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Since the start of the year, the political ad war against vulnerable Democratic senators has not been run by the Republican Party. Instead, the attacks have been coming from a tax-exempt social welfare group called Americans for Prosperity. Now, Democrats are pushing back. Instead of going after the organization, they're attacking its most prominent benefactors, conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been the most belligerent voice against the Kochs. Here's a bit of what he said in the past couple of weeks.
SENATOR HARRY REID: These two brothers are trying to buy America. We may never, never know how much money the Koch brothers are spending to rig the system. Terrible dishonesty of these two brothers who are about as un-American as anyone that I can imagine. Senate Republicans, Madam President, are addicted to Koch.
OVERBY: One of the Americans for Prosperity ads targets Democratic Congressman Gary Peters. He's running for an open Senate seat in Michigan. The ad features a Michigan woman who said her cancer treatments became unaffordable under Obamacare.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Congressman Peters, your decision to vote for Obamacare jeopardized my health. It is time to listen to me. It is time to listen to...
OVERBY: Ads like this have made Americans for Prosperity the top spender so far in 2014. It's spending so much the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics says AFP nearly matches all other social welfare groups, plus superPACs, plus unions. AFP's president, Tim Phillips, blasted Reid this week in a Newsmax TV interview.
TIM PHILLIPS: He actually calls two individuals, in Charles and David Koch, who have created, you know, literally - and I mean this literally - tens of thousands of jobs for folks from all walks of life across this country. He calls them un-American. It's pretty outrageous.
OVERBY: Phillips is also president of AFP's companion charity organization, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. David Koch is the foundation's chairman. Long-time Koch associates serve on the boards of both groups. For 2012, tax records show that AFP got nearly $44 million from two other tax-exempt organizations in the Koch's extensive political network. Because these kinds of groups aren't required to disclose their donors, there's no way of knowing how much AFP money might have come from the Koch's personally. Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries, says that doesn't entitle Democrats to blame the Koch brothers for AFP's advertising.
MARK HOLDEN: They attack the Kochs because they don't like ads run by Americans for Prosperity, which is an independent organization.
OVERBY: He says AFP has 2.3 million members and hundreds of thousands of donors.
HOLDEN: And so I'm not trying to put any distance between Koch Industries, Charles Koch or David Koch, and AFP. I'm just saying they are an independent organization.
OVERBY: For Democrats, that's a distinction without a difference. Alaska Senator Mark Begich is running for re-election. He's under attack by AFP, and he's angry at Koch Industries for shutting down an oil refinery in his state.
SENATOR MARK BEGICH: This is a group of people that have a refinery in Alaska that just closed it and laying off 80 people, leaving dirty water. They're not running against me. They're abandoning Alaska is what Koch brothers are doing.
OVERBY: Republicans Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina says the Democratic strategy won't work.
SENATOR LINSEY GRAHAM: If the Democrats think that they're going to defend their majority by demonizing the Koch brothers and that will overshadow the way they run the place, they're kidding themselves.
OVERBY: But it may be that Democrats have a different goal here.
KEN GOLDSTEIN: There's clearly a coordinated effort going on among Democrats.
OVERBY: Among elected officials, party leaders, candidates, and activists. That's the analysis of Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. He says it's too early to try mobilizing voters.
GOLDSTEIN: It's more to try and really mobilize Democratic activists to get involved, to volunteer, and to give money.
OVERBY: Money that liberals will need plenty of to match the millionaires and billionaires in the Kochs' network. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.