Behind Harry Reid’s war against the Koch brothers
At first, it seemed like just another example of Harry Reid being Harry Reid.
The Senate majority leader, whose unscripted attacks can veer into bellicosity and take liberties with facts, spoke on the Senate floor last October and appeared to blame billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch for the government shutdown.
“By shutting down the government,” Reid said, “we’re satisfying the Koch brothers and Ed Meese, but millions of people in America are suffering.” In January, he went further, accusing the Kochs of “actually trying to buy the country.”
His staff affectionately refers to such ad libs as Reid “getting out ahead of his skis,” but the professional left, which had spent years agitating for a high-level Democratic campaign against the Kochs, cheered and urged him on.
The result has been a highly unusual election-year campaign against a couple of relatively unknown private citizens whom Reid and his Democrats are seeking to make into caricatures of a Republican Party that, on issue after issue, caters to the very rich at the expense of everyone else.
After Reid’s ad-libbed comments, his office developed a strategy for a coordinated campaign that’s expected to resume this month and carry clear through Election Day and beyond. It’s been shaped and reinforced by Reid’s staff, including former operatives of the liberal Center for American Progress, which had pioneered Koch-bashing politics years earlier. An eclectic cast of characters was also involved, including Reid’s wife, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a top Democratic pollster, two brothers who wrote a business-management book and various liberal super PACs and nonprofits.
This story, drawn from more than a dozen interviews with people involved in various phases of the effort — most of whom requested anonymity to discuss ongoing political deliberations — reveals for the first time the key players and considerations behind Harry Reid’s War on the Kochs, the risky strategy on which Democrats are hinging their midterm election hopes.
The Nevada Democrat had been closely following the Kochs’ growing political footprint for years, say those close to him. They say his wife, Landra Gould, also had developed something of a fascination with the brothers. After the shutdown, the couple discussed a seminal 2010 New Yorker story on the brothers’ political activity, which utilized research from CAP. And it was Gould who first suggested that her husband accuse Republicans of being “addicted to Koch.”
Faiz Shakir and Adam Jentleson — Reid’s senior digital strategist and communications director, respectively — helped craft the Koch strategy and had previously worked at the Center for American Progress when it first started working to elevate the profile of the Kochs, who were almost completely unknown even in political circles before 2009.
Shakir ran CAP’s blog ThinkProgress from 2007 through 2012 and deputized one of his bloggers to participate in an ad hoc coalition of liberal groups that sought to make boogeymen of the Kochs. Shakir also sought to enlist members of President Barack Obama’s recently sworn-in administration in CAP’s fledgling battle, with minimal success. Still, the Koch operation aggressively pushed back against CAP’s scrutiny, and Shakir suggested Reid could expect the same if he joined the battle. “My experience with them was that when we escalated they escalated, so we should think about whether we want to take this on,” Shakir told the majority leader after his unscripted salvos from the floor, according to someone familiar with the conversation.
In a year during which little of consequence is being done in the Senate, hardly a week goes by in which Reid doesn’t take to the floor to attack the Kochs’ influence in politics. Since late January, Reid has mentioned the Kochs in 22 separate floor speeches, calling them out about 250 times, either by name (including referring to them as “Charlie and Dave”) or allusion (“two power-drunk billionaires”), and blaming them for all manner of ills including holding up aid to Ukraine.
Those familiar with his thinking expect him to pick up the drumbeat this month. Possible fresh fodder includes last month’s Supreme Court ruling against labor unions, in which the anti-union plaintiff was represented by an arm of the National Right to Work Committee, which has received support from Koch-linked foundations and nonprofits. And Reid is planning this month to bring up a constitutional amendment intended to reduce campaign spending — an effort he’s pushed by citing the Kochs as the poster children for big-money political spending.
In a statement to POLITICO, Reid suggested that his spotlighting the Kochs was unrelated to them personally or even their 2014 election spending. “The flood of dark money into our political system has tilted the playing field away from the middle class and towards billionaires like the Kochs. But if the Koch brothers pack up their tent and get out of politics tomorrow, someone else will fill the gap,” he said. “This is a fundamental problem that requires a dramatic solution and that is why I will keep pushing for a constitutional amendment to get this dark money out of our political system.”
Still, Reid’s attacks have drawn cries of McCarthyism from around the political world, including MSNBC host Joe Scarborough and Mother Jones editor Daniel Schulman. And they’ve even created discomfort among liberal big-money donors and operatives, who worry the argument might expose them to charges of hypocrisy, while they also question the effectiveness of running against donors who won’t appear on any ballots.
Koch Industries, the brothers’ multinational industrial conglomerate, has launched an uncharacteristic PR effort to highlight the brothers’ philanthropic efforts. But — true to Shakir’s warnings — the Kochs also have hit back frequently, plaintively and aggressively against Reid’s salvos, branding him “malicious” and “desperate,” and asserting that his Koch effort is a “very disturbing and troubling” tactic from Saul Alinsky’s playbook intended to “intimidate” critics through “character assassination.”
In a written statement, Koch Industries executive Philip Ellender cited the company’s employment of 60,000 Americans and chided Reid for “waging war on private citizens and seeking to curtail their First Amendment rights of free speech, association, and assembly.” Ellender called it “unfortunate that rather than focusing on the many issues facing our country, Sen. Reid has decided instead to attack Charles Koch and David Koch, who are proud and patriotic Americans that have devoted their lives to advancing tolerance and freedom in America.”
At times, it seems Reid can barely contain his glee in getting a rise out of the brothers.
“After the 14th statement adverse to me issued by a spokesman for the Koch brothers, it seems abundantly clear I have gotten under their skin,” Reid goaded from the Senate floor in March. “I am not afraid of the Koch brothers. None of us should be afraid of the Koch brothers.”
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