Matt Bai says the Koch Brothers are smart spenders

Writing for Yahoo News, Matt Bai (who made his name writing about politics for the NYTimes Magazine) makes the case that the righty Koch Brothers are smarter than rich lefties at making their money count.

The basic argument is that the Kochs understand leverage. While Democratic donors obsess on presidential candidates, the Kochs pick lower-level races where a relatively (only relative to billionaires) small amount can be a game-changer.

While 59 rich liberals in 2013 contributed the maximum $25,000 to “Ready for Hillary,” to support an undeclared and unopposed candidate for a race three years ahead, only four of them gave to SuperPacs involved in the 2014 campaigns for the House and Senate. The Kochs, by contrast, put six- or even seven-figure amounts into knocking out specific vulnerable Democratic House incumbents. Writes Bai:

“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.”

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/20/2014 - 03:30 pm.

    The Koch bros

    are also spending more money, and are better at getting around campaign spending limits.
    There’s a good article in today’s NYT describing their operation.
    While 60+ rich dems spend the $25K limit on presidential campaigns, the Koch’s and their anonymous cohorts spend hundreds of thousands on hundreds of lower level campaigns.
    It’s a good, cynical strategy for making your opponent spend more money to match your spending.
    I’m calling it cynical because while Democrats tend to spend their money on candidates that they have a direct link to and interest in, the Kochocrats are willing to systematically put money into any campaign that they think will get the dems to compete with them. And ultimately the Koch’s can call on more money with no real limit on how much individuals can spend as long as they spread it out.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/20/2014 - 09:46 pm.

    You could stop the Koch brothers tomorrow

    All you’d have to do is pass a campaign finance law that simply said that a candidate can only accept contributions from people within the jurisdiction of the office they’re running for.

    That would mean Al Franken could not take Hollywood money but would be limited to contributions from Minnesota. It would mean that congress people could only accept contributions from people within their district, and that the president would have to return the hundreds of millions he received from outside the U.S. Oh wait, that’s already illegal.

    But that will never happen even if the republican agreed to it because according to opensecrets dot org, Koch Industries is #45 on the list of donors, well behind nine labor unions who give almost exclusively to democrats.

  3. Submitted by Donald Larsson on 03/20/2014 - 09:58 pm.

    As the Supreme Court said . . .

    . . . money talks! And “speech” is free but it ain’t necessarily cheap.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/21/2014 - 11:38 am.


      And according to the uberliberal Roberts court, corporations have first amendment rights, which would apply to any state within which they do business.
      The issue has become not under what conditions a candidate can accept money, since most money does not go to the candidates themselves, but who can donate money, which is why Roberts turned it from an elections issue to a first amendment one.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/21/2014 - 08:57 am.

    Agreed and agreed

    Matt Bai is almost certainly correct about strategic spending. It would go a long way toward explaining the lunatic anti-female antics of a few state legislatures in the past few years. (Relatively) small amounts spent on local races produce sizable numbers of hard-wired local officials who then dominate the candidate pool for wider-ranging office.

    Attempts at character assassination through innuendo are a Tester specialty, so we can ignore his comment about the president (Facts, Dennis. You have to have facts. Just because you don’t like someone in office doesn’t automatically mean they must have been elected through some sort of weird conspiracy).

    That particular paranoia aside, however, I kind of like the Tester notion of limiting contributions to the relevant electoral district or area. Some elections would be astronomically expensive, of course, because even billionaires have to live *somewhere*, and will want to be puppet masters where they live, but other elections might actually see substantial *reductions* in spending – a trend, if it ever developed, that would largely be a huge plus for the electoral system. Imagine being a candidate for office and not having to spend substantial amounts, maybe most, of your time groveling for money…

    I’ve no doubt that Mr. Tester is probably correct about the political donation tendencies of labor unions, though I continue to be puzzled by his implication that there’s something wrong with those tendencies. Why would unions provide financial support to candidates hostile to organized labor? Why would the Kochs provide financial support to candidates with a progressive agenda they don’t believe in? As long as money plays a role in politics (i.e., as long as politics continues to exist), people and organizations are going to support candidates and causes sympathetic to their own issues. That is, in fact, Matt Bai’s point – the Kochs, and like-minded right-wingers – donate to causes and candidates that reflect their own somewhat Medieval view of the world [my characterization, not Bai’s]. Bai’s suggestion is that the Kochs are smarter about doing so, perhaps, than those labor unions, and I think he’s probably correct.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/22/2014 - 10:13 am.

      It’s simpler for the Koches

      Labor unions elect their leaders, so the leaders have to keep one eye (and ear) on their membership, as well as one hand on their wallets (ownership).

      The Kochs, on the other hand, have to please only a few major stakeholders in their operations, and they are relatively more sophisticated in their knowledge of the issues involved (I said relatively).

      This is the inherent weakness of a democratic organization as compared to an oligopoly (funny that it’s only a dirty word when applied to the Russians).

      The ultimate goal may be the same (the best government that money can buy), but the smaller (in terms of the number of people involved, if not in terms of money), more agile organization has an inherent advantage).

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