POLITICS
11/22/2014 07:35 am ET Updated Nov 22, 2014

Jeff Merkley Says Targeting The Koch Brothers Helped Him Survive The GOP Wave

WASHINGTON -- From North Carolina to Colorado to Alaska, Democratic senators were swept out of office on Election Day by a GOP wave. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) was one of the few exceptions.

At one point a target of national Republicans, Merkley handily defeated his Republican opponent, Monica Wehby, by more than 18 percentage points, despite predictions early on that he could be in danger of losing his seat.

Reflecting on the campaign in an interview with The Huffington Post in his office on Capitol Hill, Merkley seemed relieved that it was over. He said he was still working through why he and other progressives, like Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and incoming Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), won while so many other Democrats lost.

He could, however, point to the turning point in his race: his decision to go after the billionaires Charles and David Koch, whose political groups spent at least $100 million this election cycle.

"It was a very deliberate decision to call out the Koch brothers directly," said Merkley.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that Democrats tried hard to make the campaign a referendum on the Kochs, but the strategy failed. The storyline has resonance because of how frequently outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took on the Kochs on the Senate floor. But while Reid's criticism of the Kochs attracts attention from political junkies and picks up coverage in the Washington press, it's far different than an individual senator taking them on directly back home.

Merkley said candidates had to weigh whether it would be worth it to go after the Kochs, since the brothers could pour their personal wealth into any race they wanted and basically overwhelm the average Senate candidate.

"If you call them out squarely, will they double, triple down in your race? That could have happened," Merkley said.

Instead, the Koch-backed group Freedom Partners ended up canceling some of its planned advertising time in Oregon for October, as it became clearer that Wehby was unlikely to win. It spent more than $1.5 million on the race in all, according to The Oregonian.

The group, which is at the heart of the Koch network, had launched a $3.6 million advertising blitz against Merkley in August. While that amount may seem small in a state like California or New York, it was big money for Oregon politics.

Merkley said internal polls showed him beating Wehby by about 12 percentage points. But after the Koch ads started, that lead shrank to 6 points.

"I couldn't be on air," said Merkley, noting that Freedom Partners had bought up too much of the available airtime. "In the middle of August, I was still very worried."

Merkley started to attack the Kochs, and around the same time, he and Wehby participated in a series of columns for The Oregonian, in which each candidate chose seven U.S. Senate votes and critiqued where the other stood on the issue. The Merkley campaign noted that many of the positions Wehby took were in line with positions advocated by the Koch brothers. Those answers, combined with the Koch funding, turned into a winning issue for the senator.

"It created the perfect alignment between her positions and the ... Koch brothers," Merkley said. "She was endorsing the agenda, and here they come with their money. It kind of completed the story, if you will. It created the contrast: I'm running saying I want to see a 'We the people' democracy, by and for the people and not by and for billionaires. That's very different from my opponent, who signed onto a by and for billionaires agenda."

In early September, the Merkley campaign followed up with an ad that said, "Wehby and the Koch brothers share an agenda that will cost us." It was a statewide spot that ran for most of the month.

"I think the Koch messaging worked," said Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "It drew a stark contrast between the two people on the ballot, about who they fight for and what kind of agenda they will push in Washington. It's one of those political messages that has benefit of being true. And that's why I think it's so effective."

Freedom Partners did not return a request for comment. Neither did the Wehby campaign or the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The Koch brothers were even more aggressive in Michigan, where Peters, a Democratic congressman, was running against former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land. Land, like Wehby, was initially expected to be a stronger candidate than she turned out to be. Koch-backed groups had planned to spend millions of dollars against Peters but eventually ended up canceling some of the airtime.

Peters similarly went after the Koch brothers head-on, saying at a campaign rally in July, "I feel like l'm not really running against Terri Lynn Land. I feel like I'm running against the Koch brothers."

Of course, Oregon and Michigan are very different states from Kentucky, Arkansas, North Carolina, Iowa and others where Democrats came up short. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) tried to go after the Koch brothers as well, but he ultimately lost his race.

"People have different campaigns, they have different quality of opponents, they have different quality of voter turnout operations," Merkley said. "We had really great coordination in the whole get-out-the-vote effort. Message is a part of the piece, but it's not the entire piece."

Still, the success of candidates who didn't run away from their progressive positions has heartened activists, who argue that it's time for the Democratic Party to stop trying to move to the right to appeal to more voters.

Now that Merkley’s been re-elected by a comfortable margin, he enters that outer ring of politicians who can credibly consider bids for White House. But asked if he sees a campaign in his future, Merkley demurred.

"I might take the Fifth Amendment on that one,” he said. “I haven't seen a stream of people outside my door asking me to run."

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