WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic Senate candidates, facing withering criticism on President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, are gambling they can turn voters against two secretive billionaire brothers funding the attacks.
With control of the Senate at stake in the November midterm elections, Democrats are accelerating a counteroffensive in denouncing Charles and David Koch, the key figures behind millions of dollars in conservative TV ads hammering Democratic candidates and their ties to Obama.
Democrats depict the Kansas-based Koch brothers as self-serving oil barons who pay huge sums to try to "buy" elections and advance their agenda of low taxes and less regulation at the expense of average Americans. And they're using unusually harsh language in the Senate.
The Democrats' strategy depends on persuading enough Americans that the Koch brothers, who rarely appear in public, are so powerful and troubling that voters should reject the Republican candidates benefiting from their ads.
In a time of stagnant working-class wages, Democrats note, the Kochs have grown stupendously wealthy while pushing their conservative-to-libertarian causes. Forbes magazine ranks the brothers as tied for sixth among the world's richest people, worth $40 billion each.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says the Koch-financed ads against Democrats and the health care law contain lies "made up from whole cloth."
"I guess if you make that much money, you can make these immoral decisions," Reid said in a recent Senate speech. "The Koch brothers are about as un-American as anyone I can imagine."
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin says Americans, when given some basic information, believe the brothers are trying to elect a government that helps them at the expense of less wealthy people, who would fare better under Democratic policies.
"The polling we've done shows very clearly that people think these unlimited expenditures don't have anything to do with free speech and have everything to do with skewing what goes on with American government and American politics," said Garin, who advises Reid. To see the Kochs spend millions to try to privatize federal Social Security pensions, reduce taxes on oil or "undermine environmental regulations is troubling to voters," he said.
Nonsense, Republicans say.
In North Carolina — where Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan is enduring an avalanche of Koch-related ads denouncing her support of Obama's health policies — attacks on the Koch brothers will simply draw more attention to their message, said the state's other senator, Republican Richard Burr.
"I don't think there's any resentment to a group or individual spending their money to tell people what's really going on," Burr said.
Charles Koch, 78, and David Koch, 73, inherited a small oil company from their father. They expanded worldwide into chemicals, textiles, paper and other products, building a hugely profitable and privately held conglomerate.
Long active in conservative politics, they seized on the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 2010 Citizens United court ruling that allows unlimited corporate spending on political campaigns, often without disclosing donors. They helped found Americans for Prosperity, which reported spending $122 million on elections in 2012.
With this year's election still eight months away, the Koch network already has spent $15 million on Senate races, mostly attacking Democrats over Obamacare. Republicans need to gain six seats to control the 100-member Senate.
Republicans note that liberal billionaires also spend heavily on politics. They point to environmentalist and hedge-fund manager Tom Steyer, who says he will spend at least $100 million on congressional and gubernatorial elections this year.
But Steyer is still examining the field of candidates, months after Koch-funded ads began pounding Democrats like Hagan. And Democrats say Steyer will not benefit financially by pushing his climate change agenda, whereas the Kochs' campaign for lower taxes and less regulation would help big businesses like theirs.
Reid, who admits he's no gifted orator, is leading the chorus with bombasts from the Senate chamber.
"Think about what an America rigged by the Koch brothers would look like," he said in one recent speech. "The Koch brothers don't care about creating a strong public education system in America," Reid said, nor "a guarantee of affordable, quality health insurance for every American. Why? Because the Koch brothers can afford to buy all those benefits and more for themselves."
Reid told reporters: "I'm going to keep talking about them every chance I get because America should not be for sale."
In state after state, Democrats are berating the Kochs in speeches and fundraising appeals.
Koch industries spokesman Steve Lombardo defended the ads. He said, "it is unfortunate that Harry Reid is focused on attacking citizens of the United States rather than the problems facing this country." He said Koch companies employ more than 60,000 Americans.
"I think the American people are smart and will see through this tactic," Lombardo said.
Associated Press writers Charles Babington and Philip Elliott in Washington and researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.