008 at Reason magazine, which is published by a foundation that's partially funded by the Kochs.)

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.