Raleigh, N.C. — Voters won't find Charles or David Koch's names on any ballot in North Carolina this year.
But the wealthy industrialists have already starred in at least one commercial aired in support of U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, and will apparently be the target of more rhetoric from both the Hagan campaign and her allies.
The billionaire brothers have helped organize and finance a network of conservative organizations, including some that have aired some of the most aggressive ads against Hagan. Americans for Prosperity, the biggest outside spender thus far in this year's Senate campaign, has already spent roughly $8 million on ads critical of Hagan and her support for the Affordable Care Act.
Democrats in several states, including Hagan, recently told The New York Times that they would focus criticism on the Kochs for funding attack ads at the same time they were laying off workers.
"They’re spending millions of dollars to try to buy a United States Senate seat," Hagan told the newspaper. "These individuals have actually laid off workers in my state."
In particular, Hagan and her campaign point to 100 workers laid off in November 2013 at an Investa chemical manufacturing plant near Wilmington at the same time Americans for Prosperity began airing an ad critical of Hagan.
"It's unbelievable that the Koch brothers would be handing out pink slips to North Carolina workers while, at the same time, spending millions on false and misleading ads in an attempt to buy this U.S. Senate seat," said Hagan campaign spokeswoman Sadie Weiner.
It's unclear whether Hagan will target the Koch brothers in her own ads. But Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC that runs ads in support of Democrats, spent $1 million to tie state House Speaker Thom Tillis, the front-runner in the eight-way Republican U.S. Senate primary, to the Kochs. Campaign strategists on the political left and right question whether this will be a winning formula for Democrats once the general election rolls around.
"The Koch brothers aren't on the ballot," said Carter Wrenn, a long-time political strategist who is working on behalf of 6th Congressional District candidate Bruce VonCannon this year.
In a recent blog post, Wrenn wrote about his experience working for Jesse Helms in the 1984 U.S. Senate race against former Gov. Jim Hunt. The Helms campaign, he said, did an ad critical of Hunt for funneling federal grants to Wilber Hobby, a union leader.
The end result? Hobby became unpopular. "It didn't hurt Hunt a bit. It just missed him," Wrenn chuckled.
Democrats, he said, may be similarly missing the mark with the Kochs.
"If they turn the Kochs into villains, it doesn't turn Thom Tillis into a villain," Wrenn said.
Democrats also have their doubts about the strategy.
"This type of rhetoric does not help move this country forward or move the agenda forward," Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, told Fox News' "Fox and Friends" show. "They’re Americans – they’re paying their taxes, they’re not breaking the law, they’re providing jobs."
Raleigh-based political consultant Thomas Mills also has qualms with targeting the Kochs.
"It's just a foolish strategy," he said.
Democrats, Mills said, are trying to make the campaign about national issues when they should be focusing on issues closer to home. He argues that the Republican-led General Assembly gives Hagan and her allies plenty of fodder
"We are the state that tried this by wrapping Republican candidates and issues around Art Pope," he said, referring to the wealthy retail magnate who helped create a network of conservative nonprofits here and now serves as Gov. Pat McCrory's budget director.
"All that got us was a Republican governor and a Republican House and Senate," Mills said.
The Koch-based strategy relies on a tricky two-step process working. First, he said, Democrats have to spend to let voters know who the Kochs are. Then, they have to spend more money to tie them to Republican candidates.
Asked why Hagan would target the Koch bothers in comments, Weiner pointed to spending by Koch-backed organizations in the state.
"It matters because we've already seen how destructive a Tillis-Koch agenda can be, and North Carolinians were none too pleased with it," she said.
Pointing to tax cuts that were backed by AFP and pushed through the General Assembly by Tillis and other GOP leaders, Weiner said their backing is relevant to the public conversation.
"The Koch policy agenda was on full display in North Carolina last year when Thom Tillis rammed it through the legislature at the expense of middle-class families," she said.
Republicans have also targeted figureheads who are not due to appear on any ballot.
"Doubling-down on her approval of the Rev. William Barber’s de facto leadership of the N.C. Democratic Party, Kay Hagan has endorsed Moral Monday Democrat Terry Van Duyn for State Senate. Hagan attended a Van Duyn campaign event in Asheville on Friday," blared a North Carolina Republican Party news release sent earlier this month.
Van Duyn will replace Sen. Martin Nesbitt, who died in March and made appearances at Moral Monday rallies led by Barber, the president of the North Carolina conference of the NAACP.
Barber also makes an appearance in a campaign ad aired by Wrenn's client, VonCannon. The Republican candidate introduces a clip of Barber by calling it an example of "broken politics."
Wrenn said Barber serves a different function in the VonCannon ad. VonCannon was talking about the tenor of the election cycle.
"It is not saying vote against someone because they're friends with William Barber," Wrenn said.
By contrast, he said, Democrats are spending heavily to try to tie the Koch brothers to Republican candidates.
"I think the Democrats are now fixated on the Koch brothers," he said. "They're getting emotional and attacking the person they're afraid of instead of the person they're running against."