The Democrats have decided to make the Koch Brothers an issue in the midterm elections. First, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid attacked the brothers in a pair of floor speeches, calling them “un-American” because they “pour unlimited money into our democracy to rig the system to benefit themselves and the wealthiest one percent.” Now, Democratic campaign organizations are planning to run advertisements in states with contested Senate races. The ads will use the slogan Reid got from his wife: “Addicted to Koch.”
Will this strategy be effective? Who knows. But if a recent Wall Street Journal editorial is indicative, it’s going to provoke conservatives into making some very silly arguments—as they try, desperately, to downplay the Kochs’ influence.
The column, by Kim Strassel, ran late last week and put forward what seems like a straightforward argument. While the Koch brothers spend a lot of money on politics, Strassel acknowledged, labor unions spend a lot more. Citing figures complied by the Center for Responsive Politics, Strassel said that labor groups spent nearly $639 million on campaigns between 1989 and 2014. Affiliates of Koch Industries spent just $18 million. That’s a pretty big differential—going by those numbers, labor outspent the Koch Brothers by $618 million. Says Strassel, “It's an extraordinary thing, in a political age obsessed with campaign money, that nobody scrutinizes the biggest, baddest, ‘darkest’ spenders of all: organized labor.”
But is it really so extraordinary? It’s true that labor unions and their members made far more political contributions than the Koch Brothers and their affiliates did. It’s also a misleading comparison. There are 14.5 million people in the labor movement, according to the latest government statistics. There are exactly two people in the Koch brotherhood—Charles and David Koch—plus another 350 or so self-identified Koch employees who, over that same time period, made direct campaign contributions. Extrapolate from that math, and you’ll see that the donation per Koch Industries affiliate positively dwarfs the donation per union member—by a factor of around 1,000, give or take.
But that wasn't Strassel's most egregious argument. By focusing on direct contributions to the parties and the candidates, she did what conservatives defending the Koch brothers almost always do. She severely downplayed the primary way the Kochs influence politics—through unregulated, indirect financing of conservative political organizations. According to research by Robert Maguire, a researcher who pieced together the Koch money trail from disparate Internal Revenue Service and Federal Election Commission reports, conservative nonprofit organizations that received large grants from Koch-backed intermediaries spent $170 million during the 2012 election cycle. Unions spent just $24 million.
The comparison is not precise, but it’s good enough to get a sense of scale. Using the same basic math—the Koch-affiliated organizations have about 200 supporters, including the Koch brothers, according to Maguire—that works out to about $850,000 of influence per Koch brother and $1.65 per union member. At that level of donation, it would take about 515,000 union members to have the same influence as just one Koch brother or affiliate.
Maguire, by the way, works for the Center for Responsive Politics—the same source that Strassel cited in her piece. It’s not the first time Koch defenders have selectively used the Center's data to make their case. “To see this repeatedly brought up is frustrating, because we know it’s not true and it puts us in an awkward position,” says Maguire. “We are fiercely nonpartisan and we don’t like pushing back. We don’t want to be political. Our point is merely that the data does not support, in any way, what they are saying.”
Of course, all of these comparisons are imprecise. It’s virtually impossible to measure accurately how much any individual or group puts into politics, given how much of that money flows through relatively unregulated channels. (One of the best I’ve seen has appeared at Republic Report, complete with a nifty graph of its own.) But very rough measurements convey who has the most power in American politics. Only a handful of individuals in the U.S. can exert the level of influence that the Koch Brothers can—and you can be certain none of them is trying to get by on a union wage.