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Democrats see new chance to attack Kochs after $1 billion spending announcement

Forget Jeb, Rand and Ted. For Democrats, it’s all about Charles and David.

The announcement this week that the vast political network backed by the wealthy industrialist Koch brothers aims to spend nearly $1 billion on the 2016 elections has reignited Democratic hopes of casting the brothers as electoral villains and linking them closely to Republican candidates.

It's a campaign strategy that yielded little success for the party in 2014, a banner year for the GOP. But Democratic officials and operatives say they are hopeful that their anti-Koch message will have more potency in a presidential election year.

Groups supporting potential Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as the House and Senate Democratic campaign arms, plan to single out the Kochs in their advertising and fundraising efforts.

“I think the Koch brothers dumping a billion dollars on the elections is definitely something the American people are interested in learning about,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

He said the DCCC plans to mention the brothers in online fundraising efforts. The DCCC raised $70 million in the last election cycle.

David Brock, founder of the pro-Clinton American Bridge political action committee, said his group will be retooling a 2014 war-room operation called “Real Koch Facts,” which he acknowledged did not achieve big results. The project aims to educate potential voters about what Democrats say is the Kochs’ largely hidden agenda and to attempt to shame recipients of Koch money.

Said Peter Kauffmann, a spokesman for the pro-Clinton Priorities USA Action super PAC: “Will Priorities USA Action talk about the Koch brothers’ attempt at a hostile takeover of the government of the United States? Stay tuned.”

But former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who ran for president in 2012, compared Democratic attacks against the Kochs to failed GOP efforts to tar Democrats for receiving support from organized labor.

“The fact is we never got anywhere trying to explain to the country all of the extra advantage they got, for example, from labor unions,” Gingrich said. “It’s too indirect an argument.”

The Koch-backed network’s plan to spend $889 million on the 2016 elections was announced Monday at a Rancho Mirage, Calif., event hosted by Freedom Partners, a tax-exempt organization that serves as the nerve center of the political operation supported by the brothers and several hundred other conservative donors. Not all of the money will be put toward shaping elections; it will cover advertising and policy work as well as education and academic research, among other things. Much of the spending will be cloaked in secrecy.

James Davis, a Freedom Partners spokesman, said in an e-mail: “Democrats’ past attempts to divide America by demonizing job creators didn’t work too well. We remain focused on advancing free-market principles.”

In 2014, Democrats made a concerted effort to make the Kochs into bogeymen. Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) routinely used Senate floor speeches to castigate them. Democratic groups ran TV and radio ads tying the Kochs to GOP candidates and presenting them as polluters and job outsourcers who were out of touch with the middle class.

"The oil billionaire Koch brothers are showering millions on Thom Tillis like he's one of the family," said an ad from the Democratic-aligned Patriot Majority USA.

But Tillis is now a U.S. senator from North Carolina, part of a wave of Republican wins that cost the Democrats their majority.

“It clearly didn’t work in 2014,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the center-left Brookings Institution. “That election was a disaster for Democrats. It seems to me they need to recalibrate the message.”

He said Democrats would need to tie their anti-Koch rhetoric to “substantive issues in a way that resonates with voters.”

Most voters don't know who the Kochs are. Sixty-four percent of voters said they had no opinion or a neutral impression of them, according to an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll conducted about a month before the November midterms. But among those who did, attitudes were overwhelmingly negative.

“The Koch brothers are not going to be a household name overnight, but our goal of making them a political liability for the people they are funding will continue,” Brock said.

The newly announced spending goal is unlikely to affect Clinton’s plans to begin her formal campaign in early April, strategists said. The goal is for her to raise an impressive total for the fundraising quarter that begins April 1.

But the early flurry of activity could apply pressure on mega-donors such as billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, a former Republican and staunch gun-control advocate who has donated mostly to Democratic candidates. The two were among the biggest givers in 2014.

Adviser Chris Lehane said Steyer will be looking at “where he can have the biggest impact” in 2016.

Like many Democrats, Lehane subscribes to the view that an anti-Kochs attack strategy could work better in 2016 than it did in 2014. “There will be a better voter pool, the Senate states will be more blue states than red states, and the media interest will be even bigger,” he said.

Campaign finance reform advocates also say the Koch-backed spending plan is a fresh opportunity to push for revamping laws that allow well-funded independent groups to dominate elections, often without revealing their donors.

“There is just no matching this amount of wealth directed in this way,” said Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), who introduced a bill this week that would create a matching system for small donations and seek to limit the influence of super PACs. “Of course, nobody should have to match it. We should have a system that keeps spending within reasonable limits.”

But Price acknowledged that it would be difficult to pass such reforms in a Republican-controlled Congress. In the meantime, he said, raising the Kochs as an electoral issue isn’t a bad idea.

“I think in some cases it does work to dramatize the issue and make it more real,” Price said.

Matea Gold and Scott Clement contributed to this report.