A new advertisement targeting Nevada Senate hopeful Catherine Cortez Masto opens with an ominous, slow chord.
“A 90-year-old war hero deprived of his family, dignity, and life savings,” it begins, panning into a black-and-white photo of a young man in uniform. “A vulnerable senior victimized by a Nevada guardianship program the Las Vegas Review Journal called ‘ripe for abuse.’ When the family pleaded directly with Catherine Cortez Masto for help, she turned them away.”
The ad, released by the Freedom Partners Action Fund (FPAF) super PAC — funded in part by petrochemical billionaires Charles and David Koch — is the latest in a multi-million dollar ad blitz attacking the Democratic Senate candidate and former state attorney general. In just over 30 seconds, the ad accuses Cortez Masto of ignoring Guadalupe Olvera, a World War II veteran, when he sought assistance with the state’s guardianship program. “Catherine Cortez Masto let Nevada seniors down,” the narrator concludes.
Cortez Masto’s campaign quickly fired back, noting that the advertisement overlooked her creation of a Senior Protection Unit as attorney general and support of legislation to regulate guardians in the state.The video, a campaign spokesperson noted, was just “another misleading ad by the billionaire Koch brothers.”
Indeed, the ad is part of a well-oiled operation by the Kochs who, unenthused by their options in the presidential race, have decided to focus their vast financial network on wresting control of the U.S. Senate from Democrats. And they have set their sights on the race in Nevada — a high-stakes battle that is critical to their Senate strategy and could also help the billionaire brothers settle a political score.
“Revenge is a dish best served by tarring your legacy.”
In the silver state, Rep. Joe Heck (R) is battling Cortez Masto for retiring Sen. Harry Reid’s coveted seat. So far, Cortez Masto and Heck are locked in a near dead-heat — tied at 37 percent. Nevada has been a swing state of late, but Heck will have to contend with a rapidly growing Latino voter base and the historic possibility that Cortez Masto could become the first Latina ever elected to the U.S. Senate.
For the Kochs, the race in Nevada represents an opportunity and a strategic shift in political financing. Although the billionaire brothers injected more than $400 million into the 2012 campaign to defeat President Obama and congressional Democrats, they have openly stated that they will not support Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump — whom Charles Koch claimed holds principles that are “antithetical” to his own. In June, he also compared the choice between voting for Trump or Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to voting for “cancer or a heart attack.”
The Kochs have decided to spare themselves the health risks, instead focusing their energy and money on down-ballot elections. In addition to the millions they have put behind TV ads lodged against Cortez Masto, they have spent heavily to defeat Democratic Senate candidates in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The Kochs’ support of Heck is nothing new; they have taken great interest in the Senate candidate and have contributed heavily to him throughout his political career. This year they are upping the ante, spending about $6 million through their various groups on the Nevada Senate race thus far.
Their preferred candidate, for his part, has consistently voted in accordance with many of the brothers’ conservative, free market policies on issues including limited government, health care, taxes, labor, and the environment, scoring 85 percent on his Congressional record with the Koch-linked group, Americans for Prosperity.
To many political observers, the Nevada Senate race offers the billionaire brothers a doubly tantalizing opportunity. Not only would a win by Heck guarantee support of their political agenda and potentially determine the Senate majority, it would also replace the seat of one of the Kochs’ most vocal critics: Harry Reid, who has repeatedly and publicly blasted their “radical agenda” during his time in office. In other words, it’s personal. As Jon Ralston, a Nevada-based political commentator put it, “revenge is a dish best served by tarring your legacy.”
A Web Of Dark Money
On June 11, Charles Koch contributed $2,700, the legal maximum for an individual donation, to Joe Heck’s primary campaign. Three days later, Heck easily won the Republican nomination and, on the 16th, he collected another $2,700 Charles Koch donation for his general election fight.
Koch Industries PAC, the political action committee for the brothers’ international petrochemical behemoth, sent Heck’s campaign the legal maximum of $5,000 in 2015 and donated another $5,000 for 2016. In fact, it has donated the legal maximum to Heck each year since he first decided to run for Congress in 2009, for a total of $40,000.
But now, the Kochs have a bevy of super PACs and dark money nonprofits through which they can have a vastly larger impact on elections.
In the days before Citizens United opened the floodgates for corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited sums of money on “independent” ads, this might have been the end of the story. But now, the Kochs have a bevy of super PACs and dark money nonprofits (some have called their network the “Kochtopus”) through which they can have a vastly larger impact on elections. Tax-exempt nonprofits, funded by the Kochs and their allies, have distributed millions of dollars to groups that work toward the same anti-government ends — though with a wide array of specific missions and unique approaches.
Americans for Prosperity is perhaps the best known organization in the bunch. The group describes its mission as working to “self-recruit, educate, and mobilize citizens in support of the policies and goals of a free society at the local, state, and federal level, helping every American live their dream — especially the least fortunate.” In practice, AFP spent more than $90 million in 2014 to advance key components of the Kochs’ agenda, namely, doing away with government regulations and reducing taxes and spending. The group does not disclose its donors, but tax documents reveal that at least $16 million of that came from the Kochs’ “secret bank.”
So far this year, AFP has spent more than $99,000 on canvassing, phone banking, distributing literature, and other field work in opposition to Catherine Cortez Masto. It has also actively praised Heck for his efforts to kill the Export-Import Bank, a federally owned corporation that costs the government nothing, helps provide credit to American businesses, and actually returns money to the U.S. Treasury. (In her official capacity as state attorney general in 2012, Cortez Masto filed a lawsuit against AFP for failure to properly disclose its independent expenditures against a state legislative candidate — a case that was ultimately dismissed.)
Less known is Freedom Partners Action Fund, a super PAC that shares its name with the Kochs’ secret bank (which has helped fund their efforts). With at least $6 million in donations this cycle from Charles Koch and his trust — and millions more from both Koch brothers in previous years — FPAF has already mounted a multi-million dollar ad campaign attacking Cortez Masto for her work regulating rideshare and, with no hint of irony, her connections to “special interests.”
Their latest attack is part of an announced $1.2 million TV and digital ad buy against Cortez Masto. As of August 31, FPAF has reported spending more than $5 million on this race alone, with more to come. The super PAC’s stated aim is to “support candidates who believe in freedom, who will empower innovators and entrepreneurs over special interests to expand opportunities, create strong communities, and give everyone the best shot at a better life.” In practice, it spends a lot of money bashing Democrats, using whatever line of attack it deems most effective for that race.
A third Koch-funded dark money group, Concerned Veterans for America, purports to enlist American veterans to advance policies “that will preserve the freedom and prosperity” that they and their families “so proudly fought and sacrificed to defend.” Like AFP, that is code for helping Republicans. It spent $700,000 in March on an ad campaign praising Heck, a brigadier general in the U.S. Army Reserves, for “leading the charge to fix the VA.” Veterans make up about 11 percent of Nevada’s adult population.
Similarly, the Kochs’ Libre Initiative seeks to convince Hispanic voters on the merits of free markets. Libre Initiative has been especially active in states with rapidly growing Latino populations, like Nevada, introducing programs aimed at assisting the community with their drivers’ test preparation, for instance — and working to sell them on “the benefits of a constitutionally limited government, property rights, rule of law, sound money supply and free enterprise.” Critics within the Latino community have denounced Libre Initiative as a threat, “pouring significant resources into our communities to get Latinos to vote against their own best interests.”
Though Cortez Masto could become the first Latina ever elected to the U.S. Senate, Libre Initiative has publicly criticized her for opposing “education savings accounts,” a backdoor form of school vouchers. Heck tweeted a picture of himself meeting with the group’s executive director in April.
Still another Koch-backed political committee, AegisPAC, has endorsed Heck as a targeted candidate who “has long opposed red tape and over-regulation” and invites supporters to donate online to his campaign.
The two biggest other outside spending forces backing Heck over Cortez Masto, to date, have been the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The Kochs gave $2.6 million to the Chamber in 2014 through their secret bank and hundreds of thousands to the campaign arm of the Senate Republicans from their corporate PAC and their own checkbooks (their 2015 and current year spending have not yet been disclosed).
While Cortez Masto has also received millions in support from outside groups — including environmentalists and labor — no interest has matched the combined heft of the Koch network.
In total, Koch-funded groups have already spent about $6 million on the Nevada senate race — and counting. As a point of comparison, according to his quarterly filing containing data through June 30, 2016, Heck had raised less than $7.5 million and only spent about $2.6 million.
Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which tracks the Kochs and their political activities, observed that their strategy is like marketing cereal. “They got the Koch for Latinos (Libre). They got the Koch for veterans. They got the Koch for seniors. I think they have a very deliberate marketing based strategy based on whatever polling they do.”
The issues do not much matter “as long as it motivates that target that they’re after,” she said. “The real goal is to indoctrinate that segment and have them become Koch receptives.”
Advance A Political Agenda, Settle A Personal Score
The Kochs’ heavy investment in Heck is multifaceted: political, ideological, and likely personal. For one, Heck offers the rare opportunity to fill the seat of one of the Kochs’ most vocal critics, Harry Reid, who has denounced their outsized political influence for years.
“These two multi-billionaires may spend hundreds of millions of dollars rigging the political process for their own benefit,” Reid remarked on the Senate floor in 2014. “And they may believe that whoever has the most money gets the most free speech. But I will do whatever it takes to expose their campaign to rig the American political system to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.”
In a statement provided to ThinkProgress, Reid lambasted both the Kochs and Heck: “The Koch brothers are spending millions of dollars on false ads to elect Joe Heck to the Senate. Why? Because the Koch brothers know Joe Heck will do everything he can to enact their radical agenda: destroying Social Security and Medicare, repealing the minimum wage, and big tax breaks to billionaires like the Koch brothers. Nevada can’t afford to have this Koch brothers’ stooge representing them in the U.S. Senate.”
The motivation behind their longtime support for Heck is obvious. “Heck is one of their people,” Michael Green, a politics expert and associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, remarked. The Senate hopeful is a longtime ally on many of the issues that are relevant to the Kochs’ business and political interests. Over the years, he has closely aligned with the brothers on a range of policy issues, including energy, health care and entitlements, tax cuts, school choice, labor, and public lands.
Heck earned an 82 percent lifetime score from AFP on environmental issues. He has skirted around the issue of climate change, telling a reporter from PRI’s The World in 2012 that he believed it was not a pressing election issue and dodged the question of whether or not he believed it was even occurring. He also opposed legislation that funded scientific research on climate change and voted in support of legislation that prohibited the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases to address climate change.
Heck’s positions on climate have earned him harsh condemnation from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) and an 8 percent ranking on the group’s National Environmental Scorecard. He was also recently crowned the organization’s debut “Dirty Dozen” member for his dismal legacy on environmental issues.
“Heck’s refusal to accept the settled science regarding humans’ role in the warming of our planet is sadly only the tip of the iceberg,” LCV President Gene Karpinski said in a statement announcing their decision. “He has consistently voted against clean air and water protections, to block the Clean Power Plan, and to protect polluters’ interests instead of the health of our families… Naming him to the Dirty Dozen means we are ready to communicate just how dangerously out of step Heck is with voters in Nevada.”
On other policy issues, Heck also tracks closely with the Koch brothers’ priorities. He strongly opposes the Affordable Care Act, floated raising the Social Security retirement age, supports “school choice,” and favors taking public land away from the federal government.
Cortez Masto has positioned herself firmly on the opposite side of many of these same issues: Unlike Heck, she earned the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters for her environmental record and clean energy agenda, has thrown her support behind the Affordable Care Act, and has vowed to protect Medicare and Social Security.
It’s a battle of principles with implications that stretch far beyond November, Green explained.
“This is part of a broader effort to influence not just national but local politics,” he said. “If Joe Heck wins that Senate seat, it’s certainly a boost to Republican fortunes in Nevada, just as Cortez Masto would be for the Democrats. The fact that Heck would be indebted to the Kochs and others to the starboard side could have its policy effects. He’d be one of 100, and a junior man, possibly in the minority — but he’d be there for six years.”
Courting A Changing Electorate
In 2012, the mega-millions spent by conservative outside groups to assist Mitt Romney and Republican congressional candidates yielded very few wins. But in midterm elections in 2010 and 2014, their work was far more effective. Will the Kochs’ narrowed focus on taking back the Senate work in 2016 and in Nevada?
Eric Herzik, chair of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno said it is “a little hard to tell” whether the Koch-funded ads are resonating with voters. “Attacks about ‘special interest ties’ have now become so much a part of nearly all campaigns that voters may be suffering ‘corruption accusation fatigue,’ he said. “Some of the attacks, such as school choice, will resonate with conservatives, but Masto wouldn’t get those votes anyway.”
Herzik added that the Uber attacks, though “somewhat disingenuous,” might decrease Cortez Masto’s support among younger voters who rely on ridesharing. In the end, he predicted voter turnout among Democratic base groups will determine the outcome of the race.
UNLV’s Michael Green said the spending campaign does not appear to have made a discernable difference yet, but could. “The ads are very effective, in terms of being attack ads. Are they effective in changing people’s minds? I don’t know for sure. The polling is not showing a big movement in either direction at the moment.”
Still, he noted, there is plenty of time between now and November for the messages to sink in. “It could move the needle with some [independent voters],” he predicted, but “obviously, both sides have plenty of ads here.” One thing is clear, he quipped: “It’s certainly good for TV station owners.”
The state’s shifting demographics and a bombastic, bigoted candidate at the top of the Republican ticket make predictions about voter turnout even more complicated. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has made him historically unpopular with Hispanic voters, meaning down-ballot candidates could face an especially daunting task to win those voters’ support.
Nowhere is that challenge more apparent than Nevada, where Latinos now comprise more than 17 percent of eligible voters. Thus, the work of the Libre Initiative — whether it’s quietly pushing members of the Hispanic community to embrace conservative ideals, explicitly campaigning behalf of Heck, or just sharing data about Hispanic voters with other Koch operations for get-out-the-vote targeting — represents a new frontier in Koch targeting and could prove to be influential.
According to a January report by the Pew Research Center, “in Nevada, the number of Hispanic eligible voters has increased from 228,000 in 2008 to a projected 388,000 in 2016, the highest percentage increase — 70 percent — among the six states where Hispanics make up at least 15 percent of eligible voters.” In 2012, 70 percent of Nevada’s Latino voters backed Barack Obama, leaving plenty of ground for Republicans to make up.
Heck has taken a somewhat less strident tone on issues like immigration reform than Mitt Romney and Donald Trump; nevertheless he opposed President Obama’s executive efforts to halt deportation for undocumented families and the 2013 bipartisan bill to increase border security and create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The Kochs’ aim appears to be to convince Latino voters to focus less on these issues and more on the virtues of free markets — and Heck has made his opposition to “burdensome regulations that cost us jobs” a key part of his campaign message.
“It’s certainly good for TV station owners.”
Will this lead Latino voters to vote for Heck — or even discourage them from voting for Cortez Masto?
“While there is a question about turnout, I think Republican or conservative interest group efforts to make inroads with Latinos to support conservative values will fall flat,” Herzik said. “Thus, this is more a question of action by Democrats and Masto to get out the vote rather than efforts by conservative groups to convince Latinos they are really Republicans.”
Jon Ralston said he expects to see a “ton of outside money” and that this will be the “most expensive race in state history by the end.” He added that Libre’s efforts to drive down Cortez Masto’s Hispanic vote turnout could have an impact, but just how much remains to be seen.
“Heck does better with Hispanics than Trump, but that is like saying the guillotine is a better way to die than drawing and quartering.”
Evan Popp contributed to this story.