WASHINGTON -- When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took to the Senate floor two weeks ago to denounce energy tycoons Charles and David Koch and the campaign ripples their millions have caused, he didn't mince words.
"What is un-American is when shadowy billionaires pour unlimited money into our democracy to rig the system to benefit themselves and the wealthiest 1 percent," Reid said.
The remarks marked a cresting point of sorts for the Democratic Party's effort to turn the Koch brothers' money into a Republican liability. Since then, Reid and other lawmakers have leveled similar broadsides, demanding more critical attention and fact-checking be paid to the Kochs' anti-Obamacare ads and practically begging Democratic fundraisers to help match the money.
One thing that the campaign apparently has not done is convince the Koch brothers to back down. Americans for Prosperity, the main group allied with the brothers, has continued pouring money into campaigns to unseat Democratic senators. And while they've fine-tuned their anti-Obamacare message, they have not moved away from the subject. It's the crux of virtually all the ads they've run in the 2014 midterm election cycle.
A spokesman for the Koch brothers did not return a request for comment. But the reason that the Kochs aren't likely to shudder under the spotlight is pretty simple. They've been involved in political fights for many years, and it's not the first time they've been pinpointed by critics as the epicenter of some nefarious, well-funded scheme.
A review of newspaper records shows that the first real mention of the brothers came in 1979, when David Koch wrote a check for $1,000 to the Libertarian Party's Ed Clark. Five months later, Clark picked Koch as his running mate and Koch "returned the favor" –- as the Associated Press put it –- giving more than $1 million of his personal wealth to the ticket.
Shortly thereafter, a young E.J. Dionne Jr. (currently a columnist for The Washington Post, then a reporter with The New York Times) dug in a bit on the brother's network of political influence. The name was pronounced "coke" he wrote, and they were "not related to New York City's Mayor." But they were players.
Many of the Koch-financed efforts have been designed to increase the Libertarians' attractiveness to liberals and the left and to dispel the reputation that Libertarians have as eccentrics. This reputation has been fostered by the advocacy by some Libertarians of arcane theories about gold and money and by the involvement of other Libertarians in plans to start island republics of their own, something a group of people calling themselves Libertarians tried to do recently in the New Hebrides.
In 1984, The New York Times ran a piece on David Koch titled "Man Without a Candidate," in which he would profess to being done with the sharp-elbowed politics.
"You attract a tremendous amount of hostility when you run as a candidate of a small party," he said. "I had enough," he offered, later.
It wouldn't be until the early 1990s that the Koch name surfaced again in the context of efforts to bend government or political perceptions in their direction.
Around that time, initiatives were being launched to apply term limits to office holders. Organizers had met success in Oklahoma, Colorado and California, the latter which imposed term limits on state legislators and statewide officeholders. According to press reports, advocates of the limits had their eyes on 20 other states.
But in Washington state, the campaign was so potentially disruptive -- so hijacked by national interests -- that reporters began digging around to figure out who actually was behind it.
The answer, it turned out, was a set of brothers from Kansas. In October 1991, the Seattle Times reported on that the Kochs had been financing a group called Citizens for Congressional Reform, which had poured (at that point) $530,000 behind Initiative 553.
The group was started two years ago by the staff of Citizens for a Sound Economy, a conservative research and lobbying organization chaired by former Reagan administration budget chief James Miller. It advocates lower taxes, free-trade agreements, a balanced-budget amendment, the loosening of environmental restrictions on business and opening the Arctic wilderness to oil drilling.
But much of the startup money for CCR came from two founding directors of Citizens for a Sound Economy, Charles and David Koch, said David Koch. The brothers control Koch Industries, a Wichita-based oil marketing and energy company. Forbes Magazine recently estimated the worth of their holdings at $ 3.6 billion.
David Koch acknowledged in an interview that he and his brother gave "several hundred thousand dollars" to CCR to get it started. He added that "as long as they do good work," the Kochs will probably give the term-limit group several hundred thousand dollars each year.
Why the Kochs were so interested in term limits was hard to ascertain. Though their background as libertarians was well known, reporters still had a difficult time pinning them down politically. The Seattle Times, for instance, wrote that David Koch describes himself as "a free-market conservative on economic issues, a liberal on social issues, such as support of abortion rights." The brothers also had Democratic allies in the term-limit fight; Gov. Jerry Brown (D-Calif.) had traveled to north to Washington state to push the measure. And Mark Brown, chairman of the No On 573 campaign that opposed the initiative, told The Huffington Post that the push for term limits began as a nonpartisan grassroots movement from within the state.
"These were anti-establishment folks who didn't come out of the Republican or Democratic Party," he said. "The national term limits organizations plugged into that."
Others saw the Koch brothers' dabbling in Washington as a crass political power grab. The initiative, which would have limited members of Congress to three two-year terms, and senators to two six-year terms, would have ended the legislative career of House Speaker Tom Foley (D) and every other member of the state's U.S. House delegation in 1994. It also would have forced 74 of the 98 members of the state House to step down that same year.
Regardless of motive, the Koch brothers pushed aggressively. A March 19, 1991 Washington Post piece -- with longtime scribe Dan Balz on the byline –- quoted Citizens for Congressional Reform's director as saying that a 12-year cap on congressional careers was too lenient (they wanted six). Timothy Egan, writing for The New York Times on Oct. 31, 1991, reported that the group had nosedived into a local term-limit campaign (launched in the living room of a liberal Democratic activist) and morphed it into a statewide cause. Citizens for Congressional Reform paid professional signature gatherers from out of state 40 cents a signature to help ensure the term-limit measure got the 150,000 names needed to qualify for the November ballot, according to the Times. In all, the group donated roughly 72 percent of the $800,000 raised to back the initiative.
"I've grown very disenchanted with the political system. Incumbents seem to be in office forever," David Koch told the Seattle Times.
Those who stood to lose erupted. Mark Brown recalled Rep. Al Swift (D) traveling across the state in a plane, pledging to not serve past his current term so that he'd have credibility when telling people they shouldn't apply term limits. Much like Reid today, Foley decried the Koch brothers, saying they were "way off the charts" in terms of their conservatism, according to a Nov. 3, 1991 Seattle Times article.
"There is a clear outspending here on the side of the proponents of 553, almost all of it outside the state, all of it coming from extreme right-wing activists who have in effect hijacked, or are trying to hijack, the initiative process of the state," Foley said.
Neutral government observers didn't necessarily see the same partisan undertones. But they saw dangers nonetheless.
"There is a hidden agenda here that has been lost in all the rhetoric," Thomas Mann, director of government studies at the Brookings Institute, told The New York Times at the time. "The money is coming from groups whose primary interest is to weaken government -- a carefully calculated effort to go after those institutions dominated by Democrats."
The Washington initiative would fail by roughly 100,000 votes, or about 8 percent of the vote.
Looking back more than 20 years later, those involved in the term-limits fight marvel that they were the first to square off against the Koch brothers. At the time, they didn't have a clue who was funding the initiative.
"There wasn't a major political leader in our state who knew who they were at that point. They were a non-entity. They just weren't on anybody's radar screen," Mark Brown said. "Only after the fact, as they attained some level of notoriety -- and now near infamy with most of the political circles I travel with -- did I realize it was them."